Ellen Winner, Ph.D.'s  picture
Ellen Winner, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology
Boston College
Lois Hetland
Lois Hetland
Associate Professor of Art Education
Massachusetts College of Art

Real Reasons to Study the Visual Arts

August 8, 2013

In this article, our guest editor and world-renowned arts and learning expert, Ellen Winner, teams up with long-time colleague Lois Hetland to discuss what students learn from the arts—and why they so very much need good arts experiences both in and out of school. (Hint: it’s not the standard answer—improved academic performance.) To learn more about what the visual arts can do for kids, read a compelling story by the director of education at Columbus Museum of Art, Cindy Foley.

Should all kids study the arts as a part of their basic education? If so, why?

The arts should be a basic and core aspect of education. All too often, they are treated as an add-on, frill, or extra-curricular activity. We often hear arts advocates arguing for the importance of the arts in education, but many still justify this belief by referring to the capacity of arts learning to build skills that transfer to other areas of the curriculum valued more than the arts. Thus, we hear time and again that studying the arts improves students’ grades and standardized test scores.

We cannot support such instrumental “transfer” justifications. By transfer, we mean when learning in one area spills over—transfers—to another quite different area, as in arts learning spilling over into academic performance. To begin with, the evidence for this kind of “transfer” is slim, as we showed in our Reviewing the Arts in Education Project (Winner and Hetland, 2000), when we carefully analyzed all of the studies on this question published from 1950 on.   Second, if a teacher’s main goal is to improve test scores, direct test preparation is far more effective than any indirect route via learning in the arts.

The arts have existed since the earliest humans, are part of all cultures, and are a major domain of human experience like science, technology, mathematics, and humanities. Students who gain mastery in an art form may discover their life’s work or their life’s passion. But all children, regardless of future career, need the arts to experience a different way of understanding than the sciences and humanities. Because they are an arena without right and wrong answers, they free students to explore and experiment. They are also a place to introspect and find personal meaning.

What habits of mind are learned from studying the visual arts? 

We studied the kind of teaching that goes on in the studio art classroom and found that teachers were helping students develop eight important ways of thinking that we call “studio habits of mind.” These habits are undeniably important for all children. In addition to learning technique and learning about the art world beyond the school, students in good studio art classes are helped to develop the following kinds of habits:

Observe: Learning to look closely and see in a new way. “Look closely at your face in the mirror as you draw your self-portrait. Notice the real shape of your eyes.”

Envision: Learning to imagine and manipulate mental images. “How would this look if you changed this color, or moved this form over here?”

Stretch and Explore: Learning to take risks and learn from mistakes. “Just muck around and try to discover some new techniques to use with clay.”

Express: Learning to convey a personal meaning. “A painting that is just technique is dead.”

Engage and Persist: Learning to commit yourself to a project and see it through to the end. “Don’t start over; keep going.”

Reflect: Learning to become aware of your process, to describe it, and to make critical judgments. “Why did you make this form so angular?” “What are the strengths of this painting, and what could make it better?”

These are all very important habits of mind to develop. And where are they best developed? We believe it is in the art studio, yet you can also develop these with your child at home. Simply set up some bright colored fruit on a flowered table cloth. Give your child water colors, pastels, or color pencils, and both of you together can draw what you see.

Here are some things you could say to your child: Look closely and notice all of the changes in color and shape (Observe). Imagine how it would look if you made one of the fruits much bigger (Envision). Try to mix your colors to get that same shade of orangey-yellow (Stretch and Explore). Make your picture show me how happy you feel (Express). Let’s keep going on this and really make it great (Engage and Persist). What do you like about your/my picture? What can I do to make it even better? (Reflect).

Be sure to accept anything your child does, because the most important thing is that your child will want to make art again tomorrow.

Learn More

Elliot W. Eisner, “What Can Education Learn From the Arts About the Practice of Education?,” John Dewey Lecture for 2002, Stanford University

“Learning, Arts, and the Brain,” The Dana Foundation

Ellen Winner, “Habits of Mind: Thinking in the Visual Arts (a talk),” Learning & the Brain

Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland, “Art for Our Sake: School Arts Classes Matter More than Ever – But Not for the Reasons You Think,” The Boston Globe

Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland, “Mozart and the S.A.T.’s,” The New York Times