Art appreciation helps young children learn to think and express ideas

April 9, 2015

Transitional kindergarten students discuss 19th century French artist Gustave Caillebotte's painting "Fruit Displayed on a Stand" at Figarden Elementary School in Fresno.

Art lessons for pre-kindergarten students are moving beyond finger paints and into the worlds of van Gogh, da Vinci and Rivera.

Teachers in a number of districts in California are using classic works of art to inspire some of the youngest students to observe closely, think critically and discuss respectfully – all key elements of the Common Core approach to learning.

By looking closely together as a class at a Picasso or a Cezanne, 4- and 5-year-olds are learning how to observe and translate their thoughts into language and listen and respond to multiple perspectives.

This approach for K-12 students was developed about 20 years ago by the co-founders of Visual Thinking Strategies, a nonprofit based in New York that provides training in the method to schools and art museums. More recently, the nonprofit has introduced the concept to pre-K classes.

Liv Ames for EdSource

Alexander Chitay, a transitional kindergartner, uses a laser light to point out what he wants to discuss about the painting.

It appears to be growing in its appeal since the introduction of the Common Core standards adopted by California and 42 other states. During the past two years, the nonprofit’s national trainings of educators have doubled, said Amy Chase Gulden, national program director. The nonprofit has trained teachers in more than 70 schools in the Bay Area, Northern California and Los Angeles.

Research studies on the method have shown that students in classes where the visual thinking program was used had a better understanding of visual images, exhibited stronger growth in math and reading, and showed better social-emotional growth than students in classes that did not use the program. The approach was particularly effective for English learners.

The visual thinking method asks three questions of young students: What’s going on in this picture? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can we find?

This approach teaches students how to take the time to observe closely, describe what they see in detail and provide evidence for their observations, Gulden said, “the kinds of skills that the Common Core asks for.”

Such programs are part of a new movement in English language arts to develop visual literacy, said Kim Morin, a professor who teaches integrated art at Fresno State University.

“It kind of came in with the Common Core – a more holistic approach,” Morin said. “As society becomes more digital, it’s not enough to just be able to read words; we have to be able to read images.”

“We have to be able to look at an image and understand it, not just react to it,” she said.

Some districts, such as San Francisco Unified, were applying this method long before Common Core standards were adopted. When Elizabeth Levett, who teaches kindergarten at George Peabody Elementary in San Francisco, introduced the Visual Thinking Strategies program into her classroom about eight years ago, she said she saw the growth in her students’ language “right away from one lesson to the next.”

“They’ll start the year with ‘I see a ball,’” she said. “After that it snowballs. It’s amazing.”

“We’re giving them language they wouldn’t normally have in a context that is meaningful to them right in the moment,” said Elizabeth Levett, a kindergarten teacher at George Peabody Elementary in San Francisco.

Teachers respond to a student’s comment on a painting by paraphrasing the comment and taking it to the next level, Levett said. Perhaps a student will notice a figure. The teacher will then say, “so you are noticing this figure in the left-hand foreground of the painting?”

“We’re giving them language they wouldn’t normally have in a context that is meaningful to them right in the moment,” she said.

Liv Ames for EdSource

Donavon Quezada, 4, is looking closely at a painting in his transitional kindergarten class in Fresno.

It is important for the teacher to paraphrase the student’s comment in such a way that the student feels understood and the rest of the group can grasp what the student has said, Gulden said. Teachers have to let go of their agendas and ideas and follow the child, she said, another Common Core approach to learning.

Sometimes the student may be searching for a word and the teacher can restate the student’s idea using the word, she said.

The approach “builds vocabulary and fluency,” Gulden said. The method is particularly effective with recent immigrants, she said.

School psychologist Julie Montali also finds the method works well with English learners. Montali has an art degree and has been trained in the visual thinking method. She developed a similar curriculum for pre-K students at Fresno Unified with English language arts instructional coach Claudia Readwright.

“Kids act as language models for other kids,” Montali said. “Often another child is the best teacher.”

The open-ended approach to discussing the painting also equalizes the experience, she said. The art is new for everyone, sometimes including the teacher. The discussion of the ideas inspired by the art does not require prior knowledge, and there are no wrong answers. That makes it easier for shy students or those learning English to participate, she said.

Children also respond to the ideas of other students and learn to look at things from another person’s perspective, Montali said. They keep the discussion moving with minimal intervention from the teacher, the kind of self-directed learning emphasized by the Common Core.

In the process of discussing the paintings, the children learn how to have different opinions without rancor, Levett said. They use terms such as “I’m noticing” or “I want to build on what he said.”

Juliet James, who has been using the method to teach 2nd-graders at Old Adobe Elementary School in Petaluma for the past five years, said students are polite. “They’ll say, ‘I disagree with Karen because of this reason.’ They have to give the evidence,” she said.

Using high-quality artwork is also important, Morin said, particularly in terms of stimulating observations by the children.

“You can keep going back to a masterwork and see something different every time,” she said. “If it’s not a high-quality work, it doesn’t have that depth.”

Liv Ames for EdSource

Students in a transitional kindergarten class in Fresno talk among themselves about the work of art they just discussed as a class.

On a recent day, the transitional kindergarten students in Yvonne Stout-Barrett’s class at Figarden Elementary School in Fresno eagerly gathered around a print called “Fruit Displayed on a Stand” by the 19th century French artist Gustave Caillebotte. They began talking about what they saw, including shapes and colors. Building vocabulary by discussing shades such as magenta, carmine or chartreuse is one way talking about art builds more sophisticated language.

Teachers say they see the effect of the method in other subject areas.

Brian Harrigan, who teaches preschool students at San Francisco Unified, said that since he has used the visual thinking method, he notices the difference when he is reading a story to the children.

“They start describing things in the picture more fully,” he said.

Such close observations of art help children learn to visualize, which helps them when they begin to read, Morin said. “If you can visualize what you are reading, you are a stronger reader rather than just reading word-to-word,” she said.

The same methods of showing evidence for what you are thinking or saying can work with deconstructing a story or a mathematical graph, Gulden said.

James uses the method in teaching all subjects to her 2nd-graders, such as when she introduces the 100s number chart to discuss place value.

“They will talk about it being a grid, how each space is equal,” she said. “They will notice the numbers going across are 1 to 10. I then come in and say that the horizontal numbers are 1 to 10. Then they will notice the vertical numbers are counting by 10s.”

“Very often young children have an almost deeper perception of what they’re seeing,” said Fresno State professor Kim Morin. “They don’t have preconceptions. They don’t think: ‘I don’t get it.’”

Fresno has decided to implement the curriculum by adding it to a grade each year, beginning with preschool children last year and transitional kindergartners this year. The integrated approach will follow the children as they move through the K-12 system.

Starting young has its advantages, Morin said. “Very often young children have an almost deeper perception of what they’re seeing,” she said. “They don’t have preconceptions. They don’t think: ‘I don’t get it.’”

In a research paper on talking about art with young people, David Bell, an associate professor at the University of Otago in New Zealand, says that “children are less inhibited than many adults in their engagement with artworks.”

“They may be surprised, entertained, puzzled or challenged by what they see,” he said. “They are also likely to express their various responses to the works in exclamations, comments or conversations.”

Teachers laud the method for slowing things down in a fast-paced world and building on young children’s natural ability to learn through observing.

“Everyone is worried about kids having access to technology,” Levett said. “They’re too little. They need to learn how to look slowly, really observe. Everything in technology is click, click, click. This method hones the craft of looking deeply and really listening to each other.”


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