Tags for: Five Ways to Learn About Art
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Five Ways to Learn About Art

Missy Higgins-Linder, director of learning and engagement
May 28, 2020
10th Grade English Class, Boston Latin School, 1996. Nicholas Nixon (American, 1947-). 1998.153

I am on a perpetual quest to find the best ways to support all learners so they can best learn. The current COVID-19-induced mass experiment in hybrid-homeschooling has me asking big questions about the impact it will have on schools, students, and learning for months and years to come.

In our house, none of us fully appreciated how much the structure of clearly defined spaces and routines contributed to the health and functioning of our family. My husband, who has been telecommuting for a few years, gamely adjusted to the noise and activity of a house full of people together all of the time. My own workspace is now the catch-all desk in our dining room. A few yards away, our kids alternate between the couch and behind-the-couch as they work on their school assignments. As much as we try to maintain some discrete boundaries between school, work, and home, it’s largely become ambiguous mush. Now, our family is facing fresh uncertainties as we end the school year, welcome summer, and wonder about what next academic year will bring.

Three Figures: woman with two children playing ball, 1900s. Eastern India, Bihar State, Mithila or Madhubani School, 20th century. Ink and color on paper; overall: 27 x 23.3 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Pamela Elizabeth Ward in loving memory of her parents, William E. and Evelyn Svec Ward 2005.77

My family’s situation has led me to reflect on a recent, major task we undertook in the Department of Learning and Engagement. A critical review of our curriculum sparked big picture thinking about our portfolio of programs for all visitors and caused us to ask:

What do we most want to accomplish through our school programs? What types of learning are most valuable for students today?

What are our greatest hopes for children and teens as they develop into young adults?

What is uniquely valuable about learning in art museums? What do we really want students to take away from their experiences with the CMA?

Shadow play “The Adventures of Little Pear” performed in CMA Auditorium by 6th grade pupils, Doan School from Mrs. Wike’s class. Image via CMA’s digital archives.

In seeking answers, we worked with teachers, principals, and peers in the field. We read, debated, and synthesized a framework of learning that exercises five capacities we hope all CMA visitors experience in some combination:

Attention — the capacity to practice mindfulness through sustained focus on an artwork or deep recognition of one’s senses in a given moment

Creativity the capacity to imagine possibilities and to generate original ideas, questions, and materials

Connection — one’s sense of belonging and feeling connected to artworks, the museum, or a broader community (It can also be the capacity to draw connections between artworks, artists, places, time periods, themes, concepts, and ideas)

Perspective — the understanding that there are many different ways to see an artwork, object, or issue and that sometimes points of view diverge (It’s also the capacity for tolerating ambiguities that develop out of those divergences and for empathizing with the perspectives of others)

Wonder — the curiosity to ask big, complex questions and the capacity to experience awe, transcendence, or the sublime.

The museum and its collection are unique resources to practice these capacities. We’re happy when visiting students learn something about Egyptian dynasties and hieroglyphic symbols, but we’re most concerned with whether they’ve learned how to look closely, formulate essential questions, or articulate ideas while appreciating the ideas shared by classmates.

Open-Air School, 1932. Diego Rivera (Mexican, 1886–1957), printed by George C. Miller (American, 1894–1966), published by Weyhe Gallery. Lithograph; image: 31.5 x 41.1 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis B. Williams Collection 1941.510 © Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

These five capacities transcend academic disciplines. They define the best and most essential parts of what makes us human. The degree to which we can practice and experience these capacities has direct impact on our quality of life. This framework has served our team well as we figured out how to serve and stay connected to our audiences without a physical place to gather. Early in that process, we struggled with how and whether to differentiate content for children and teens, families, schools, and teachers. On-site programming is easier to distinguish between the school programs (children come with their teachers), family programs (children come with caregivers), and programs for children and teens (children participate independently, outside of school). With home serving as school, work, and community space, with parents trying to emulate teachers, and with classroom teachers getting crash courses in online learning, we faced a new ambiguity. The good news is that our team already had the framework of the five capacities to shape our work.

Evidence of Things Seen: Untitled #102, 2001, printed 2004. Simen Johan (Norwegian, b. 1973). Chromogenic print; image: 112.7 x 112 cm (44 3/8 x 44 1/8 in.); paper: 119.8 x 126.9 cm (47 3/16 x 49 15/16 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Friends of Photography 2005.38 © Simen Johan, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, NYC

We’ve transitioned a significant portion of our existing programs and resources to online and digital formats while experimenting with new possibilities. For example, the “Adorn” Collection Connection invites children to Connect their own experiences of selecting everyday and special occasion outfits with the experiences of people who may have donned wearable works from the collection, spanning time and geography.

Online Collection Connection activities and the museum’s Creative Challenge and CMA Sketch programs also invite participants to exercise their Creativity through playful studio prompts and games and then Connect with the museum and each other by sharing their artworks on the newly created online Visitor Art Gallery.

Collection Connection activities. Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

Sabine Kretzschmar’s Home Is Where the Art Is: On My Mind video models exercises in Attention (close-looking enhanced by the zoom feature of the museum’s Collection Online); Connection (connecting her own current feelings and experiences with the figures in the artwork); and Wonder (puzzling over and generating questions about the meaning of individual details and the overall work).

Video URL
Video courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

Each practice of these capacities creates benefits for the participant. Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed my kids intuitively practicing combinations of the capacities. When we get outside for walks, they notice different bird songs, listening carefully for different tones. We mimic the sounds and make up silly words we hear in the trills. We’re practicing Attention, Connection, and Creativity as we slow down to lean into our senses and reconnect with nature and each other.

The Art Class, 1942. Guy Pène du Bois (American, 1884–1958), Living American Art, Inc., New York. Color screenprint; sheet: 32.5 x 43 cm (12 13/16 x 16 15/16 in.); image: 25.8 x 36.5 cm (10 3/16 x 14 3/8 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Brenda and Evan H. Turner 1998.198

For all of today’s ambiguity, I am reassured by the consistency of the “village” of parents, teachers, principals and school support staff, caregivers, and community members. My greatest hope for our work at the CMA is that we are always a part of that village network, contributing to the sustenance of strong communities made of empathetic, multi-literate citizens who are innately curious, lifelong learners, and lovers of the arts.