Investigating the educational impact and potential of the Museum of Modern Art’s Visual Thinking Curriculum: Final report

Tishman, S., MacGillivray, D., & Palmer, P. (1999). Investigating the educational impact and potential of the Museum of Modern Art’s Visual Thinking Curriculum: Final report. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Project Zero.


This study examines student outcomes associated with the Visual Thinking Curriculum (VTC), a program designed to foster students’ thinking skills through looking at and discussing visual art. The program centers on addressing two core questions with students: “What’s going on in the picture?” and “What do you see that makes you say that?” The one-year study compared forth and fifth grade students receiving the VTC program with a similar group of students not receiving the program (a control group). The researchers used a Student Performance Assessment to measure program effects on student thinking. They also observed VTC lessons, interviewed students and teachers, and administered a teacher survey in order to explore the relationship between teacher pedagogy and student learning, students’ thoughts about the program, and the possibility that thinking skills learned in an arts context could transfer to non-arts contexts. Results indicate that VTC increased students’ thinking skills in art as well as non-art areas and that teachers’ implementation of the program affected the benefits their students experienced.

Key Findings:

When comparing performance assessment results for students receiving the VTC and students in a control group, the researchers determined that VTC contributed to an increase in students’ awareness of the subjective nature of interpretation, a decrease in using circular reasoning, and an increase in evidential reasoning (using evidence to support an explanation or interpretation) in both arts and science.

Students of VTC teachers who used strategies that promoted evidential reasoning and use of multiple interpretations experienced greater benefits.

Significance of the Findings:

This study indicates that thinking skills developed in an arts context can potentially transfer to non-art contexts. Students can apply the VTC question approach to a range of subjects to support development and utilization of analysis skills. Additionally, results show that VTC can be successful for both high and low achieving students. This makes the program one that can be implemented in a broad range of classroom contexts, regardless of student achievement levels.


Researchers from Harvard’s Project Zero conducted this study from October 1998 through November 1999, primarily collecting data during the 1998-99 school year. School study sites were located in New York City and student participants were in the forth and fifth grades. Students participating in the VTC program received seven to eight VTC lessons over the course of their school year and visited the Museum of Modern Art at least twice. The researchers collected data through a Student Performance Assessment, observations, interviews, and a questionnaire. The Student Performance Assessment was administered to VTC students (n = 162) in the fall before the program and in the spring while control students (n = 204) only took it in the spring. The two groups were comparable based on educational, geographic, and socioeconomic status. During the assessment, students responded to two question prompts about an art image and a science-based image. The assessments gathered data on students’ evidential reasoning, use of circular reasoning, and awareness of subjectivity in both an art and science context. The posttest assessment had an additional question that asked students about the transferability of VTC skills to non-art contexts. The researchers compared the results from the control group to VTC students’ pretest assessment and determined that the scores, and thus the groups, were comparable. Then VTC students’ pretest assessment results were compared to their posttest results to examine growth. The researchers used statistical tests (Chi-square and t-tests) to analyze results.

The researchers observed each VTC classroom twice to examine teacher-student interactions and how these interactions affected student learning. They also interviewed each class of VTC students as a group mid-year and near the end of the program to gather students’ thoughts about the program and whether they could transfer skills learned in the program to non-art contexts. Finally, they interviewed all VTC teachers one to three times during the academic year and administered a questionnaire to all of the VTC teachers before the program started.

Limitations of the Research:

One limitation was the use of a written assessment completed by students individually when VTC is a group, discussion-based activity. It is possible that competencies exhibited orally through group dynamics may not be evident through an individual written assessment. Another limitation is that the researchers did not give the comparison group the Student Performance Assessment in the fall. While the authors stated that their approach allowed them to control for student maturation and teacher effects, having two sets of assessment results for the control group would have allowed the authors to determine if any significant differences between the two groups’ performance existed at the start of the study.

Questions to Guide New Research:

What types of teacher support would best increase teacher effectiveness in implementing an arts integrated curriculum? What aspects of an arts integrated curriculum are most transferable to non-art contexts?