Educational research: The art of problem solving.

Korn, R. (2010). Educational research: The art of problem solving. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Visitor Studies, Evaluation & Audience Research.

Abstract:

This study is an evaluation of the Solomon R. Guggenheim’s teacher artist residency program, Learning Through the Arts (LTA). It examines the program’s impact on fifth grade students’ problem solving skills. Students randomly assigned to treatment and control groups participated in the Design-a-Chair activity in which they were given a bag of materials and 15 minutes to construct a chair of their own design. Researchers utilized pre- and post-tests given before the activity and at the end of the activity, questionnaires for students and teaching artists, interviews, and case studies to analyze whether the LTA program, as evidenced from the Design-a-Chair activity, resulted in enhanced problem-solving abilities. The study had mixed results noting that out of six problem solving criteria, students in the treatment groups only excelled in three areas. The researchers ponder given this outcome if the program is effective at building problem solving skills and question the essence of what problem solving skills are.

Key Findings:

  • Out of six problem solving criteria, treatment students demonstrated that they are more likely to be intentional in their decision making, follow through on tasks, be deliberate in their approaches, and approach accidents and difficulties with patience. They also demonstrated resourcefulness and a greater knowledge of art materials.
  • Treatment students did not demonstrate any gains in their ability to imagine experiment or engage in self-reflection.
  • Treatment students were more likely than control students to continue working on an art project even if they made mistakes.
  • Both groups of students had similar, positive attitudes toward art and art museums on both pre- and post-test surveys.
  • Teaching artists primarily had positive experiences, but expressed some challenges working with classroom teachers - teaching artists had difficulty communicating with and receiving support from classroom teachers. They enjoyed working with students and valued the professional development provided through the program. They also became more reflective instructors through the program.

Significance of the Findings:

Problem solving is considered one of several desired “21st Century Skills.” Learning how an art program can promote growth in problem solving can help other art organizations strengthen their programs in this realm.

Methodology:

This evaluation gathered data from both students and teaching artists about the program during the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 school years. Six schools with similar demographic and socioeconomic characteristics were involved in the study. Three schools were randomly assigned to the treatment condition and the other schools were assigned to the control. Three classrooms of fifth grade students participated in the study at each school. Teaching artists were randomly assigned to treatment schools. Four hundred and eighteen students (209 treatment) completed the questionnaire in October and May of a school year. The questionnaire explored student attitudes toward school and art, and schoolwork and art work practices. It also examined students’ ideas about what is a good artist.

There were 447 students (218 treatment) who completed the Design-a-Chair activity in May of each school year. For this activity, students had 15 minutes to create a chair using at least three different materials in a bag provided to the students for the task. Specially trained observers watched the students during the task using a rubric to score performance and interviewed students immediately after the task.

Over both school years, the researchers conducted 25 case studies with LTA students. The case studies looked at how students responded to problem solving materials of the program and their performance outside of the program. Case study students were observed participating in LTA three times between December and April, then interviewed about their art creations. Teachers of case study students were also interviewed.

The researchers interviewed teaching artists and observed them nine times between December and April of each school year. Also, six interviews were conducted with four of the teachers.

Data were analyzed using descriptive analyses and a variety of quantitative measures.

Limitations of the Research:

While there was a comparison between treatment and control students on the survey and Design-a-chair activity, there were no comparative case studies exploring how students exhibited problem-solving skills in non-LTA settings. Researchers note that the idea of problem solving is complex and not fully fleshed out in existing research. This study examines six qualities the researchers identify, but these may represent only an aspect of what problem solving is about.

Questions to Guide New Research:

The researchers pose the following questions for expanded research:

How can teachers cultivate students’ abilities to experiment, imagine, and self-reflect? Is the ability to experiment, imagine, and self-reflect linked to developmental stages, and if so, at what age is it appropriate to expect children to experiment, imagine, and self-reflect?

How do the qualities present in this study transfer to other subjects or real world experiences?