Lecture on Visual Arts Education Held in Brussels

On the 9th of December professor Lois Hetland held the lecture “The Benefits and Future of Visual Arts Education” in Bozar in Brussels. Prof. Lois Hetland is one of the leading experts worldwide in the field of art education, so it was no surprise that the great hall in Bozar was filled with professionals (as well as students- future professionals) from the same field.

Intended to motivate art educators and other professionals who in any way have impact on developing creativity in children and youth, professor Hetland’s academic lecture was based on the following topics: on arts, culture and education in general; on core benefits of visual art education; on educating students in the arts; on conditions for quality arts education; on key challenges that arts education should address; on Studio Thinking and how this framework might be useful; and finally, on contemporary art and its importance.

Lois Hetland, Ed.D., is Professor and Chair of the Art Education Department at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Apart from this, Hetland is also Senior Research Affiliate at Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. With an emphasis in the arts, professor Heltand’s research in cognitive and developmental psychology focuses on issues of learning, teaching, and disciplinary understanding. Before working at Project Zero, Hetland  was teaching non-arts subjects to elementary and middle school students for 20 years. Currently she is co-leader of the Studio Thinking Network, a monthly online conversation among educators who use the Studio Thinking Framework. Just to mention a part of her extensive work experience: conducting research for the co-authored book, Studio Thinking 2: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education, conducting an assessment initiative at MassArt, serving as Co-Principal Investigator on a National Science Foundation study of potential transfer from visual arts learning to geometric spatial reasoning, Consulting Evaluator for Art21 Educators, Principal Investigator for research and professional development in Alameda County, CA, Co-Principal Investigator on the study “Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education”.


Prof. Hetland referring to Banksy. ©Lisanne Valgaerts

From the very beginning of the lecture, Hetland brings up two important questions which will later be mentioned again through the lecture: 1. “Why art?” and 2. “Why contemporary art?” In the first round, professor’s answer to question “why art” was: “Because art deserves its own place in general education of every child.” For the second question, the answer Hetland proposes is “Because it is rich of resources for learning and thinking”. With introductory quotations of J. Bruner, a psychologist who made significant contributions to human cognitive psychology and cognitive learning theory  (“How we educate the young is an expression of a  culture’s goals in the large”), Hetland explains parts of Dimensions of disciplinary understanding - the four layers: forms, methods, purposes and knowledge (networks). Presented in a scheme, different educational subjects are equally covered with the four mentioned layers.

From this scheme of how ideal educational system should be designed, Hetland passes on to describe her work on REAP. REAP (short for Reviewing Education and the Arts Project) is a research Hetland conducted together with her colleague Ellen Winner. REAP included  an extensive search of 188 studies testing if studying the arts can lead to improvement in some academic form.  Here Hetland explains what a meta-analysis is and why they were applying this methods here. Meta-analysis found its purposes here because it uses more rigorous literature review than normally. Second argument is because it uses two statistics which make this research more reliable: the statistics of probability and effect size.

This method has two purposes: to combine and compare. REAP research resulted with two types of results: with positive and with null outcomes. The research resulted with discovering that in three areas causal links could be demonstrated between the arts and achievement in a non-arts academic area: 1. Listening to music leads to short-term enhancements in spatial reasoning in adults (this is also known as the "Mozart effect” which resulted in temporary YES effect and which was popular at the time when it was first published); 2. Learning to make music leads to enhancements in spatial reasoning in children; and 3. Classroom drama boosts verbal abilities of many sorts. In two areas some links were found, but only based on a few studies: 1. Learning to make music improved math scores; and 2. Learning dance improved spatial reasoning scores. In five areas no causal links were found. After REAP Hetland and Winner concluded that studying multiple forms of arts (or studying in an arts-integrated curriculum) improved neither academic performance nor creative thinking skills. Reading skills were not improved by studying visual arts, music, or dance. Hetland emphasizes that listening to music doesn’t make you smarter and that there is no magic pill to bring you benefits from it or develop skills instantly, however it does benefit in many other ways.

The conclusion from this is that no research so far has proven causal link between studying arts and improvement in other non-academic forms (except for the three previously mentioned). However Hetland does not denies that it is not so, and that there is no connection.

The idea and work behind Studio Thinking was introduced after another of “why art?”-question. This time Hetland answers: “To develop artistic mind that can be used at will”. And in “Studio Thinking” the answer on how to achieve this might be found.

The book “Studio Thinking 2: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education” is intended to provide an explanation for visual art education that transcends the instrumental arguments. Two authors, Shirley Veenema- a researcher at Project Zero, and Kimberly M. Sheridan- a former researcher at Project Zero, also an Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology and Art Education at George Mason University, join Winner and Hetland in creating this framework and writing the book. They use the terms “arts education” and “visual arts education” almost alternately in the text. “Studio Thinking” is largely a product of previous researches, but it is not a big heap of statistics. Statistical methods were used to interpret the observations, establish various patterns and to test reliability, but the results are presented in readable text.

For conducting the study, the authors selected two schools, the Boston Arts Academy (an urban pilot high school) and the Walnut Hill School (a private boarding/day school). Five teachers, three from Boston Arts and two from Walnut Hill agreed to participate in the study which involved the video taping of selected classes in grades 9, 10, 11, and 12 on a monthly basis. In the book it is explained what visual arts teachers teach and how, and what goes on in five very different arts classrooms. Structures of classrooms consist of three patterns focused on learning. They answer the question how, and these are:  Demonstration-lecture, Students-at-Work and Critique. Fourth, somewhat distinguished one, is Exhibition. Eight Studio habits of Mind, answering the question what, are:

  1. Persistence and engagement – through which students are expected to find meaningful problems and persist through it
  2. Expression – through which students go beyond technical skill to create artworks that holds an idea, feeling or a personal meaning
  3. Development of crafts – consisting of learning techniques and artistic conventions
  4. Observing – where students are learning to commit to visual contexts
  5. Envisioning – learning students to picture things/ideas mentally
  6. Innovating through exploration – learning to go beyond capacities
  7. Reflective self-evaluation – where students learn to question, to talk and discuss about their work or working process; and also to evaluate their own work and the work of others
  8. Understanding the art world – learning about art history and today’s current arts

From their colleague David Perkins, the authors borrow the term “disposition”. Disposition refers to trio of qualities: skills, alertness to opportunities and the inclination to use the skills. Studio Habits of Mind are dispositions that they noticed are taught in the studio classrooms – they are central to artistic thinking and behaviour.

Audience discussing which habits they noticed in videos. ©Lisanne Valgaerts 

After the explanation of what Studio Thinking is, the audience had the opportunity to apply gained knowledge by watching short videos and afterwards discussing them among themselves and with professor Hetland.

To emphasize the importance of holistic approach to education and learning beyond local spheres and its global perspective, Hetland referred to “Six Beyonds” by her colleague David N. Perkins: 1. Beyond Content, 2. Beyond Local, 3. Beyond Topics, 4. Beyond Traditional Disciplines, 5. Beyond Discrete Discipline, 6. Beyond Prescribed Studies.

Then professor Hetland again returns to the question “why art?”. This time the answer was deepened: “To learn to read intelligently from the creative archive.” To read intelligently certainly requires quality, and about the quality of arts education Hetland investigated in “Qualities of quality – Excellences in Arts Education and How to Achieve It”, a research leading to a set of ten meta-analytic reviews analyzing the effects of arts learning on non-arts outcomes. In this research and book, Hetland and Winner, together with two other authors created the” tools for thinking”. As the lecture was getting closer to an end, Hetland advocated for contemporary art as the current focus on quality. “In contemporary art thinking is most visible”, she said, “(...) ethics are being practised, disciplines are being explored”, and last but not least, it is a cross disciplinary field.

With Bruner’s quotes on arts, culture and teaching, combined with the images of contemporary art works and with tips on why you might use this image such as this (in practice as art educator), this very inspiring lecture professor Hetland came to an end.

After the Q&A session and short break, workshop in Dutch organized by Vitamine C was held. Divided in 9 groups, the participants were able to discuss the issues brought up during the lecture from a practice-based perspective.

One of the tasks during the workshop. ©Lisanne Valgaerts

Since the participants of the workshop had very different backgrounds and different level of knowledge and experience in arts education, it was up to them to decide what of the topics and issues they would bring up in the conversation, and of course, what of the provided information and knowledge they would in the end bring home with them.

References:

  • Studio Thinking 2: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education, Lois Hetland, Ellen Winner, Shirley Veenema, and Kimberly M. Sheridan, 2013
  • Reviewing Education and the Arts Project (REAP): Ellen Winner, Principal Investigator; Lois Hetland, Project Manager, 2000

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Comment by Iris Smidt Pelajic on September 24, 2015 at 15:15

Interesting and competent article about an important lecture on visual art education.

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