Think tank

Learning synthesis

Holly Warren describes Think Tank, an innovative studio environment in which children learn to synthesise their learning experiences as new design and art pieces.

The Think Tank environment.

The Think Tank (Warren, 2015) is an immersive, interactive studio setting (atelier) designed by students and an atelierista (art studio teacher) to celebrate, stimulate, enhance, and develop creative thinking patterns that connect children with a range of other experiences, both inside and outside a school. The concept was initially inspired by the educational approaches of pedagogues Loris Malaguzzi, Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner and Kieran Egan, which allow a child to express ideas, interests, concepts and theories by creating visual narratives without restriction. This approach sets the ground for exploratory adventures that will tell the story of a child’s research and findings and has evolved into what the children have described as “the place where your ideas come true.”

The Think Tank never requests, it proposes, shares, presents, and inspires its community to create art pieces that are expressive of their own experience. A constant inter-action with the students’ environment allows an ongoing dialogue of the parts. Think Tank therefore embraces and celebrates the different environments in which the students work, whether at home or at school.


Designing and making activities in Think Tank draw on materials which are readily available and are sourced locally either at school or at home. Recycled, repurposed and natural materials are valued, while the language, movement, and sounds that are part of the materials are used to enhance, document, and create narratives.

Think Tank is also a research hub for children’s ideas, concepts, and interests. As a child-centred learning setting it documents the ever-changing processes and themes the children spontaneously engage in.

How experiences unfold.

During Think Tank sessions, the mentor meets small groups of 6 to 8 children in a Pow Wow format to share ideas and thoughts. These can be experiences, recollections of past explorations or new proposals. If needed, a quiet moment of recollection/thinking is proposed as a way of linking with the students’ self. Then the group creates a dialogue and decides how to proceed. This is the three-step process of visible thinking that accompanies the experiences.

The environment is set up with a selection of materials that the Think Tank mentor proposes in different areas of the room. These could be glass bead on the light table, a video installation with sounds and an area for exploration with light such as light pebbles and fairy lights.

Having welcomed each other, participants start a conversation about a continuing project or make an initial exploration of something new. Beads can turn into spaghetti in a make-believe restaurant, the video installation might become a walk in the woods or the lights may turn into a fire requiring firefighters to design a new generation hose.

Recently, due to the requirements linked to the pandemic the students have been given working and exploration areas that are not shared with other classes but are still trampolines of inspiration.

Links with class work and the curriculum

The Think Tank is its own setting, created with the children’s input. It is dynamic and changes according to the moment, the situation and the projects involved. This requires a space that can morph and adapt easily, but its salient characteristic is the mental space needed to create it.

However, there are strong links to what children are learning elsewhere, and which they bring to the studio quite naturally. Think Tank enables them to talk about these ideas and skills in a new context, which is invaluable. Surface learning becomes embedded into deep learning as the children make connections that are meaningful to the projects. Think Tank discussions therefore involve personal know-how and knowledge acquired in class from all areas of learning. Literacy, numeracy, knowledge and understanding of the world, social and emotional skills and predispositions, fine and gross motor skills, creative thinking and problem solving meet in the Think Tank, demonstrating the uniqueness of each student that becomes a vital element in the creation of projects that celebrate multi-perspectives:

“Nothing of me is original, I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve known.” (Palahniuk, 1999)

Celebrating community.

Think Tank therefore celebrates and brings together the school as a learning community. Parents become partners in exhibitions and performance art pieces when everyone adds to the outcome. During the lockdown parents themselves became Think Tank mentors themselves by stepping inside the experiences and working with the children to produce family pieces in a process of incredible educational value.

Student perspective

The richness of the Think Tank experience is best expressed in the words of the children themselves, as in the poem spontaneously presented by a seven year old participant to her parents as a gift:

The Think Tank is full of ideas,

If you listen with your ears, just peer through here,

And maybe you will see a pear,

You will see oysters and monsters.

But don’t worry you don’t need to say sorry.

Now watch this film (Ripples) and you will be surprised

With what your child has learnt.


Holly Warren Self Portrait


Holly Warren is an atelierista, or art studio teacher, working in an international school in Italy. She is the creator of Think Tank – a new project environment that links the creative process of art with Montessori, Steiner and Reggio Emilia educational methodologies.


To learn more about her ideas see:

Images kindly provided by Holly



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