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Thinking through art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Can going to an art museum make elementary school students better learners? It can if they're participating in Thinking Through Art, an innovative partnership uniting the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), Boston Public Schools (BPS), and Visual Understanding in Education (VUE), a nonprofit educational research group committed to improving student learning through Visual Thinking Strategies.

The VTS curriculum, created by VUE cofounders Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine, is based on thirty years of research shaped by Rudolf Arnheim's writing about perception and thought, Jean Piaget's observations on aesthetic development, and Lev Vgotsky's theories about the relationship between language, thinking, and social learning. Thinking Through Art teachers, who all teach in one of BPS' eighty-five elementary schools, begin their VTS training with a day-long workshop at the MFA where they learn VTS methodology. Deceptively simple, the methodology places teachers in the role of facilitators as they share with their students--most of them in grades three through five--an image of a carefully selected work of art and pose three questions:

1. What's going on in this picture?

2. What do you see that makes you say that?

3. What else can you find?

Teachers skillfully paraphrase each student's response, a step that demonstrates active listening and language use, validates individual views, and reinforces a range of ideas. When students express an opinion, they are required to support it with evidence from the image by answering the question, "What do you see that makes you say that?" During the discussion, teachers facilitate dialogue among students by encouraging scaffolding of observations and interpretations. Ultimately, students build on each other's insights to collectively construct meaning for the work under discussion.

At the workshop, Thinking Through Art teachers receive curriculum materials that include twenty-seven slides, some reproducing objects from the MFA's permanent collection, and an accompanying teacher guide. During the school year, they use the slides and curriculum guide to lead nine lessons, each consisting of three works of art, that gradually build their students' ability to look at, think about, talk about, and write about art. The last lesson takes place at the Museum of Fine Arts, where trained gallery-instructors lead VTS sessions using original works of art from the museum's collection. Throughout the year, Thinking Through Art teachers are supported by a debriefing session during which they share and reflect on their experiences, followed by a review of their reflection page journals that takes place after the visit to the Museum of Fine Arts. Teachers who complete the Thinking Through Art training program earn twenty Professional Development Points (PDPs) from the Massachusetts Department of Education.

Now in its eighth year, the Thinking Through Art program has been carefully documented and evaluated by researchers affiliated with VUE in order to measure how the program contributes to effective teaching and sustained learning. During the 1999-2000 school year, five Thinking Through Art teachers participated in a case study that engaged them in in-depth pre- and post-program interviews conducted by interviewers trained by VUE. Each teacher was provided with an observation form designed by VUE and instructed to select three students to observe--one each from the high, middle and low range of abilities represented in their classrooms. Each teacher was also observed once by an MFA staff member. The study noted impact in the following areas:

Changes in Teacher Practice

"What I liked about this was that it wasn't coming from me. It's coming from them [the students].... That's more what I think about teaching and the way it should be."

Group Changes

"They are not as argumentative as they were, and they work better in groups, because I think they respect each other's opinion a little bit more than before."

Changes in Individual Students

"One student was changed by this significantly.... She has a very difficult time articulating her thoughts, just even a basic thought ... in any event, she, every single (Thinking Through Art) session, came up with the most amazing ideas about this art, and she articulated it beautifully and she brought outside knowledge into the discussion."

Critical Thinking Standards

"... the city-wide standards are looking to see whether or not students have the skills to solve problems, and explain why. That's the whole reasoning behind this open-ended questioning on the state test, the MCAS.... (Thinking Through Art) is priming them for, to answer those sorts of questions and helping them with the why."

Students participating in the Thinking Through Art program benefit from stronger critical thinking, viewing, and--hopefully--museum-going skills.

For More Information

Visual Understanding in Education

119 West 23rd Street, Suite 905

New York, NY 10011

Phone: (212) 253-9007

Fax: (212) 253-9139



To Order VTS Curriculum Materials Crystal Productions

PO Box 2159

Glenview, IL 60025

Phone: (800) 255-8629



Department of Museum Learning and Public Programs

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

465 Huntington Avenue

Boston, MA 02115

Phone: (617) 369-3300



Susan Longhenry is the Alfond Director of Museum Learning and Public Programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
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Title Annotation:Featured Museum: elementary
Author:Longhenry, Susan
Publication:School Arts
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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