New Research Shows That Students Should Visit Art Museums

When students visit art museums, they develop greater critical thinking skills than comparison students who do not visit art museums. This study provides direct causal evidence of a link between exposure to art and critical thinking skill.

In 2011, the United States opened its first new major art museum in 50 years: The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, created with Walmart family money, in the small town where the Walmart company is located, Bentonville Arkansas. A team of researchers at the University of Arkansas had a great idea: They realized that the new museum provided a wonderful research opportunity, because up to 2011, citizens of the surrounding area had not had access to an art museum. So would this new neighbor benefit them in some way? Would it help their children do better in school, for example? The leadership of the new museum wanted to make an impact and benefit the surrounding community, so they were happy to work together with the research team.

The results of this research were just published this month (Feb 2014), and it is a powerful and important study.* The research team decided to study the effects of exposure to art on students who visited the museum under its School Visit Program. Because the school visits (grades 3 through 12) were completely free to the school, there was a high demand and lots of teachers applied to bring their class. The researchers, working with the museum’s education staff, decided to randomly select which applications to approve (the treatment group), and then to match each visiting class with another demographically matched class that had not been selected (the control group). Control group classes were promised that they would be able to visit the following semester, in exchange for participating in the experiment.

The tours were provided by Crystal Bridges education staff, who had been trained to follow a constructivist learning approach. This open ended, student centered approach encouraged groups of students “to think together, engage with each work of art on a deep level, and seek out their own unique interpretations of the work at hand” (p. 39). The visit was about one hour. In addition, the classroom teacher was mailed a packet of pre-visit material that included a 5-minute orientation video.

About two weeks after the visit, the students were given a critical thinking assessment. They were shown this contemporary work of art, one that they had never seen and that is not in the Crystal Bridges collection. The students were then given 5 minutes to write responses to the following two questions: (1) What is going on in this painting? (2) What do you see that makes you think that?” The control group of students who had NOT been to the museum were given the same assessment, and everyone’s essays were scored on a critical thinking checklist with seven items: number of observations, interpretations, evaluations, associations, instances of problem finding, comparisons, and instances of flexible thinking. Some of the student’s essays are brilliant:

I think that the young boy and girl were actually old people who became young again in this painting. The reason I think this is because the boy and the girl are wearing loose fitting clothes. Maybe they were an old married couple that opened a box of childhood memories and they remembered when they were children.

The results showed that the museum visit, with the constructivist-inspired approach, resulted in an increase in critical thinking ability. Students were went on a school visit to an art museum performed 9% of a standard deviation higher than the control group on the assessment. Rural students, the ones most likely to have never encountered or engaged with modern art, scored 33% of a standard deviation higher. It might not sound like much, but remember that these students only spent an hour at the museum, and looked at only about 4 or 5 works of art.

But does this mean that looking at art increases a student’s general critical thinking ability? After all, the assessment was specific to arts. And we’d like to think that arts education leaves you with general abilities that make you better at everything–even, possibly, science and math. Evidence for this “transfer” has been incredibly hard to find, and the authors write “Future research should further explore whether the benefits of thinking critically about the arts transfers to other educational subjects” (p. 42).

Expecting arts education to transfer to other subjects might just be too much to ask (as the authors also point out). As long ago as 1901, psychologists had already discovered that learning in one domain almost never increases cognitive ability in other domains:

Improvements in any single mental function rarely brings about equal improvement in any other function, no matter how similar” (Thorndike and Woodworth, 1901, pp. 249-250).

And almost 100 years later, many psychologists still make the same claim:

Most studies fail to find transfer…[in the last 100 years] there is no evidence to contradict Thorndike’s general conclusions: Transfer is rare” (Detterman, 1993, p. 15)

In preparation for a discussion with our doctoral students, I just re-read a classic article in the learning sciences,** arguing that the true benefits of arts education lie in “preparation for future learning” and from an emphasis on learning how to metacognitively guide noticing and interpretation, through active interaction with the learning environment. This simple study is just a beginning, and we still haven’t explored whether arts education of this type would result in an increase in general abilities. This new study is one small contribution to our understanding of the value of arts education, but it’s an important step forward. As the authors state, “No prior research has established the causal connection between an arts experience and critical thinking skills with this level of rigor” (p. 42) and I agree.

*Bowen, Greene, and Kisida (2014), “Learning to think critically: A visual art experiment.” Educational Researcher Vol. 43 No. 1, pp. 37-44.

**Bransford and Schwartz (2001), “Rethinking transfer: A simple proposal with multiple implications.” in Review of Research in Education, Chapter 3, Volume 24, pages 61-100. Washington, DC: AERA.

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