Learning to think critically: A visual art experiment

Bowen, D. H., Greene, J. P., & Kisida, B. (2014). Learning to think critically: A visual art experiment. Educational Researcher, 43(1), 37-44.  

Abstract:

In this study, researchers endeavored to find out whether exposure to the arts affects students’ ability to engage in critical thinking. Groups of students were randomly selected to go on a field trip led by trained arts education professionals to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AK; then, these students and students in a control group who did not visit the museum were given a task that asked them to interpret an unfamiliar work of art. Results showed that exposure to an arts-based educational experience had a positive effect on students’ critical thinking skills.

Key Findings:

Researchers found that students who participated in an inquiry-based museum field trip used significantly more critical thinking strategies when analyzing an unfamiliar work of art than students who had not visited the art museum. These benefits were concentrated among younger students and those from more disadvantaged backgrounds: those attending schools where the majority of students are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch, non-white students, those from more rural towns, and those visiting the museum for the first time.

Significance of the Findings:

These findings clearly demonstrate the benefits of arts-based experiences for students and thus show the importance of providing children with opportunities for art education, whether in-school or through out-of-school experiences such as field trips to art museums. That the museum visit was most beneficial for students from disadvantaged backgrounds is significant, since it is these students who are most likely to be affected by cuts to school art programs. Policymakers and educators should allocate resources towards providing arts-based experiences to these students who stand to gain the most.

Methodology:

Researchers utilized overwhelming demand for school visits to the new Crystal Bridges museum to create a randomized controlled trial, in which demographically comparable groups of students were either selected for a treatment group with museum visit, or a control group without one. 35 treatment groups and 35 control groups combined to produce a sample of 3,811 students in grades 3-12. Students in the treatment groups were exposed to pre-visit curricular materials provided to their teachers by the museum, and then were led on a half-day tour of the museum by educators trained in open-ended, student-driven discussion techniques. An average of two weeks later, students in both groups were asked to respond to an unfamiliar work of art. Their responses were coded according to a critical-thinking skills checklist and then analyzed via an equation to see if students who visited the museum showed stronger critical thinking skills than those who did not, depending on gender and grade level. Results were broken down further to measure the effects of a museum visit on various pairs of subgroups: students attending schools where a majority or minority of students are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch, students from smaller or larger towns, White or non-White students, elementary or secondary school students, and students whose school visit to the museum was their first as opposed to students in the treatment group who had previously been to Crystal Springs on their own.

Limitations of the Research:

This study is somewhat limited by its narrow scope. Students’ critical thinking abilities were evaluated only in the context of analyzing a piece of visual art, and any possible transference of these skills to other academic subjects was not examined. The experimental treatment included classroom-based pre- and post-visit components in addition to the museum visit itself, and it is not known which aspect(s) of the intervention produced results.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Future research might look at whether the benefits gleaned from a museum visit extend to other academic contexts besides visual art, such as language arts or mathematics classes. Future research might also examine what specific aspect(s) of the field trip, including pre- and post-visit experiences, produce results. Might more intensive or prolonged arts-based experiences produce more or different positive effects on students? How long might these effects endure?