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The art of learning

IN 2003, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum set out to understand more about what schoolchildren can learn from museums.

Storybooks tell tales of children who have museum adventures, from meetingdinosaurs to hiding out among great art-works. But Margaret Burchenal, the Gardner's curator of education, wanted to confirm her thought that museum visits have educational power.

The museum won a $750,000 grant from the US Department of Education, part of a federal effort to strengthen arts education and use it to boost student achievement. Museum staff worked with third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders from Boston's Tobin and Farragut schools. And along with researchers, the museum took a new look at itself.

It's not news that museum staff think their institution is valuable. What's interesting is that the Gardner has found a better way to define and share that value.

In addition to related class work, the students made multiple museum visits and went on "untours." They got to choose what art to look at and discuss, free from adult input. Then researchers recorded and analyzed the students' comments.

The project did not improve MCAS scores. Rather, the museum sums up the results as, "kids + art = critical thinking skills."

"They are learning to look," Burchenal says of students.

And while seeing is easy, thinking and discussing are more complex, compelling students to slow down and gather evidence.

Researchers identified seven skills that students use to talk about art: observing, interpreting, evaluating, associating, problem-finding (that is, developing their own questions), comparing, and flexible thinking. Compared with peers who did not participate in the program, those who did showed statistically significant improvement in five skills: associating, comparing, and flexible thinking, and, most strongly, in observing and interpreting.

At the Gardner, talking about art means talking across disciplines. The conversation can flow into history, mythology, and speculation on just what kind of woman it was who built such a splendid home and threw the doors open for, as her will says, "the education and enrichment of the public forever."

During the study, staff members began emphasizing a tool called Visual Thinking Strategies. It was developed by psychologist Abigail Housen and museum educator Philip Yenawine, who were both study advisers. The method encourages students to expand their critical thinking so they can make progress on a spectrum ranging from basic observation of art to placing art in historical context to being seasoned, lifelong viewers.

It may seem odd for a museum to come with instructions that boil down to: Stop, look, think, speak. But that oddity is eclipsed by a rich educational payoff.