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School Days At Crystal Bridges: Ring That Bell!

For those of you who questioned the decision of Alice Walton to plunk down an art museum in what to city-dwellers seemed the middle of nowhere — which I never did, being from someplace that didn’t have all that much art — it’s time to eat some crow.

PloughingItUnderNot only has Crystal Bridges exceeded attendance expectations — more than 1 million people have shown up since its opening on 11/11/11 — but also the museum has now released results of a study that is an indication of its positive impact on schoolchildren.

Researchers from the University of Arkansas College of Education and Health Professions conducted the study, tracking 10,912 students and 489 teachers from 123 schools. Announcing the results, the museum said:

Each school visit includes a one-hour guided tour of the museum’s permanent collection, a discussion and activity session around a theme, and a healthy lunch prepared by Eleven, the museum’s restaurant. Teachers are able to choose from several themed tours, each designed to connect with Common Core standards at a variety of grade levels in art, history, social studies, language arts and sciences.

“Since Crystal Bridges is in an area where an art museum had not previously existed, and because the field trip is free to schools, we had high demand for the tours and decided to select participants via a random lottery,” said Anne Kraybill, Crystal Bridges’ school programs manager. “In initial meetings with the University of Arkansas, it became clear that this lottery system would provide the right conditions for conducting research.”

Surveys of paired treatment and control groups occurred on average three weeks after the treatment group received its tour. The surveys included items assessing student knowledge about art, as well as measures of student tolerance, historical empathy, and desire to become cultural consumers….

The team also collected critical thinking measures from students by asking them to write a short essay in response to a painting that they had not previously seen. Finally, they collected a behavioral measure of cultural consumption by providing all students with a coupon good for free family admission to a special exhibition at the museum to see whether the field trip increased the likelihood of students making future visits.

KerryJamesMarshallOurTownAnd what happened? Researchers discovered that the kids remembered a lot of factual information. A few exampled:

  • 88% of those who saw Eastman Johnson’s At the Camp—Spinning Yarns and Whittling recalled that it depicts abolitionists making maple syrup to undermine the sugar industry which relied upon slave labor.
  • 82% of those who saw Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter remembered that it was about women aiding the World War II effort by entering the workforce.
  • 79 % of those seeing Thomas Hart Benton’s Ploughing It Under recalled that shows a farmer destroying his crops as part of a Depression-era price support program.
  • 70% who saw Romare Bearden’s Sacrifice knew it is part of the Harlem Renaissance art movement.
  • 80% who saw Kerry James Marshall’s Our Town recognized that it offers an African American perspective of real and idealized visions of the American dream.

What about critical thinking?

All students from the 3rd through 12th grade were shown a painting they had not previously seen and asked to write short essays in response to two questions: “What do you think is going on in this painting?” and “What do you see that makes you think that?”

“We then stripped the essays of all identifying information and had two coders rate the essays using a seven-item rubric for measuring critical thinking,” said [Jay P.] Greene, [Century Chair in Education Reform and head of the Department of Education Reform]. “We express the impact of a school tour of Crystal Bridges on critical thinking skills in terms of standard deviation effect sizes. Overall, we found that students assigned by lottery to a tour of the museum improved their critical thinking skills about art by 9.1 percent of a standard deviation relative to the control group. Rural students, who live in towns with fewer than 10,000 people, experienced an increase in critical thinking skills of nearly a third of a standard deviation.  Students from high poverty schools (those with more than 50 percent receiving free or reduced-price lunches) experienced a 17.9 percent effect size improvement in critical thinking about art, and minority students benefit by 18.3 percent of a standard deviation.”

Researchers found similar results when assessing tolerance and historical empathy, and — here’s a good ticket — students who received a tour went back to Crystal Bridges at a higher rate than those who did not.

Now, there are few questions about this — are the measures used perfect? I am no expert, but probably not. What about this incentive — “each control group was guaranteed a tour during the following semester as a reward for its cooperation.” Did that have an inevitable impact on the results? Is three weeks long enough after a visit to make the results worthwhile?

On the other hand, the researchers say that “the first large-scale, randomized controlled trial measuring what students learn from school tours of an art museum.”

Whatever you may think, it’s a good start at answering these critical questions.

For more information, you can read the report in Education Next, review a supplemental study here, see the methodology here, and view the press release here.



  1. Chris Crosman says

    It’s worth noting that there is a separate endowment at Crystal Bridges that provides transportation and other subsidies to offset direct costs for field trips, making visits to the museum possible for schools, many of which do not have adequate funding for such activities within their own tight budgets. While not every art museum can afford to underwrite such costs, in an era of severely curtailed private and public funding, school visit programs (or visits to regional theater, dance, music) can have a real impact and are attractive to many funders that otherwise might not support the arts. This study is even more important than you describe if the statistical evidence can be replicated/confirmed. Hopefully it will be noticed by the Walton Foundation to support such efforts nationally going forward.

  2. Traditionalist says

    This is very encouraging. Not to disparage what was achieved in any way, but the list of what the students got out of their visit to the museum might be focused upon a bit, for future development. Perhaps it was an honest omission, but this excerpt suggests that art is being treated only as the literal illustration of social agenda-driven subjects. Let’s hope the students were also shown some of the great 19th-century landscape paintings in the collection, for example, and introduced to bigger concepts. Hopefully in future the list of what they remember from their visit to the museum will go beyond contemporary issues to include a new appreciation of poetry, nature, and the mastery of craft. The capacity to relate to these characteristics of great art crosses socio-economic lines, and poor students as well as those who are better off deserve to be introduced to them.

    • Amen to this!

    • I am glad you brought up all the other elements and ways we hope students can connect to art Traditionalist. For the purposes of the study, the measure of recall was limited to more literal questions, but these are not a reflection of the scope and nature of the tour. On our tours, students have a variety of ways in which they learn and respond to works of art, including poetry and drawing. For example, high school students create their own poem in response to Kindred Spirits and then compare that to the poem by Keats. Fifth graders create a sensory poem inspired by Thomas Hart Benton. Kindergarteners learn about balance and fulcrum points while exploring a Calder. These aesthetic responses, in addition to student generated observations and insights, drive the dialog as we collectively “unpack” a work of art. Our Museum Educators layer in relevant and appropriate contextual information as part of that dialog. Because of this, no two tours are exactly alike. Students bring unique observations and insights and grapple with ambiguity that is often a part of experiencing works of art. Our mission is empower students with the confidence to know that they can look, connect, interpret, discuss, debate, reflect, and connect amazing works of art to their lives, no matter how far removed the subject may seem.

      Crystal Bridges and the University of Arkansas will have a more detailed publication that speaks to the methodology of the tours. In addition, this is the first of its kind, but not the last study to question, challenge and examine the impact the arts have upon student learning and development! We will continue to research and hope this inspires others to research the effect museums have upon students in their own communities.

      • Traditionalist says

        Thank you for this firsthand information, Anne Kraybill, and bravo. The students in the vicinity of Crystal Bridges are very fortunate to have this kind of carefully considered outreach. Meaningful cultivation of young minds is the surest way to grow audiences for the arts. I hope your programme will serve as a prototype. All the best!

      • To Anne Kraybill: I concur with all the praise Crystal Bridges has received in this discussion. As one who taught art appreciation on the high school level many decades ago and is a current member of the National Association of Art Education, I am often very critical of the current state of the field in public schools and museums.

        I have not yet followed the information links provided by Judith Dobrzynski, and make just one suggestion here regarding future research projects at the museum. In my own teaching, I developed a technique in which students were presented with an artwork image (on a color slide back then) and asked “Do you like it or not, or are you ‘in between’? How much? and Why?” Just that—no artist’s name, no biographical, historical, or technical information, no title, no questions like “What do you think is happening?”

        Responses were jotted down quickly. In the discussion that followed (which was guided by my own version of Socratic questioning), all the elements that make art art came up. The artwork slide was projected once more and students could change their minds. Only then did I present background information and conduct further discussion.

        The key premise underlying the technique was that the initial experience of contemplating art is a deeply personal and private one that ought not be influenced by anything but the work itself. My own opinions were never revealed to students during these discussions. (Needless to say, all this is especially important with regard to non-traditional work—abstract painting and sculpture, “contemporary art,” “Pop Art,” and the various postmodern genres.)

        I look forward with great interest to learning more about the present study. Also to future Crystal Bridges research projects in art education, which, I trust, might include in small part some of what I have discussed here.

        Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts)

    • I agree with your remarks wholeheartedly. “The capacity to relate to . . . characteristics of great art” does indeed “[cross] socio-economic lines,” a point I have argued for years. – Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts)

  3. I think some of these claims are over-stated, especially the idea that museums promote tolerance and critical thinking.

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