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21st-Century Skills

Museum programs for learners of all ages foster essential abilities
Dale Hilton, Director of Teaching and Learning
August 8, 2016
Being There Arielle Levine presents a Distance Learning lesson from the museum studio.

Arielle Levine presents a Distance Learning lesson from the museum studio. 

At most educational conferences today, presentations abound on “21st-century skills”—the qualities needed to thrive in the workplace, in school, and in communities of all kinds. These ideas are not new, but rather are organized and expressed in ways that make them more obvious to teachers and employers in order to integrate them into educational plans.

The arts inherently offer practice in many of these skills, including critical thinking, problem solving, and communication. As the new school year opens, let’s examine how some museum programs for learners of all ages promote these abilities. While not an exhaustive list, the skills selected exemplify how these desirable qualities are encouraged through the participatory aspect of our educational programs.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves the ability to analyze evidence, to interpret information and then reach conclusions. Several CMA programs encourage participants to do exactly that. Art to Go, now entering its 15thyear, takes authentic items from the museum’s Education Art Collection and brings these resources—organized in thematic suitcases—into schools and community centers for exploration through supervised handling. Participants don gloves to protect the objects they are passing around and observing closely. Then they work in teams to try to make connections between what they’ve discovered and what they imagine the function of these objects to be. Such activities form the core of Vital Signs: Cleveland Museum of Art Programs for Healthcare Professionals. Participants handle, describe, and analyze objects, such as those in the suitcase Problem Solving: What in the World?, in an activity called Art Labs. Working together, they practice the cycle of analyzing, interpreting, and synthesizing information that is literally at hand. Through engagement with highly diverse, global objects, healthcare professionals can also uncover their own culturally grounded assumptions, and learn to approach thoughtfully the cultures and preferences of patients, families, and colleagues with whom they interact.

High school students and adult learners also employ critical thinking skills such ashypothesizing and offering multiple interpretations as they engage with members of their group and with museum educators during Distance Learning lessons. This award-winning program of live videoconferences (imagine a highly produced version of Skype) offers more than 50 presentation topics. Repatriated Art, for example, involves participants in animated discussion as they view images from the museum’s permanent collection and grapple with issues relating to ownership, country of origin, and who has the right to interpret certain works of art.

Distance Learning, along with the 21st-century skills it promotes, recently has become more accessible. A technological upgrade now allows schools, libraries, community centers, and retirement facilities to participate in the program without a large financial investment in highly specialized equipment. This has spurred more widespread engagement, especially among adult learners in group settings.

All school programs at the museum endeavor to provide satisfying and stimulating experiences that keep pace with changes in formal education. Existing content is regularly updated, and new offerings appear each year. This past summer, programs such as Distance Learning and Art to Go began working with educators to align teacher materials for each presentation topic with the widely adopted Common Core standards. These can be found online at www.clevelandart.org/learn. New topics for Art to Go include Islamic Art: By Medium and Motif and Art of the Alphabet, an exciting new collection of objects that explores the development of writing around the world and includes a 4,000-year-old Sumerian cylinder seal.


Cylinder Seal with Hero Figure
Cylinder Seal with Hero Figure, c. 2800–2300 BCE. Mesopotamia, Sumerian, Early Dynastic II/III period. Stone; 2.6 x 1.5 cm. Educational Purchase Fund 1915.140

Problem Solving

Related to critical thinking, problem solving has been outlined as a 21st-century skill that promotes fresh approaches to resolving issues and designing structures adapted to a particular purpose. The word “structure” in this context is quite flexible and can refer to a variety of forms meant to accomplish something; the form could be an object, a system, a set of directions, or resources organized with a goal in mind. Activities based on problem solving animate much of the outreach in the museum’s Department of Education and Interpretation.

This is especially true of Museum Ambassadors, a program that immerses high school students and their teachers in many aspects of museum life through multiple visits over the course of two years. The program culminates each spring with a Community Day where students share their newfound knowledge and experience with family, friends, and the general public through projects they conceive and execute with their school group. The teens are regularly asked to solve problems such as how they would motivate visitors to interact with artworks in a particular gallery. The imaginative results include student-designed tours, studio-based interactivities for younger children, and even interpretative dance to help Community Day visitors relate to the museum collection in new ways. Problem-solving activities in this thoughtful program deepen students’ learning about art and the museum and teach valuable lessons about planning and responsibility.Other programs demonstrate similar benefits of learning by problem solving. As part of TEAM (Teachers and Educators at the Museum), participants spend several Saturday mornings at the museum gaining an introduction to teacher materials on the CMA website, Gallery One, Art to Go, the Teacher Resource Center, and Distance Learning. As a final project, TEAM members take the classroom resources they have discovered and design a presentation introducing other teacher colleagues to creative ways of using museum resources. Mark Soeder, a social studies teacher at Perry High School, designed a classroom project in which he used images of industrial scenes from the museum’s collection to encourage his students to consider the impact of human activities on current and future generations. Students, he wrote, would then be “asked to take photographs of their own to create a virtual gallery depicting the social and economic costs of environmental change in America today.”


Neighbors and Classmates
Neighbors and Classmates Museum Ambassadors engage in a Community Day. 


Communicating Clearly

Communicating clearly is fundamental to all CMA programming, whether it be studio, lecture, or activity based. Many definitions of this 21st-century skill refer to goals such as articulating thoughts and ideas effectively, and communicating in order to instruct, inform, motivate, or persuade. Happily, listening is also cited as a desirable skill.

Over the past few years docent training has included inquiry-based methodology to encourage class participation during school tours. By learning to ask open-ended questions that invite dialogue, multiple interpretations, and thoughtful responses to works of art, docents cull deeper engagement from the students. The active listening of the docents, along with their probing questions and timely offering of information, validates and enriches student learning at the museum. The fact that school tours, Art to Go, and Distance Learning presentations are available in foreign languages adds another dimension to fostering communication in a global society.

The majority of our museum programs nurture skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, and communicating clearly. Learners of any age who make or view art, and who analyze and respond to what they see, sharpen important abilities that are increasingly vital in today’s dynamic world. 


Cleveland Art, September/October 2014