Thinking Like An Artist

Avery and I went to a lecture given by Lois Hetland at SFMOMA last Thursday on the topic “What Should We Ask of Arts Education?” If you know about Lois Hetland, and her work with Project Zero, or the book Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education (co-authored by Hetland), then much of what I’m about to write is probably old news.

But I had not heard of her, so it was new and interesting and exciting.

She talked about the eight habits of mind that artists use when creating. They are (in no particular order–they aren’t hierarchical):

  • Develop Craft
  • Engage and Persist
  • Envision
  • Express
  • Observe
  • Reflect
  • Stretch and Explore
  • Understand Art World

Pretty much all I could think about when she was going over these habits was, “that’s what we do in math!”

And then she slaps up this diagram (which I can’t find and I’m too lazy to recreate) of a hexagon, made up of wedges labeled by discipline (language arts, science, history, math, etc.) and then adds on concentric hexagons to make the point that as you get deeper into your thinking about any one particular discipline, the connections between the various disciplines grows stronger and the differences in what you are doing and how you are learning gets increasingly harder to distinguish.

The outermost layer was something like “knowledge”…the skills and content of each discipline; the next layer in was “methods,” and the innermost layer was “purposes,” because when you get right down to it, the purposes for learning anything are deeply intertwined–at least that’s what she claimed. I happen to agree with her.

Unfortunately, (as Hetland mentioned) too much of schooling takes place around the outer-edge. The place where all the disciplines look fragmented and disconnected. Teaching–and learning–in this way, with this surface-level of focus, is a recipe for having students believe that each discipline has nothing to do with any of the others, that math has nothing to do with history, which has nothing to do with science, which has nothing to do with the visual arts.

But the reasons why people pursue arts, why people investigate science, why people delve into history, and why people explore mathematics–these are all connected at a fundamental level. We want to know more about the world around us. We want to know why things work the way that they do. Each discipline allows us to investigate things that spark our curiosity in different ways.

The questions that I explore when I am writing a short story are different than the questions that I look at when working on math, but the underlying desire to learn more, to figure out something new, THAT is always present. That is the same throughout.

4 thoughts on “Thinking Like An Artist

  1. I love this. I think in a very similar way as you about all of this, and you did a great job explaining what I’ve never quite been able to put into words. I’m really glad I happened upon your blog!

      • LOL! No, I wasn’t trying to sell you some *amazing* product. I’ll try to be a little more original if I comment again. 😉

        The reason I liked this post is that I have similar ones on my own blog, only I think I’m coming at it from the opposite direction. A similar post on my blog might be something like “Thinking Like a Mathemetician”. I also really loved reading someone else talk about the connections between disciplines and the larger purpose of any inquiry — “We want to know why things work the way that they do. Each discipline allows us to investigate things that spark our curiosity in different ways.”

        I guess that’s what I was trying to say in the first comment. 🙂

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