From med school to elementary school, connecting students with Mrs. Gardner’s vision for the arts

Over the past two years, nearly 250 dental students have participated in an abridged program at the museum aimed at sharpening the future dentists’ observation skills in the clinical setting.



Tobin K-8 School third graders draw around the Gardner Museum’s central courtyard. 


Michelle Grohe recently led a group of sixth graders from the Tobin K-8 School in Boston into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s modern and new Hostetter Gallery. For five minutes the students roamed the space, contemplating the massive abstract contemporary paintings mounted on luminous white walls.

“What’s going on this room? What’s speaking to you?” Grohe, the Gardner Museum’s Director of School and Teacher Programs, asked her charges.

“I really don’t understand what we’re looking at, and I can’t tell you exactly what it is,” Grohe recalls a student answering. “But I know if we sit here together and talk about it, we’re going to start figuring some things out together and I’m really excited about that.”

The girl’s response was far from the grousing Grohe typically hears from young visitors: “It looks like something I could do,” or worse, “It looks like something my dog could do.”

But these kids weren’t your typical museum field-trippers. They were veterans of the Gardner Museum’s School Partnership Program, a long-term collaboration between the museum and a handful of nearby public and private schools that builds critical thinking skills in students through open-ended group discussions about pieces in the museum’s collection and special exhibitions. Many of the Tobin students had been making regular visits to the museum for six years as part of the program, which includes around two museum visits per year and eight related classroom lessons, which are facilitated by museum staff or classroom teachers specially trained by educators at Gardner Museum.

“The museum basically becomes an extension of their classroom and they start to feel more comfortable there,” explains Grohe.

The approach to arts instruction could not be further from the traditional art history lecture about an artist or a particular artwork. Instead, Grohe and her team employ a discussion-based method called Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), which uses three simple questions to prompt students to make observations about particular works and then back them up with evidence: What’s going on in this picture? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can we find?

“It’s not about, what do the experts know, and how can we get you all to learn that information,” Grohe explains. “It’s about, let’s start looking at artworks and help you think about them from your own point of view, and also considering others’ points of view. And maybe along the way you’ll pick up on different ways that you can start problem solving and approaching things more critically in other aspects of life.”

When the Gardner Museum began the program in 1996 its motivation was to foster a stronger connection between the museum and its nearby community. And its educational goals were to simply get students more comfortable with art—evaluating and interpreting it on their own—as well as to get them to feel at home in a museum.

But they accomplished much more than that. With federal funds from the U.S. Department of Education, the Gardner Museum conducted a study from 2003-2007 to gauge the efficacy of the School Partnership Program. The results, published in the Journal of Museum Education, showed that students in the School Partnership Program demonstrated statistically significant improvement in five out of seven thinking skills—associating, comparing, flexible thinking, observing and interpreting—compared with a control group of their peers not in the program. School Partnership Program participants also demonstrated the ability to discuss artworks in more depth, making significantly more observations and noticing more about art objects than their control group peers. They were also significantly more likely to offer justification for their ideas.

“We found that our students had twice as many observations and interpretations and were able to back up their ideas with evidence twice as often as the control students,” Grohe says.

In addition to the Tobin School, the Gardner Museum is partnering in the current school year with Boston Latin School, the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers, Mother Caroline Academy, and Boston College High School. But word of the unique program has spread beyond the K-12 setting. The Harvard Medical School residency program adapted the VTS methodology for a 10-session elective course called “Training the Eye: Improving the Art of Physical Observation.”


Dental students from Goldman School of Dentistry at Boston University discuss an artwork together in the Gardner’s galleries. 


“The idea is that you’re using Visual Thinking Strategies  and open ended group discussions with first-year medical students to build their observation and group communication skills, first with art, and then applying them in clinical settings,” Grohe explains. “We might go look at some textiles here and look at the different patterns that are made, or look at different paintings or sculptures with different surface textures or things of that nature. And then we go back to the medical school and a medical practitioner such as dermatologist, will show slides of close-ups of different skin conditions and wounds and basically talk the students through, What’s going on in this picture? What are some things you notice about what’s happening here?

“It’s getting the medical students to discuss what they’re noticing and then through that discussion, raising some possible diagnoses and potential treatments,” Grohe says.

After the Harvard Course, a doctor at the BU Goldman School of Dentistry expressed interest in the program for first-year dental students. Over the past two years, nearly 250 dental students have participated in an abridged program at the museum aimed at sharpening the future dentists’ observation skills in the clinical setting.

Grohe believes the program appeals to students of all ages and varying disciplines because students are allowed to formulate their own ideas and come to their own conclusions, rather than simply being lectured at and made to memorize information.

“The great thing about the Gardner Museum is that visiting it is a personal experience because it’s Mrs. Gardner’s personal vision,” Grohe says.

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