Teacher Scholar Voices

Synthesis Thinking Inspires Students to Join Skills and Creativity in the Art Room

Teacher Scholar Voices

How can student’s engagement in visual art promote critical thinking and creativity? What does synthesis thinking look like in the art classroom and how do teachers facilitate this higher level thinking?  Sparked by her involvement with her district’s TARI (Teacher Action Research Institute) professional development program and its focus on Harvard Project Zero’s “Studio Habits of Mind,” Roosevelt Elementary art teacher Susan Deming has spent the last two years learning about higher order thinking assessment in art. 

For my action research this year, I looked closely at critical thinking, using Bloom’s Taxonomy and the “Studio Habits of Mind.”  I focused in on how I balance developing craft during the art demo and guided practice with asking students to use synthesis thinking during independent practice where students change, combine, visualize, generate and find new ways.  

Since the works of art produced in my room are the concrete evidence of student thinking and students’ ability to transfer that thinking through the manipulation of materials and ideas, the data for my research was photographs of student work from seven fourth grade art learning experiences spanning the entire school year.  A highlight of the year was a project inspired by a Totem Pole art print.

When I introduced the totem pole art print to the class, I could see immediately that the imagery and structure of the totem pole were intriguing to the students.  They loved the way the pole looked like one creature but on closer examination was actually composed of several.  By the way the students quickly passed out the paper and materials, immediately got to work on their drawings and the buzz of conversations around the room, I could tell the students were excited about the project.  There was even a cheer in one class when I said students could use their own ideas to create their creatures and that I wanted them to cut them out and attach them end to end with tape or glue.

Before students began their work, I briefly modeled the kinds of shapes the totem pole artist used and how the artist made the eyes, nose and mouth–students loved the mouth with all the teeth stretching from one side of the face to the other!

One of the things I looked for when I examined student work later was to identify observable concrete evidence in the art showing students used synthesis thinking to solve this problem of making their own totem pole.  In this case, I looked at how students made changes to the shapes and imagery and combined ideas from the totem pole with their own ideas and prior learning. Another thing I look for in student work is variety: shapes, images, colors, patterns, use of materials and so on.

Art Educator, Marvin Bartel notes in his work on children’s art that there are three primary sources for subject matter in art:  Observation, Memory and Imagination.  In the below art works I can see combinations of all three of these sources.  Some students choose to begin their explorations by a close observation of the totem pole art print.  Other students had an inclination to begin with memory or imagination.  What makes these works good examples of synthesis thinking is the way that each work of art is a combination of observation, memory and imagination.

In this example of student art, I can see that Veronica was very confident in using synthesis thinking.  She immediately brought in her own imagery in the first top two creatures and continued with objects that were important to her school life.  She stayed consistent with the totem pole theme by adding eyes to the middle three images to show they are alive and creature-like.

When students engage deeply in synthesis thinking, other students notice and find it stimulating and inspiring.  When someone like Veronica has a good idea, I find evidence of that idea in the work of others.  For this totem pole project, I did find several examples in student work of images of everyday objects such a calculator, Starbucks coffee cup, donut, money, guitar, Mexican hat with flag colors and angry bird–images that I observed students talking about while they worked and in their finished art work.

Carl’s art work below, is an example of a student so deeply engaged in synthesis thinking that there is little of the initial totem pole imagery to be seen in his work: he designed one creature that spanned the three papers as seen below.  By the time I saw the drawing mid-class, he was working in partnership with another student and they had attached the flames to the bottom.  All I had to say was “I wonder if he should have a power pack” and they ran across the classroom and together fashioned a power pack.  They were so excited about the piece that they stayed after school to finish and then set it up on display in the art class window.

In one third grade class, when Aaron started attaching his creatures end to end, he had a sudden insight–the more pieces he attached, the longer it got.  He told me very animatedly that his totem pole was longer than he was tall!  Then he said, “I can make it as tall as the ceiling” . . . and he did!  Next class, he mobilized most of his third grade classmates to join their work and make new heads so that they could lay it across the length of the room.  It didn’t stop there.  The students were electrified–they worked together to make a long totem pole consisting of 302 pieces that ran across the room and half way across the playground.  This experience was very poignant in the way that these surprise explorations are organic and arise from an entire process of working.  The students so loved this experience, they begged me to do it again.

Through my inquiry work, it has been very inspiring to find that my data supports what I already believed: that clear, explicit and focused entry points for synthesis thinking do allow students of various levels of skill and knowledge to feel comfortable entering into the art making process and can form a base for observing what kinds of thinking students are performing in the creation of their works of art.  Students are able to use their own ideas to interact with the art making process at their own level of skill and expertise.  Art is a powerful part of culturally responsive teaching because of its very nature: all students have access to a process that allows for individualization of instruction that builds very concrete skills at the same time as it develops critical thinking in accordance with each student’s stage of learning and cognitive development.