Expert Commentary

Importance of a museum visit: Assessing arts education and institutions

2013 study in Educational Research assessing the effect of a museum visit on students' ability to engage in critical thinking, a key tool of higher-level reasoning.

In September 2013 the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) released preliminary results from its 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. It found that 33.3% of Americans attended at least one arts event that year, including visiting a museum or gallery; going to a play, musical or opera; or listening to a live music performance. The figure represents a slight decline from the 34.6% found in the 2008 survey and a significant drop from 1992, when it was 41%. Some arts gained (movies), others held on (music and dancing) and some suffered (musical and non-musical theater).

The NEA report didn’t look at causes for the changes, but an earlier publication by the agency, “Arts Education in America: What the Declines Mean for Arts Participation,” found that levels of education were a significant factor: Only 28% of the Americans who had no arts education as an adult attended arts events. By contrast, 70% of those who had participated in arts education had done so — and a strong correlation between arts education in childhood and participation as an adult was noted.

While hard numbers can be hard to come by, arts and music education are widely seen as being on the decline in the United States. A 2011 report by the Center for Arts Education found that between 2009 and 2010, the number of arts teachers in New York City alone dropped by 135, a 5% decrease. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds were particularly hard hit according to a 2012 report from the National Center for Education statistics. It found institutions with a high percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price school lunch (FRL) saw a 13 percentage-point decrease in visual arts instruction. The reasons vary, and often include budget cuts due to declining tax revenues or diversion of funds to meet other needs; the pressure to raise math and reading scores is also a factor, particularly as the United States continues to lag in international comparisons.

A 2013 study in Educational Research, Learning to Think Critically: A Visual Art Experiment,” indicates that such cuts may have unintended negative effects. The researchers — Daniel H. Bowen, Jay P. Greene and Brian Kisida of the University of Arkansas — conducted a randomized controlled trial (RCT) assessing the effect of a museum visit on students’ ability to engage in critical thinking, a key tool of higher-level reasoning. Thirty-five groups of students from grades 3 to 12 were assigned by lottery to visit a new art museum; 35 other groups had their visit deferred. Prior to the visit, all students completed an exercise measuring their critical-thinking skills. Students going to the museum learned about some of its themes, but no specific information on the works to be seen was shared. Two weeks after the museum visit both groups were asked to analyze a complex painting they hadn’t seen before and their critical-thinking skills were assessed.

The study’s findings include:

  • On average, students who visited the art museum performed 9% of a standard deviation higher in their ability to reason critically. These included students’ “observations, interpretations, evaluations, associations, instances of problem finding, comparisons and instances of flexible thinking.”
  • Younger students benefited strongly from the treatment (the museum visit): Those in grades 3 to 8 increased 11% of a standard deviation in their critical-thinking abilities.
  • At schools where a majority of the students are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches, the impact was 18% of a standard deviation relative to the control group. A similar impact was found among non-white students.
  • The largest impact was for students living in towns with fewer than 10,000 people: Such students performed 33% of a standard deviation higher in their critical-thinking abilities than students who did not visit the museum.
  • Students who had never been to a museum before saw 17% of a standard deviation increase, compared to students in the control group.

“The intervention the students in the treatment group received was modest: their teachers briefly exposed them to pre/postvisit curricular materials, they spent roughly half of a day at a world-class art museum…. Yet even this minimal intervention produced significantly positive and meaningful benefits for their ability to think critically about a work of art they had not seen previously,” the researchers conclude. “In light of recent declines in the availability of the arts for disadvantaged populations, our results have important policy implications for efforts to restore and expand access to the arts.”

Related research: A 2010 study from Northwestern University, “Music Training for the Development of Auditory Skills,” found that children who had music training received a number of benefits compared with those who did not. Among them, they possessed a better vocabulary and reading ability, a greater ability to learn new languages and a superior working memory performance. In addition, children who began music training before age seven possessed superior sensory-motor integration compared with those who had not.

Keywords: arts education, critical thinking, experimental research, museum education, randomized control trial, children, youth, poverty