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.

How Art Works

The U.S. National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has just released a report titled “How Art Works.” It announces a new five-year research agenda, to analyze the benefits of the arts to society–individual benefits, community benefits, and economic benefits. The core of the report is a new “system map” (see graphic below), and each research project will focus on one or more of the components in the system.

The system map reflects several key assumptions guiding the research project:

  • Arts engagement is at the heart of how art works.
  • The raw fuel needed to keep the system going is the human impulse to create and express.
  • Benefits can accrue separately to individuals and communities.
  • Arts engagement makes important contributions to the capacity for a society to invent and express itself.
How Art Works System Map
How Art Works System Map

Arts engagement is at the center of the system. Everything revolves around people and communities engaging with the arts. If there’s no engagement, the NEA argues, the arts can’t have any benefits. If there’s great art sitting in a museum in the middle of nowhere and no one ever looks at it, there are no benefits. If only a small subset of the population engages with the arts, then the benefits would only accrue to that subset, thus disadvantaging the others who don’t engage with the arts.

The map is designed to be pretty easy to understand, because it’s an overall vision guiding a range of research projects over the next five years. The inputs are at the top and the outputs–the benefits–are at the bottom.

The inputs are (1) the human impulse to create and express; (2) the arts infrastructure (the institutions and places that facilitate the creation and consumption of art); (3) education and training (the skills and knowledge that inform artistic expression, and the consumption of art).

The outputs are (1) benefits of the arts to individuals (including transformations in thinking, social skills, and character development over time); (2) benefits of the arts to societies and communities (including sustaining communities, transferring values, economic benefits; and (3) the broader societal impact of the overall society’s capacity to innovate and express ideas.

At the left side of the graphic are what they call the “multipliers”: forces that broadly influence the entire art system.

Here’s the NEA summary of the system map:

The system map is a conceptual diagram of how variables relevant to the topic How Art Works “talk” to one another. It is a picture of the complexity inherent in discussions of art’s impact and it suggests a set of hypotheses about the relationship between arts engagement and the arts’ impacts on individuals and their communities. The map offers a platform for mounting a research agenda to test the strength of these relationships and their underlying hypotheses.

In the full report, each of the components in the map are expanded significantly, identifying specific elements and activities, that then lead to specific research questions. The NEA’s Office of Research & Analysis (ORA) has identified three overarching research goals:

  • Identify and cultivate new and existing data sources in the arts.
  • Investigate the value of the U.S. arts ecosystem and the impact of the arts on other domains of American life.
  • Elevate the public profile of arts-related research.

My sense of what’s going on: What they’re really looking for are quantitative measures of the benefits of the arts, that would justify national, state, and community investments in the arts. Then, arts organizations and advocates could use these data in making the case for money with politicians and nonprofit funding agencies. They’re looking for evidence of benefits in any of the following areas:

  • Health and well-being: Does arts participation increase individual health and/or community health?
  • Cognitive capacity, learning, and creativity: Does arts participation make you smarter and/or more creative?
  • Community livability: If there are more local opportunities for arts participation, does that make a community more desirable, pleasant, healthy?
  • Economic prosperity: Does arts participation increase the economic success of a city or region–whether real estate values, average salaries, growth in new businesses, or whatever?

Of course, the NEA has been exploring these questions for years already. The report ends with a summary of 31 projects, both completed and planned, that align with the system map and these research questions. What’s really new here is the “system map” concept itself; the idea is that it will help the NEA better understand how all of its different research projects fit together–and in particular, help them to understand which areas may have been relatively neglected in the past.

Anyone involved in the arts has a stake in this research. Most people who work in the arts feel as if arts funding is under siege–in the U.S., the various government entities have often found it easy to cut arts funding, either because they thought the arts was a private sector responsibility, or because they thought the arts were only consumed by a small elite. In U.S. schools, arts education has losing support for decades–with many schools now having almost no arts education.

Should society support the arts from revenue that is provided by taxes on everyone? Is there a national interest at stake? What do you think?

The Arts in the Research University

Today I’m at the University of Michigan, at a meeting sponsored by their ArtsEngine initiative (with the subtitle “Art making and the arts in research universities”). The first meeting one year ago generated a lot of excitement among university leaders, because the potential is to significantly enhance the undergraduate experience by consciously introducing creativity and the arts. After all, in a creative age, when innovation is more important than ever, we have a responsibility to nurture creativity in our students.

Along with Elizabeth Long Lingo of Vanderbilt, I wrote a white paper for the event titled “Creativity in the Arts: Its unique role in the university.” The creative process in the arts has many similarities with the creative process in other disciplines, including sciences, engineering, and humanities. But the arts are unique in at least a four ways:

1. Compared with other academic disciplines, the problem finding process in arts-making is relatively unconstrained by external forces. In the sciences, most problems are well-known to researchers in the field, and a larger proportion of daily activity falls into the “problem solving” category. And even when creative problem formulation is necessary in the sciences, the range of possible formulations is constrained by physical reality.

2. In sciences and humanities, students must learn a large amount of material before they are equipped to engage in creative practice similar to what professionals in the discipline engage in. In biomedical engineering, for example, students must take several semesters of calculus, biology, chemistry, etc. before they are prepared to engage in authentic disciplinary practice.

3. Courses in arts-making, even at the introductory level, commonly include assignments that require students to generate many possibilities. Arts pedagogy is designed to prevent students from moving too quickly to their first idea—to slow them down and require them to explore a range of possibilities (Sawyer, 2012b). In the sciences and humanities, it is more difficult for students to do this effectively, particularly at the introductory levels.

4. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of arts-making is that an external, visible product is created. More importantly, the student’s developing ideas are visible from the very beginning of the process. When a student externalizes his or her developing thoughts, it enhances reflection and metacognition, and this results in more effective learning (Sawyer, 2006).

In arts-making, there is a constant dialogue between ideas and execution—for example in fine art painting, where MFA students are taught to come up with an “idea” or “concept” for a body of work. But quite frequent is the experience of starting with an idea, beginning to make the work, and then after working a bit, realizing that the work being generated actually isn’t about the original idea at all. Then the artist has to figure out, what is the idea that is really behind these works I’m generating?

Engaging in the arts-making process thus can help students learn about the relationship between concept and theory, and execution and implementation in reality.

In other university departments, in contrast, it is often difficult for students to externalize their developing understandings in this way. The material is often primarily abstract, conceptual, or linguistic in nature, not necessarily lending itself to visual or spatial representation. And yet, we know from studies like that of John-Steiner (1985) that exceptional creators in the sciences and the humanities think in and work with visual representations.

Thus, one unique benefit of the arts is that students learn to engage in a process of externalizing their developing ideas, a process that may transfer to creative work in other disciplines.