Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Thinking Through Art

Last week I went to a really interesting lecture at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum about the way art education helps kids learn critical thinking skills that can be translated into strengths in other areas of study (particularly standardized tests). Basically the museum brought in students from two schools in the Boston area who have little to no art program, sat them down in front of a painting, and asked them questions like "What is going on in this picture?"and "Why do you think so?" Sort of like a big ink blot test. The kids became pretty articulate about aesthetics, just through the practice of verbalizing the things that they saw, interpreting artwork and bringing it in to their world. The skills that were most dramatically improved through this program were observation and interpretation.

These are, specifically, the skills that improved:

The ability to identify:
-What something is or is not; naming or identifying something
-Action, what someone is doing; concrete and explicit actions
-How it looks; sensory & physical aspects
-Features; what it's made of & how it's made

And the ability to interpret:
-The use or function of objects
-Implicit conditions, features, characteristics, feelings and emotions, mental states, status
-Identity (who people are)
-Actions or intentions

This may sound kind of technical, but the reason I post it is it got me thinking about school visits, and how a lot of these concepts are tied into the way we authors and illustrators talk about our work when we go to schools. It was kind of a great affirmation that there are real concrete benefits for kids who are exposed to art and the creative process. Almost every time I visit a school lately I hear about how arts programs are being cut and there is just not enough time to incorporate art into the curriculum. It gives me an extra sense of responsability when I show kids my paintings, knowing that this may be one of the few times art and art making is given a serious amount of time and attention.

There is a lot more information about the program here. And lots of great ideas for concepts to integrate into your visits fellow author/illustrators.


alvinaling said...

This is great. I love studies that show that the careers we've chosen are important/make a difference. But I think it's totally true. I've just started taking a drawing class, and I feel like it's opened things up for me, even though I've only been to two classes. Art can change people's lives!

Anonymous said...

That sounds really great. Will the lecture, by chance, be printed any time any where for folks to read?

Anonymous said...

I love that museum, and one of the things I miss about Boston the most is being able to go to the amazing museums. (Seattle has some good ones too that I need to check out, but Simmons was right next door to several museums, particularly the Gardiner.)

The idea that art affects how kids learn is so basic to me that it seems unthinkable that schools would cut art programs--I mean, aren't some of the things kids are tested over on spacial ability and the ability to discern shapes and such? At least, I was tested on that a lot as a kid.

Art is what helped me to get geometry--there's so much to learn in art on perspective and line and all of those mathematical principles. Not to mention the long list of things you quoted from the presentation.

I would hate to be in the shoes of the school administrators who are so low on funds that they have to cut something as fundamental as an art or music program. (And as an aside, it seems to me that if those programs continued, fewer children would be "left behind.") I really like how you note that school visits might be the kids' only interaction with art--and that artists and writers can make a difference in how they approach visits. Good point.

Meghan McCarthy said...

It's sad that programs are being cut. Come to think of it, though, I never did anything in art class (in grades k-6) but cut paper and color on lined paper. None of the art teachers TALKED about what we were creating at all. I didn't miss out because my father taught me stuff and my parents let me take private lessons. One can learn a lot from art so I hope peole don't forget about it!

Libby Koponen said...

Great post! And my experiences in art classes were like Meghan's -- but it was still fun, maybe because our elementary school art teacher was hilarious. I can still remember some of his lines and they still make me laugh.

There were also good pictures on the walls even though no one ever talked about them. When I took art history classes in college I was surprised to see several old friends!

Anyway, even though we may not have learned anything about art it's still a loss.

In music class we learned songs -- I still remember them all. I think that is a HUGE loss. I remember LOVING to sing as a child and it was fun to leann songs and sing them all together...and when we were very young, bang on simple instruments.

ANYWAY, great post, Anna! I wish I had come up for that lecture, I would have learned something.

Elaine Magliaro said...


It's sad but true that in many schools today the focus is on preparing kids to take standardized tests. School systems and teachers in Massachusetts are being pressured to raise their MCAS scores every year. Great programs developed by classroom teachers in which the arts are integrated across the curriculum with science, social studies, reading, math, and writing aren't being encouraged the way they once were. The "powers that be" don't see the big picture, don't understand how music, art, movement help to develop all parts of the brain--help children to think in creative ways, help them to think "outside the box."

I was beginning to feel constricted as an educator so I left the classroom in 2000. The following year I became a school librarian. I had much more freedom in the library.

I just hope this crazed testing phase will end soon so we can get back to the work of truly educating our children.

gail said...

When my kids were in grade school they were cutting the art (and library) programs, so we had supplemental program called "Mini Museum". It offered resources on art history. Volunteers had to run it. So I'd plan a demo/project once a month featuring an artist or style and have a hands on project for the kids to do. What a shame that is the only way the kids could get exposed to art.


PS Don't even get me started on "testing". Our state has the "Aims" test kids have to pass to graduate. Schools now spend years teaching them how to take "that" test.