Museums are in the process of change as they evolve from a model of ultimate authority and transmission of knowledge to one that fosters the collaborative discovery of meaning. ~Carole Henry
Getting high school students to engage in discussion while viewing art in the museum can sometimes be challenging. Students may feel uncertain or reluctant to participate in this potentially unfamiliar environment. Although museums are different settings from classrooms, we are, nevertheless, still interested in the same things for our students.We want them to slow down and look carefully, to think deeply and critically, and to feel comfortable enough to participate in rich discussions. My experience has shown me that providing structured looking activities, especially those that encourage peer-to-peer interactions, can “get them talking.”
To help students find personal meaning in works of art, we might start with a simple looking exercise called Think/Question/Explore (adapted from a Harvard Project Zero Thinking Routine). Students are asked to respond to the open-ended prompts, either verbally or in writing. Then, we discuss their responses as a group. As the quote by Carole Henry suggests, allowing students to do this collaboratively can be very empowering (The Museum Experience, the Discovery of Meaning, 2010). High school-aged students are generally interested in the opinions of other students and conversations in peer groups can spark their curiosity, leading to divergent ideas and questions. My role as an educator is to listen and strategically weave in content about the topic that builds on students’ interests, pushes thinking forward, and provokes new questions or ideas.
Another activity, textual analysis, asks students to connect visual evidence to ideas the artist has written or to quotes by a contemporary critic. This can help students be critical about written sources. It is always fun when the students either disagree with the source or with each other. When this happens, they are asked to make claims to support their arguments based on evidence in the art or text.
Sketching is another tool to facilitate close observation. I introduce it as a looking exercise rather than a drawing one. For example, students may do short gesture sketches while looking at a sculpture, and they are encouraged to move around the piece, looking and sketching from different points of view. Their sketches provide a visual jumping off point to discuss what they see. After spending an hour or so doing these kinds of activities, high school-aged students generally come to the realization that they can discover a lot just by taking the time to look carefully and to discuss, ideally with a friend, what it is they are seeing and thinking about a work of art. By making the experience more social, we are able to “get them talking.