How Museum Education Cultivates Critical Thinking - PART I

Anu Bhatia, Education Psychologist

April 4 2020



We’re in the spring of 2020 and we’re trying to find a way through chaos. It is natural to seek certainty and a state of well-being when the world’s in a state of upheaval. To a large extent, I feel, the complexity of issues (climate change, conflicts, war, economic, inequality, dealing with Corona virus, etc.) arises out of humans’ lack of flexibility to respect opposing view-points, for multiple reasons, and a general resistance in striving to find a common ground to tackle problems & reach solutions, amicably. This lack of open-mindedness to consider perspectives and be curious to engage with opposing viewpoints to reach new understandings that are based on evidence backed reason, strips the environment of any possibility to generate dialogue, leaving us groping our way through the darkness arising out of our own biases and colored visions. It can be challenging to ride-on optimism, if we haven’t learnt what measures could help achieve our goals.

Just like we hone skills (from skating on ice to dreaming in French, from playing a piano to doing Math) with practice, I think critical thinking skills also need to be nurtured right from an early stage. This can be done through practice by engaging school kids in enquiry based group activities that encourage them to be open-minded and curious, respect opposing view-points, revisit their own stand, and seek evidence before they reach understandings. It couldn’t be more strategic than to commence this practice in school, so that learning becomes an exploration for kids and for which they develop a proclivity to and proactively engage in throughout life. If this could be done, I think it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call it a sea change in the culture of schools, and I will leave it to your imagination the outcome of this culture in our society.
Where Children Thrive (not merely survive)

In this blog, I will illustrate how open-ended art activities create a threat-free environment that enhances a sense of well-being and simultaneously stimulate high level intellectual thinking (like being flexible, seeking evidence, revisiting standpoints, and collaborating). Specifically, I will discuss the following behaviors that are crucial to solving complex problems & facilitate proactive meaning making and life-long learning (Hetland, Winner, Veenema, Sheridan, Perkins, 2007), (Perkins, 1994).

(i) Making meaning through collaborative effort

(ii) Seeking Evidence and Hypothesizing

(iii) Open-mindedness and Multiple Perspectives 

If early learning experiences help nurture these aforementioned habits, children are more likely to value and use these habits while solving complex issues later in life and if nothing else, at least we can derive contentment in having provided an enriching learning environment for children where their curiosity is encouraged and they fearlessly make or revisit their arguments, collaborate, and reach understandings. I think as adults, we owe our children a childhood where learning is invigorating rather than intimidating. In the following paragraphs, I will illustrate how museum education helps encourage collaborative learning to make meaning.

Collaborative Learning: constructing meaning through collective effort

Great things are not done by impulse but by a series of small things brought  together   -Vincent Van Gogh

At the National Gallery of Art, a docent giving a tour titled ‘Exploring Identity through Modern art,’ questioned her audience consisting of 6th graders, ‘can anyone share her understanding of the term identity?’ Slowly but steadily, kids shared their understanding of the word. Each kid felt empowered by contributing to the pile her tiny nugget of knowledge about Identity. The docent finally compiled those nuggets to define the word, enhancing students’ efficacy by integrating each response into the definition.

In another activity, students in groups of 3, thought of a descriptive phrase to either describe any object in the landscape, or the atmosphere that prevailed in the artwork.  ‘Sunlit peaks,' 'towering peaks against the azure sky,' 'Indians riding on reddish brown horses,' 'faithful horses galloped ahead,' 'gigantic sorrel,' 'firewood burning,' 'magnificently bright bands of color,' 'sound of hoofs,' 'dense, dark, summer trees,' 'quiet lake,' and so forth. All deliberated over how to use the descriptive phrases they had scribbled on ‘post it’ notes in a way that the phrases morph into a poem, taking everyone up with a surprise!

Open-ended activities allow kids to strike up conversations and share viewpoints without having the fear of their responses being shot down, and also revisit those viewpoints without feeling intimidated. Just like kids do in play. In the following paragraphs, I will illustrate examples gleaned from visual art education in museums to reveal the tenets of evidence seeking to support hypothesis and respecting opposing viewpoints or perspectives.

Seeking Evidence:

A group of 6th graders huddle together as they carefully look at Kandinsky’s Abstract painting, Improvisation, Sea Battle. Kids are encouraged to not gloss over any detail, however inconspicuous, as ‘it could allude to something.’ Working their way through the scaffolding prompts provided by the docent, they engage in close looking with a focus on shapes, color, & lines, and eventually figure out relationships to make sense of the non-representational objects in the artwork that pose a challenge to the kids. Nevertheless, they adventurously plunge into the seemingly intimidating artwork and persist to find meaning in those objects by searching through their mental images for a ‘look alike’ or adding their own imagination to give it meaning. “I think it’s a ship,” a boy in a blue T-shirt with a fluorescent teddy conjectured. “Can you explain why you think it’s a ship,” the docent asked sounding curious but non-threatening. “Umm, it has these lines that look like masts, and the shape resembles a ship….somewhat….and the objects around it look like they are in floating in this space that could be water.”

To put students’ anxiety to rest, the docent had explained at the offset, “modern artists generally threw away the traditions of the past to experiment with new ideas, requiring us, the viewers, to use our imagination and make our own interpretation.” “Because abstract art is non-representational, objects don’t look real and so our interpretations can differ because we see things differently, so, I encourage you to freely share your thoughts and ideas about this artwork,” she added. “As long as you can explain why you say what you say, you’re good.” In saying so, she gently nudged them to examine their own stand in a self-regulatory way.

In the next blog that will follow soon, I will discuss how such activities encourage open-mindedness to consider perspectives and opposing view-points, thereby making students holistic as well as inclusive in their approach when they critique art objects.

(To be continued….)