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The Cognitive Dimension

The cognitive dimension, in the context of arts practices with communities, refers to the thinking processes that take place during the act of art-making. It is all about creativity. Generally, cognition refers to the process of knowledge acquisition through a process of thought, experience and the senses. The cognitive process also gives rise to ideas, perception and intuition, all of which are related to the personal dimension as well. In the arts, the cognitive dimension is also called ‘creativity’ as cognitive processes engaged determine the unique form that the artistic outcome takes. In artistic processes with communities, this creative, or cognitive, dimension takes on maturing stages of development towards greater depth and complexity.

Foundational Elements of the Cognitive Dimension: Effective Thinking

Effective thinking stems from the belief that personal action can produce outcomes (Costa & Garmston, 2001). With this belief, individuals begin to commit to making a decision in response to a situation, thereby effecting an outcome. Effective thinking has been positioned as a foundational level of cognition as it relates closely to decision-making, which is a basic factor that determines one’s course of life, from what one is going to have for lunch to the choice of a life partner and career. In active parenting practices, very young children are encouraged to consider their choices before making a decision, which presumably will be based on their preference and serve their interest.

In the arts, effective thinking is engaged because the end goal of achieving an artistic outcome, from an artistic experience, assumes the need for participants to think of strategies that will enable them to achieve this outcome. When the arts programme encourages a process of decision-making, or effective thinking, participants practice a process of how to think through a decision in a safe space, where discussion, experimentation and awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses can be explored. This process can build towards a basic constructive cognitive pattern which can assist participants, who are faced with life’s situations that require a commitment and action, to think through a problem in order to effect a difference towards an outcome of resolution (Swartz, 2001).

Strengthening Decision-Making: Our Response

 Unlike teaching in schools within a set curriculum, the arts with communities provide for an open space for discussions to take place and decisions to be made collectively from the very start of the program. Depending on the strengths of our participants however, we do need to be discerning in terms of how much decision-making our participants can manage. Participants with autism, for example, thrive better with structured program suited to them. However, certain aspects, like selecting color or words to speak, can be presented to them in small steps and stages. This therefore assumes that the artist-facilitator is attuned to the strengths and abilities of his or her participants and is able to sensitively pick out moments of possible decision-making throughout the program. This open space therefore requires the direction and guidance of a skilled artist-facilitator who is able to guide participants through a thorough thinking process towards the best decision to be made.

Maturing Elements Of The Cognitive Dimension: Flexible and Precise Thinking

 Throughout the process of decision-making, higher order thinking can be demonstrated through processes of flexible and precise thinking. Flexible thinking refers to the ability to be empathic and to tolerate ambiguity (Costa & Garmston, 2001). These abilities inherently refer to an individual’s openness to recognizing opposites, juxtaposing opposites and considering multiple viewpoints. Flexible thinking can be encouraged through arts program by enabling participants to take part in the following processes:

  • Seeing different points of view

  • Being open to ambiguity

  • Envisioning alternatives with new data

  • Macrocentric and microcentric thinking

Strengthening Flexible and Precise Thinking Through the Arts

Decision-making, flexible thinking and precise thinking are all therefore processes of creative thinking. More mature abilities include being able to handle ambiguity in stride and ‘play around’ until the best quality options and solutions present themselves to the maker. There is an awareness of how the minute bits have an effect on the whole, and participants are conversely able to consciously manipulate the finished work by controlling the bits.  In the performing arts, works that require participants to devise and co-create, for example, enables them to engage in flexible and precise thinking, as possibilities are explored and decisions are made to counter limitations and achieve aspirations collectively. The artist-facilitator should be aware of how he or she can stretch the thinking abilities of the participants so that they can achieve mastery of both form and expression.

Mature Elements Of The Cognitive Dimension: Metacognition & Complexity Thinking

 Advanced higher order thinking delves into the region of metacognition, where individuals are able to think about how they think and are able to combine and move different patterns of thinking towards the benefit of a collective whole or shared knowledge. These levels of thinking are normally demonstrated by mature participants who have been through a deepened process of conceptualizing, discussion and experimentation as a group, through the arts.

Supporting the Journey Towards Metacognition and Complexity Thinking

 Continuous participation in the arts, which may well lead to the arts being one’s profession, does result in metacognition. The process of the arts itself requires one to make one’s thinking ‘visible’ to one’s self, as options are weighed, decisions are made and what is made then takes on a particular form and effect. The impetus to create the next work of art necessitates an evaluation of past experiences, delving into methods of thinking in approaching the making of a work.


The arts are very much a part of life, and artists more than ever have to engage with a whole gamut of other disciplines, from the sciences to social sciences to politics. Complexity thinking is inevitable as artists become more engaged with other areas of life and start to link different networks of social institutions and academic disciplines to truly make the arts a proactive cultural force that can contribute to society. In this way, the artist is not a detached individual but one who contributes to others through the reciprocity of skills and knowledge, making the arts in itself significant to society’s growth.

* For more details on each element of the Cognitive Dimension, please refer to Person-centered Arts Practices With Communities: A Pedagogical Guide (



Costa, A. & Garmston, R.J. (2001). Five human passions: The origins of effective thinking, in Developing Minds: A Resource Book For Teaching Thinking, 3rd Edition, pp. 11-17, Costa, A. (ed), USA: Association For Supervision & Curriculum Development.

Swartz, R (2001). Thinking about decisions, in Developing Minds: A Resource Book For Teaching Thinking, 3rd Edition, pp. 58-66, Costa, A. (ed), USA: Association For Supervision & Curriculum Development.

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