Teaching Critical Thinking through Art with the National Gallery of Art

Example of Word Cloud generated by teachers in course describing “strong thinking.”

Teaching Critical Thinking through Art,” a free, landmark 5-week online course, launched on the edX platform in January 2019, welcoming over 4,000 teachers from more than 130 countries. Unlike other museum courses taught online, the NGA course does not use academic lectures to train teachers about its collection or the artists featured within. Instead, the course design and content are based on the student-centered, experiential pedagogy of Artful Thinking –a “show, not tell” approach developed by Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The NGA online course enables teachers to experience the Artful Thinking method in interactive and immersive ways, such as exploring high resolution reproductions of collection objects served directly from the NGA iiiF image server, watching demonstration videos of real-life teaching scenarios shot in galleries and school classrooms, and engaging in lively conversations and exchanging materials with teachers all over the world. The goals of the course are not only to inspire, but to scaffold a constructivist, participatory, reflective learning experience, and give teachers all of the tools and strategies needed to strengthen critical thinking in their students. What could be a more important and relevant museum effort today than helping people slow down to examine closely, observe nuance, describe in detail, communicate reasoning based on observations, and ask open-ended questions—all essential types of critical thinking–and to empower teachers to learn to facilitate conversations about collection objects? In addition, the global scale of the course community will provide actionable data about how museums can support the development of critical thinking skills, as well as the enjoyment and understanding of museums.

The development of this program began 10 years ago when the National Gallery of Art’s Art Around the Corner program partnered with D.C. Public Schools to offer multiple-visit programs for students based on the Artful Thinking pedagogy. (A 2012 study with Randi Korn & Associates documented the significant impact of these teaching methods on students’ ability to independently think critically). During the following years, Art Around the Corner expanded their focus from students to teachers by facilitating a yearly onsite, interactive professional development (PD) course for local public school faculties. Attendees continually expressed how this course on teaching critical thinking and integrating art had rekindled their passion for teaching and given them tools to be more effective in building deeper understanding, engagement, and a sense of community with their students. In 2016, a focus group of these teachers requested that the NGA produce and make accessible videos of in-gallery PD sessions with art to spread their experience to educators unable to attend onsite PD, either due to time limitations or living outside the DC area. NGA Educators Julie Carmean and Sara Lesk began researching how they might transform this onsite teacher program into a digital experience, accessible to any teacher anywhere, without diminishing the quality and quantity of on-site experiences. In 2016 Julie and Sara began to produce a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) and hired Howes Studio Inc. (HSI) to co-lead the feasibility study, build and test the prototype, and execute the final course platform development. Smithsonian Institution/Smithsonian Enterprises agreed to include the NGA’s MOOC under its “SmithsonianX” partnership brand on the edX platform, as well as provided video production and platform development assistance.