little bit of lagniappe

reflecting on everyday grace

Artful Thinking

With a sheepish grimace and rouged cheeks, I must admit that I have never taken an art history course.  I often get a bit impatient when roaming a museum, and I certainly do not spend enough time with those pieces that may not initially capture my interest.  Shamefully, I do not know of too many modern artists beyond Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Andy Warhol.  While on this confessional tirade, I must finally admit just how much I enjoyed attending the High Museum’s Picasso to Warhol Teacher Institute this past June.

Beyond the initial gift of spending time at a beautiful museum I far too infrequently visit and having a sneak peek into the fall exhibition of the “Modern Masters,” this institute enabled me to assume a position on the other side of the “teacher’s desk” and enjoy this altered perspective alongside wonderful colleagues and new friends from schools across Georgia and the Southeast.  Each of our three days was divided into halves; the first portion involved whole-group learning, and the afternoons split us into workshops that addressed our specific disciplines.  Although each day offered a bevy of information, increasing both my appreciation for modern art and my repertoire of modern artist knowledge, the second morning’s lecture and activities involving “Artful Thinking” really excited me, offering powerful ideas that could immediately influence and connect to the classroom and most importantly my students.

The term “Artful Thinking” sounds pretty naked, doesn’t it?  It does not boast of technological savvy, nor does it immediately elicit thoughts of “21st century learning.” From my estimation, however, it holds just as much — if not more — value.   Developed by Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, alongside the Traverse City, Michigan Area Public Schools, Artful Thinking uses the power of art to teach students to think more deeply.  Its goals are twofold:  to help teachers create connections between works of art and other areas of study/curriculum, and to use art as a force for developing students’ “thinking dispositions.” The six thinking dispositions or “habits of mind” at the heart of Artful Thinking include:  reasoning, questioning and investigating, observing and describing, comparing and connecting, finding complexity, and exploring viewpoints.  If these skills do not speak to what our students and ALL OF US — of every age — need in our 21st century explosion of information, noise, clutter, and pace, I do not know what else does.  It is of paramount importance that our children learn to dive beneath the surface of what they read, see, or hear and take adequate time and space for quiet, patient reflection and deep thinking.

At the core of Artful Thinking are handful of “thinking routines,” which consist of several short, easy-to-learn procedures students can use repeatedly to deepen their thinking in various ways — within a specific curriculum, across disciplines, and into their day-to-day lives.  We were introduced to a whole handful of these routines from Color-Shapes-Lines, a routine for exploring the formal qualities of art, to Connect-Extend-Challenge, a routine for connecting new ideas to existing knowledge. Perceive-Know-Care About is a routine designed to get inside viewpoints as it instructs students to choose a person, object, or element in an image/work of art and imagine themselves inside that point of view.  After they have considered what the person/thing perceives and feels, knows about or believes, and cares about, students will improvise a monologue based on the character of what they’ve chosen.

Another powerful routine we practiced in groups of three was See-Think-Wonder, which, through four simple prompts (1. Look at the work of art/image for a moment 2. What do you see? 3. What do you think about what you see? 4. What do you wonder about?), encourages close observation/examination and helps teach the difference between observation and interpretation.  It also emphasizes the importance of taking time to think deeply beyond the surface and ponder one’s own habits of thinking.  Finally, we explored and practiced Creative Questions, a thinking routine designed to help generate thought-provoking questions by having students brainstorm from a given list of question-starts (Why…?  What are the reasons…?  What if…?  What is the purpose of…?  How would it be different if…? Suppose that…?  What if we knew…?  What would change if…?).  As a sixth and seventh grade teacher who is often frustrated by students wanting to be passively told answers rather than digging for possibilities and asking good questions themselves, this routine proved especially rich.  If students practice asking stimulating questions and have a framework from which to work initially, such important habits of thinking and questioning will hopefully become ingrained.

At first glance, these thinking routines may seem “plain jane,” as they involve simple prompts and questions.  However, I think such simplicity promotes far healthier and necessary depth over superficial breadth.  Furthermore, they are quite flexible, designed for use among groups, pairs, or individuals and in subject areas beyond art. While we applied them directly to the museum’s art collection, their power comes in their ability to encourage habitual patterns of thought that deepen thinking about the topic at hand, whether it be a piece of modern art, a poem, an image from popular culture, a historical event, a scientific process, or a mathematical operation.

The final beneficial aspect of Artful Thinking that seems especially necessary in our contemporary society is the balance it invites.  While we are blessed with such wonderful technological tools to help enhance learning for our students, I find that more and more my responsibility as teacher is to also help my students (who have grown up in a digital, technological age) learn patience and the importance of making time for quiet consideration and reflection within one’s own mind, free from other stimuli except the art or topic itself.  I want to help my students pay attention to what goes on inside their heads — to plug into the complexity of their own minds without the aid of always being “plugged in” elsewhere.  To me, the kind of simple probing with art that Artful Thinking invites will help students better understand their own thinking as well as their peers’ and then practice such habits outside the classroom with anything else they read, see, hear, or sense.  Hopefully, it can encourage them to dig deeper into the world around them, rather than mindlessly and all-too-rapidly skimming the surface.

For this often-preoccupied museum visitor, learning about Artful Thinking and practicing these routines from a framework of guiding questions have helped me better understand and appreciate artwork before me.  They have also nurtured the practice of patience, encouraged taking the time and space to wonder about my own and others’ thinking, and helped make many more connections to the fascinating world of art.  I cannot wait to share and continue this deep practice with my students, and even if we cannot visit the High museum every week to do so, I think the magnificent museum of our own Junior High will provide the perfect starting place.

For more information on “Artful Thinking,” please visit their website:

p.s. I’ll be trying out a version of Artful Thinking with my 6th grade classes this week, as we roam our own Junior High art collection, and I am so eager for the experience!  No matter how it turns out, I am hopeful that some form of LEARNING will emerge – for us all!


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3 thoughts on “Artful Thinking

  1. have you checked out Amit Sood’s Art Project? Super cool! Also, I think the art classes are trying to do something similar in the JHS!

  2. could be really cool to have reflections on famous art work right inside the classroom! Love your thinking here.

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