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Experiential Learning through the Visual Arts: Developing Essential Knowledge for Life

Hood Quarterly, summer 2014
Lesley Wellman, Hood Foundation Curator of Education

Learning to Look at the Hood

The Hood’s Learning to Look method, developed to help teachers lead explorations of works of art with their students as an integrated part of the school curriculum, is now the cornerstone of much of the museum’s teaching practice not just with regional schoolchildren and Dartmouth students, but in participatory programs with community audiences of all ages. The five key stages of inquiry and reflection that the Learning to Look method entails, and the competencies it fosters, include:

  1. What do I see? (Close Observation)

  2. What do I think? (Analysis)
  3. 
How can I learn more? (Research)

  4. What might it mean? (Interpretation)
  5. 
How do I feel about it? (Critical Assessment and Response)

For individual visitors to the museum, this method of engaging with art is made available through a series of A Closer Look brochures. Each brochure focuses on a single work of art and leads visitors through the five stages. Nine brochures have been produced so far, and are available in the galleries whenever the corresponding work of art is on view. Additional resources related to the Learning to Look method are available on our website.
 

Learning through Active Engagement

For the more than five thousand school children who visit the Hood Museum of Art each year, engaging with original works of art is an active process that not only teaches them about art, but helps them develop important life skills such as observation, analysis, reflection, and creative and critical thinking. Our teaching practice is based on two fundamental principles: that people learn best through active engagement (direct experience), and that we are trying to help audiences not only to learn about the art they are viewing at the moment, but to develop the skills required to interpret any work of art they encounter throughout their lives.

Because many people learn best through active engagement, the role of gallery instructors is to create optimal conditions for learning—to develop exercises, questions, reflection prompts, and other techniques that get participants looking, talking, and engaging directly with the art in a range of ways as soon as possible. We often use the term facilitator for gallery instructors; if we are doing our job well, the students are talking more than we are, and we are simply guiding their exploration and providing relevant background information when and where it is most helpful to the learning process. Thus gallery sessions are highly interactive conversations full of questions, observations, and often debate as students form hypotheses and share opinions about the art they are studying. Most tours include a combination of large and small group discussions as well as opportunities for individual reflection and exploration.

Developing Visual Literacy

The highly successful Learning to Look method is the cornerstone of our teaching practice. This five-step approach to exploring works of art is designed to empower visitors to observe carefully and think critically about any work of art they encounter. It helps them develop visual literacy skills—the ability to construct meaning from all that they see. However, if we were to repeat the same looking sequence over and over again with a group, it would very quickly become monotonous and less instructive. For this reason, the museum’s education staff creates a wide range of teaching strategies for any given exhibition that engage students in the same observation, analysis, research, interpretation, and critical response processes, while taking into account different ages, interests, and learning styles among visitors. Whenever possible, we also try to forge connections between the school curriculum and other aspects of people’s lives, because this reinforces how people make meaning, or learn.

Transforming Scholarship into Learning Experiences for Visitors

In developing teaching strategies and resources, we take the available scholarship about works of art and combine it with knowledge of audience needs to create methods of engagement that transform the information into learning experiences for visitors. Thus in learning about Picasso’s cubist still life Guitar on a Table, schoolchildren might explore concepts and engage in problem-solving with puzzle pieces made from an image of a guitar. To better understand how scholars learn about ancient art, a lesson on our Assyrian reliefs might begin with a discussion of archaeology that includes passing around actual tools used by archaeologists and showing photographs from excavation sites. Writing poetry and prose in response to works of art fosters careful observation and helps develop language and vocabulary to describe visual information—as well as supporting the emphasis on literacy in the school curriculum. For a recent exhibition of contemporary Aboriginal Australian art, the education team developed eleven different teaching strategies for working with school groups. These included contextual maps and photos, laminated animal detail looking cards that provided an opportunity to view and compare multiple works of art, drawing activities that required close observation, a felt activity that allowed students to explore the elements and challenges associated with creating successful compositions, and symbol cards that students used to “vote” on works of art based on their preferences and questions.

Developing Competencies for 21st-Century Global Citizens


All of these exercises put students in the role of active learner as they investigate, communicate, collaborate, reflect, and evaluate. As they engage in direct examination of works of art, students are able to explore other cultures and time periods, marvel at human ingenuity and creativity, or open a dialogue on a world of issues and ideas central to the human experience. This type of experiential learning from original works of art also helps students develop observational and analytical skills that are essential not only for interpreting art, but for living as successful global citizens in the 21st century.


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