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Thinking Through Art

Looking at art closely helps make children smarter, according to research conducted at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

At a time when art programs are being cut from school curriculums, the Gardner is teaming with area elementary schools to show how visual art helps improve critical thinking skills and even standardized test scores.

It's been the focus of a national art educators' gathering at the Gardner this week. WBUR's Andrea Shea reports on "the art of looking."

ANDREA SHEA: The method is called VTS, short for Visual Thinking Strategies. Educators at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum use it with third grade classes from nearby public schools.

SOUND of kids walking through museum

ANDREA SHEA: On this day students from the Farragut School filter through the museum's shadowy corridors. They end up in front of a 17th century Japanese screen.

SCHOOL PARTNERSHIP EDUCATOR SANEA MAGALHAES WITH CHILDREN: I know this is a little hard cause we're right on the stairs but why don't you take a few minutes to just look at it.

ANDREA SHEA: It's called 'The Battle on the River Ugie.' The children don't know the title, though, or anything else about the work, because they haven't been told. The point behind VTS is to let students experience art with their eyes. Then they're asked to talk about what they think they see.

SANEA MAGALHAES: Keil, what can you find? I see two people riding two horses in the desert, one person has a bow and arrow in his hand. OK, so there are two people riding the horse and you said they look like they're in a desert, and one of the men is holding a bow and arrow, so some type of weapon, what do you see that makes you think they're in a desert, Keil? Cause sometimes a desert has sand that color. OK.

SOUND of group walking away

ANDREA SHEA: As the group heads upstairs, Peggy Burchenal, Curator of Education and Public Programs at the Gardner, explains why facts and biography aren't part of this program.

PEGGY BURCHENAL: There are some people who say well kids need to know the names of the artist, and they need to know the dates and they need to know the names of the periods because that's the way that we as adults have been taught art history. So what we're trying to do is really break out of that mold and say art history is great but for kids you need to start at a different place.

ANDREA SHEA: This method is designed to encourage observation, independent thinking, curiosity and confidence with art and art museums. Farragut teacher Linda Malone says it works.

LINDA MALONE: They really take the thing apart. They find everything.

ANDREA SHEA: Farragut is walking distance from the Gardner, which is one reason why the school is part of this three-year old, federally funded collaboration between the school and the museum. Malone says her students live in Mission Hill, Dorchester, Roxbury. The VTS method's impact on the kids is palpable, according to Malone, and it translates to other subjects.

LINDA MALONE: It shows up in their writing, you know we have writer's workshop and readers' workshop and we do a literature circle and it's come into that also, you know, being able to pick thing apart and almost like dissect things.

ANDREA SHEA: Before Malone started working with the museum most of her students had never been here. She says they don't get much in the way of art education at the school.

LINDA MALONE: Except for coming here and whatever we can squeeze in to the curriculum because right now we are so boggled into everything has a time so many minutes have to be spent on Math, on reading, the sciences and it's always test, test, test, you know?

ANDREA SHEA: Standardized test scores and critical thinking have improved among students using the VTS method, according to recent research funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Its study found students who experienced art this way showed statistically significant improvement in five out of seven thinking skills, such as associating, comparing, flexible thinking, observing and interpreting. Exactly how it all works isn't totally clear, yet. VTS founder Abigail Housen says that's what her foundation is investigating next.

ABIGAIL HOUSEN: We're entering the field of brain research to see why is this so effective what is happening that this learning that can take place discussions of works of art has had so many effects on all aspects of education and teachers instantly get it.

ANDREA SHEA: But some teachers say just looking isn't always enough.

ALICIA HSU: It's a great beginning, it the place where we should always start.

ANDREA SHEA: Alicia Hsu teaches third grade at the Lawrence School in Brookline. She's been taking her students to the Gardner regularly for the past ten years, although they're not part of the federally funded partnership. Now her school plans to branch out to visit other museums in Boston because Hsu says she's found the VTS method to be somewhat confining. Sometimes she says her students want more or want to bring their own information to the table. Hsu remembers the time when a student...a girl from Spain...was talking about one of Isabella Stewart Gardner's favorite paintings at the museum.

ALICIA HSU: The name of the painting 'El Jaleo' we've always translated it concretely as 'The Ruckus' and she said 'El Jaleo' in Spain really means 'the big party.' And then she talked about how many of the parties occur in cave-like settings much like in the painting. So the more we could elaborate the story of why Mrs. Gardner loved this painting, how John Singer Sargent came about to paint it, the more she was able to elaborate and make connections.

ANDREA SHEA: But the Gardner plans to adapt its VTS curriculum for older students...so fourth, fifth and sixth graders with learn how to find facts about the art on their own.

SOUND from classroom in museum

ANDREA SHEA: Back at the Gardner Farragut school third grader Benjamin Soreano says he's been making his own connections since learning to look at art this way.

BENJAMIN SOREANO: Whenever I pass by something like a certain type of tree I'll go look at it, or if there's a new statue like in downtown, I'll go look at it.

ANDREA SHEA: And then Soreano says he starts to wonder what that statue represents and asks himself, and sometimes his mom, where it might have come from.

For WBUR, I'm Andrea Shea

This program aired on July 19, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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