Why teach the arts? This is the sixth of several articles that look at the intrinsic reasons art is a critical part of how and what a student learns at school. In the first article, I noted typical reasons for taking arts – that it is a benefit to other subjects and improves test scores – and suggested that was pretty weak, if not insulting. If you are an arts teacher, you shouldn’t have to justify your discipline on the basis of what it will do for test scores in LA and Math! No, the Arts are much more important than that!

Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education (Teacher’s College Press, 2013 2nd edition)—takes a different approach.  It articulates 8 Habits of Mind that it contends the arts do teach, and teach extraordinarily well: develop craft, engage and persist, envision, express, observe, reflect, stretch and explore, and understanding art worlds.

The 8 habits do not work as a sequence or a circle but as a group of interlocking dispositions (including skills, alertness, and inclination/motivation) that support each other in a variety of applications in the classroom. These articles use the Habits of Mind as a basis for arts commentary and more general application.

In this article, we address Reflection (question, explore, evaluate). Studio Thinking calls this process “aesthetics discourse” – “reflecting about artistry, making judgments about art, and thinking about what constitutes beauty” (p. 81.) We can be hesitant to make judgments, as if there is no basis for comparison and for determining good from bad. In the moral arena, this tension is underscored by the realization that different cultures and different backgrounds can provoke different ways of thinking. The word judgment is a difficult one if it implies that there are sets of rules to follow. This Habit of Mind teaches a different and profound way of questioning and evaluating in order to explain “the aesthetic success of their own and other’s works” (p. 81). Even though there is no right or wrong per se (judgments are made in the absence of rule” p. 81), nonetheless there are referents that surround the student in terms of other artists’ work, the reality of the world around them, physical processes including sight and touch and smell, the chemical realities of color and substance. There are also internal referents including the student’s own character, dreams and aspirations, knowledge base, relationships and so on. Evaluation / judgment in the arts is thus far more sophisticated than one might find in a mathematics or science classroom.

The simplest beginning step is “getting students to talk about their art-making process” (p. 82) i.e. a metacognitive process that asks the student to dig deeper into what lies behind the canvas or other medium. This can be done verbally as well as, for example, in writing a journal. The questioning process is at the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Peter Pappas offers a variety of prompts for such questioning including:

Bloom’s Analysis: Do I see any patterns or relationships in what I did?
Student Reflection: Were the strategies, skills and procedures I used effective for this assignment? Do I see any patterns in how I approached my work; was it efficient, or could I have eliminated or reorganized steps?

Bloom’s Evaluation: How well did I do? What worked? What do I need to improve?
Student Reflection: What are we learning and is it important? Did I do an effective job of communicating my learning to others? What have I learned about my strengths and my areas in need of improvement? How am I progressing as a learner?

Bloom’s Creation: What should I do next? What’s my plan / design?
Student Reflection: How can I best use my strengths to improve? What steps should I take or resources should I use to meet my challenges? What suggestions do I have for my teacher or my peers to improve our learning environment? How can I adapt this content or skill to make a difference in my life?

This focus on reflection is a key learning process. In Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance authored by Giada Di Stefano, Francesca Gino, Gary Pisano, and Bradley Staats

(Working Paper 14-093 March 25, 2014), the authors comment on “the intentional attempt to synthesize, abstract, and articulate the key lessons taught by experience”. The suggestion that learning happens when we think about it rather than just when we ‘do’, is somewhat counter-intuitive in an action-oriented society. Nike’s famous statement Just Do It might suggest the primacy of action, even if its real antithesis is inertia and fear. The complementary insight of Studio Thinking is that reflection / evaluation / judgment / looking in the mirror “helps students become independent workers and become able to self-monitor so that they can eventually become autonomous” (p. 82).

Art is often seen as a ‘making’ discipline with the outcome on serried shelves and carefully laid-out walls shadowed or brightly lit as the exhibition requires. This view suggests that art is not as intellectual as mathematics or science or literature with their more routinized and rule-bound labs and essays and calculations. But the notion that those kinds of rules make for academic seriousness is deeply flawed and misunderstands those disciplines as well. The Studio Habit of Reflect reminds us that critique is, in part, about understanding the choices the artist makes; about an appreciation for technique (or its lack); about the impact of process; about the importance of keen observation; about the use and application of metaphor; about ‘truth’ and accuracy; about the insight of self-knowledge.

Reflection is, in this way, an incredibly powerful form of formative assessment (p. 88). Even showing the work in a public forum provides great impetus to reflection as the artist sees the production through others’ eyes and in new ways as something now separate from the artist. It provides a lens through which continuous improvement can occur. Interestingly, the authors also caution that “one of the dangers of evaluation is that student may become paralyzed by self-consciousness” (p.89). Sometimes, indeed, you just have to ‘do it’ before being able to effectively reflect. And while there are no absolutes in an arithmetic sense, that “does not mean that every response is equally good or bad” (p.89). Rather, reflection identifies how the choices the artist makes result in great differences in outcome and thus as to whether the critique demonstrates that the result is good or bad art.

The power of reflection is clearly generalizable. Many of the statements made here about art might easily have been made in other academic contexts as well. Just the assertion that learning can’t truly happen until there has been reflection is a loud call to integrate this practice into all classes. The authors give the example of Japanese mathematics classes in elementary education where the students work together to solve a problem, present their method and solution to the class, and are then critiqued on the method rather than the solution (p.90). This focus on method and process rather than solution and answer is the outcome of an education that is deeply reflective. The arts clearly have deep and consistent insight into what that is and how it can be done within their own discipline. The Learning by Thinking Study provides one way to summarize that as follows:

(1) reflection improves performance

(2) self-efficacy explains this relationship (p.25)

(3) taking time from teaching and giving it to reflection results in higher performance (an inference from p.28)

As John Dewey put it: “Active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends (italics original) serves as a way to “train” thinking to make it a better way of thinking” (How We Think p.3).