How Can Art Spark Thinking and Learning?

Elizabeth Diament

Works of art by their very nature invite us to slow down, look carefully and wonder about them and, when explored, using some simple yet powerful strategies, can invoke higher order thinking. In addition, works of art have many stories to tell and visually connect students to a wide range of content areas. So how can we create experiences with art images that strengthen students’ thinking and learning across the curriculum?

Since great works of art are layered and complex in their meanings, they have the capacity to inspire rich and creative thinking, helping students recognize multiple perspectives and generate probing questions about the works of art. The act of slowing down and observing a powerful painting invites students to think critically and empowers them to develop their own personal interpretations.

As a museum educator, I would like to propose a model to integrate the use of art images into the school curriculum to foster creativity and independent thinking across disciplines. This model is based upon Harvard University’s Project Zero, a research-based organization that has developed a collection of thinking routines in order to activate patterns of thinking behaviors in K-12 students. Thinking routines are short sets of open-ended questions used primarily in a classroom environment to get students to draw on certain thinking skills such as reasoning, finding complexity, exploring viewpoints, and comparing and connecting.

This teaching model, on some level, extends the art museum tour into the classroom. For example, teachers might tap into the routines, using works of art, to inspire students’ imaginative and creative writing. They might launch a Civil War unit through an authentic primary source, Home, Sweet Home, by Winslow Homer painted in 1863. In a Jewish day school environment, great works of art can be used to compare and connect characters and scenes from the Bible with painted counterparts. For instance, Hendrick van Steenwijk the Younger’s Esther and Mordecai from 1616 captures the clandestine and urgent meeting between Esther and Mordechai as they work to save the Jewish people.

At the National Gallery of Art, we have used thinking routines as effective tools for students, as well as teachers, to help them develop their own reasoned interpretations of works of art. We found that thinking routines support both individual and group learning, giving each member of a learning group an opportunity to develop thoughts and ideas about an object, as well as structuring a conversation to promote dialogue within the group. When these thinking routines are used repeatedly, such as during our multiple-visit museum/school program, students begin to activate thinking dispositions independently, and in other curricular contexts.

On a recent tour of 8th graders to the National Gallery, I used a routine called See/Think/Wonder which focuses on the dispositions of questioning, investigating, making inferences and reasoning with evidence. We explored the painting New York by the American artist George Bellows, and I invited the students to spend two minutes in quiet observation, letting their eyes wander across the surface of the work of art, and taking in as many details as possible.

See: After those first minutes of observation, students jotted down words or phrases that described some of the aspects of the painting that they noticed. I encouraged them to try to focus on what they could purely see and not rush to interpretation. This initial visual inventory included horses and carts, tall buildings, a crowd of people and a road sweeper. After sharing and comparing their observations with a partner, and then with the whole group, they returned to the painting and looked once again. This time I noticed their observations went deeper. Some examples of what students shared: I see a tramcar, bus and an old-fashioned horse and buggy. I see billboards on buildings. I see the snow and the bare trees. There is hardly any sky in the painting and the skyscrapers are blocking it. They discovered narrative elements and artistic choices. Through a mix of individual, small group and whole group sharing, everybody’s idea had been heard and valued. There was an equity of engagement where everyone had a voice, which is an important outcome of this teaching model.

Think: Students were invited to take another look. I asked them the following questions: What do you think might be happening in this painting? Who do you think the people could be? My use of conditional language “might” and “could” invited many possibilities. Students shared: I think this could be a real place the artist had seen because the billboards seem to have identifiable words on them. I think these people are rushing to their jobs because they look purposeful. I think some of the people must be rich because I notice some top hats but some aren’t and don’t have a place to go to. I think it must be winter because the trees are bare and there is snow on the ground. The students’ ideas were enriched by their initial observations and they began to make inferences and connections based on evidence from the work of art. I encouraged the students to support their assertions with evidence from the painting. They were also listening to and responding to each other’s comments to, once again, build their thinking as a shared community.

Wonder: Students were invited to share and discuss in pairs their questions and wonderings, selecting one burning question to discuss as a group. They demonstrated signs of engagement, such as returning to the painting and looking at it from different perspectives and pointing excitedly when they had an insight. They generated a broad range of questions and then chose their most burning one to share. I wonder if this is a real place that existed and these were real people? I wonder where they are all going? I wonder why there is a car, and a horse and buggy, in the same place? I wonder how it is I can almost hear the sounds of this place? How has the artist achieved this?


New York by George Bellows
New York, 1911. George Bellows (1882-1925), National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

I then provided an additional perspective on the choices the artist made in this painting, telling the students that George Bellows was part of a group of artists living in New York City who drew inspiration from the life they saw around them. Bellows said, “I paint New York because I live in it, and because the most essential thing for me is to paint the life about me, the things I feel today that are part of the life of today.” However, I told the students, Bellows made deliberate choices in this painting, adding skyscrapers to the intersection of Broadway and 23rd Street in Madison Square. Shortly after this painting was first exhibited in 1911, a reviewer in The New York Times wrote, “One applauds George Bellows but at the same time shudders at his truth telling ugliness. … Just how far truth should dominate a work of art we dare not say. One thing is certain, if this canvas of Bellows is not very alluring it hums with life; not the overtones but the noises and smells and disillusioning sights.”

I strategically shared information as something to “act” upon, in order to deepen inquiry, and not to provide the “right” answer. I hoped to expand the conversation in new directions and provoke more questions and curiosities and not shut it down. Instead I asked, “With this information in mind, what new things do you notice or what new questions and understandings do you have about this work of art?” The students raised an entirely new set of questions, and the curiosity and engagement lingered. Why would the artist have included skyscrapers when they didn’t exist from this viewpoint? Should art be beautiful or truthful? I tossed the question back at them. Why do you think he would have made that decision to create a painting that was a document of reality but was really a composite, artificial image? What did Madison Square really look like at the time? I showed them a photo of Madison Square from the period. Our time was up but their thinking and learning continued. The students had created collaborative ownership and understanding of a multifaceted work of art in a safe, non-judgmental space.

David Perkins, one of the principal researchers at Project Zero, suggests that “learning is a consequence of thinking. Retention, understanding, and the active use of knowledge can be brought about only by learning experiences in which learners think about, and think with, what they are learning.” Whether an encounter with a work of art is a catalyst to inspire rich and imaginative writing or a lens into difficult moments in the Torah narrative such as the binding of Isaac, this teaching model can be used to nurture critical thinking skills across a broad range of classroom material. Thinking routines have the capacity to activate student’s deep thinking by privileging their own ideas as a valuable source of information, getting them personally involved, and using questions to drive learning and uncover complexity.

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HaYidion Art and Aesthetics Summer 2016
Art and Aesthetics
Summer 2016