Atelierista: to transcend the diorama

I got a question from a reader- "You say it everywhere on your blog but for the record, what is it that Studio Thinking is all about?"

That's a good question. So what's it all about? I think about the way contemporary artists use media and materials to work out ideas, to tell stories or to answer questions. 

Studio thinking is thinking with materials in your hands. It is using media and materials to work out ideas, tell stories and answer questions. It is making things to figure things out. 
Studio thinking is challenging. It is challenging to do, and in doing it, you are challenging ideas and assumptions, your own and other's. 
Loris Malaguzzi wanted the studio to be subversive, and that's not easy for a lot of people. He talked about the studio as laboratory,  and if you think of it that way, as a place for hypothesizing and testing theories, you can start to see the difference between studio (or atelier) and a traditional school art room. What's more, if you think of that laboratory more as a state of mind than a place, then you can imagine how studio thinking can change the culture of a school.

Why is it so hard to go beyond typical art activities to support learning in classrooms in the primary years? How can we as parents and teachers imagine something radically new in education when our fall-back position is always what we experienced in our schooling? It is comfortable to have students make dioramas and models, because it fits within our schema for school. It feels more risky to have children exploring symbolic representation in social studies, taking time for messing about in new media in math,  using "the expressive and poetic languages (as) part of the process by which knowledge is built" in english class. It is risky to commit to listening and following the children's interests in the older years, even when we see the new understandings this type of work creates in the preschool years.
I have trouble crossing this divide. I'm hoping we can imagine a new kind of education and take the risk to try it. Uncertainty is crucial to the process of creating something new, and I enjoy that uncertainty. Maybe it's because I have faith that studio thinking and wrestling with ideas can lead children to becoming smart and knowing a lot of things.

My definition of studio thinking has been influenced by all that I've studied about the Atelier in Reggio Emilia, and also by the work on studio thinking by Project Zero led by Lois Hetland and Ellen Winner (see 

*I just found this!
'“The underlying problem for any new kind of education is putting out there that level of uncertainty, that level of messiness that exists in the world, the ugly problems that are going to need to be solved by people, not by corporations,” said one teacher. An ambiguous vision of education is hard to sell to politicians, parents, and students.
“Most teachers didn’t sign up for this moment that we’re in, this shifty moment,” said Richardson. As ideas about what makes a useful education morph, some educators are feeling left behind,reeling from all the changes. Others are fighting to hold onto the accountability tools that were used to measure them. But assessing this as-yet amorphous concept of the future of learning would necessarily be varied. More than anything, educators would guide students on a learning journey through the lens of their interests and help them discover who they are as learners.'

Loris Malaguzzi;
Although we did not come close to achieving those impossible ideals, still the atelier has always repaid us. It has, as desired, proved to be subversive – generating complexity and new tools of thought. It has allowed rich combinations and creative possibilities among the different (symbolic) languages of children. (The Hundred Languages of Children)".
"Since the late ‘60s in the municipal preschools of Reggio Emilia, each school has a space called the atelier and the figure of the atelierista, a “teacher” with an arts background. In this way, the expressive and poetic languages became part of the process by which knowledge is built.


  1. I just read a paper, "Beyond Quality in EC Education and Care-Languages of Evaluation" by Gunilla Dahlberg and Peter Moss. It fits so perfectly with what you have said. They compare the The Social Pedagogy Approach vs. The Early Childhood Approach to learning. They refer to "meaning making" as part of the social pedagogy approach. The studio provides a space for meaning making on many levels. Thanks for this piece. I really enjoyed it.

  2. Thanks Judy! I just got the book 'Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Ed' by them from Abebooks, but I haven't read it yet. I will definitely get started.
    thanks for reading and especially commenting, I really appreciate it.

  3. Anna thanks for answering my question with an extended post in your blog. I think it was important to hear your idea of "studio Thinking", that is why I said "for the record", now anyone can have access to this as a point of departure.
    Thanks again.


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