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Art's Influence: Empathy, Tolerance, Critical Thinking

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, November 28, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A national survey by the American Association of School Administrators showed that 30 percent of nation's schools eliminated planned field trips in the 2010-2011 school year and 43 percent planned to eliminate trips in the 2012- 2013 year. What are our future citizens losing? It may be quite a lot. Recent research showed a mere half day's exposure to art produced a wide range of desirable intellectual and emotional effects.

Brian Kisida, Jay P. Greene, and Daniel H. Bowen, in their New York Times essay "Art Makes You Smart" describe a controlled study that involved nearly 11,000 students and 500 teachers from 23 schools. Half of the students were selected by lottery to visit the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which opened in November 2011 in Bentonville, Arkansas. The museum, founded by Alice Walton, whose father Sam Walton founded Walmart, has more than 50,000 square feet of gallery space and an endowment of $800 million. The youngsters, in grades 3-12, were divided into anonymous pairs, based on grade level and demographic similarities. One member of each pair toured the museum, and the other paired partners had tours that were deferred until after the study. Students whose visits were deferred were the control group.

The Box
Kids who visited the museum saw and discussed five paintings, and some got to wander around looking at things on their own. All the youngsters were asked to write a short essay on a painting they had not previously seen, Bo Bartlett's The Box.
They were asked what's happening in the picture, and why do you think that? Mary Anne Janco, writing in The Inquirer, says Bartlett painted The Box after 9/11. It shows his son, Eliot, and a young girl who also modeled for his paintings, dressing up from military garb found in a box.

The student essays were stripped of identity information and measured for critical thinking using a rubric developed by researchers at the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston. The children who had visited the museum turned in higher performances on critical thinking, as well as showing greater historical empathy, tolerance, and sustained interest in art. The surveys were conducted between three and eight weeks after the museum visits, and results showed children remembered a great deal of the factual information about the art they saw, even though they hadn't been tested or required to memorize anything. Children who took the tour also observed and described more details in the images. Research results are also published in the Educational Researcher.

Ploughing It Under

In a story in, the three researchers describe how the assessments were done and the value for the kids. During the museum tour, children saw and discussed Eastman Johnson's painting At the Camp-Spinning Yarns and Whittling, depicting abolitionists making maple syrup to undermine the sugar industry, which relied on slave labor. And 88 percent of the youngsters remembered details of the pantingand its meaning. Nearly as many remembered the artist and meaning of Norman Rockwell's Rosie the Riveter, showing the importance of women in the work force during World War II; Thomas Hart Benton's Ploughing it Under, showing a farmer destroying his crops as part of a Depression era price support program, and Romare Bearden's painting Sacrifice, part of the Harlem Renaissance art movement. While all the youngsters who had the museum experience demonstrated enhanced skills, students from rural and high poverty schools seemed to benefit the most.

Tags:  art  buscell  complexity matters  education 

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