Brian Kisida

Researcher, Education Reform Brian Kisida
Brian Kisida

Photo courtesy of Brian Kisida



Special thanks to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Excerpt from Foreric: Piano Study” from the album Metascapes, composed and performed by Todd Barton, and used courtesy of Valley Productions.


(Music and children laughing and talking)

Jo Reed: Those are students talking about their class trip to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Those visits were the basis of a research project conducted by Brian Kisida and others that looked at the impact of art on students and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.We know several things about students who are engaged with the arts. They tend to  be more creative, think more critically and are more engaged with other people.   But it becomes a little tricky to suss out whether  this is causal, i.e. the arts lead students towards these outcomes, or a matter of correlation, i.e. students who  are more creative, think more critically, etc. are the ones drawn to the arts.Enter Jay P. Greene, Daniel H. Bowen, and Brian Kisisda.They recently published a study out of the University of Arkansas which demonstrates a causality, that students do accrue measurable broader benefits due to guided visits to art museums. Or in the title words of a NY Times article published about the findings: "Art Makes You Smart".Here's researcher Brian Kisida to explain.

Brian Kisida: We came to this conclusion through a large scale research project here that we did at the University of Arkansas with my colleagues Jay Greene and Daniel Bowen where we did a random assignment study of visits to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. And what we found was students had improved critical thinking when analyzing works of art. They exhibited greater tolerance, greater historical empathy. They recalled the information that they had seen on the tour about the paintings and the themes of the paintings at really high rates. And they demonstrated an increased desire to return to cultural institutions. So what we found were really positive results from, I think, is one of the most rigorous research designs of its kind to be conducted in the field. And as you said it made it into the New York Times and it was actually wildly popular. I think there's an audience out there that's really hungry for this type of information and maybe this type of scientific validation, right, that something that we believed to be true can be verified through science.

Jo Reed: I think there are a couple of things. I think that first of all many parents, many educators, many art lovers are concerned that the kind of fieldtrips that, in fact, you used as the basis of your study are becoming fewer and fewer.

Brian Kisida: They are and there's some evidence to support that. A couple of the major museums in New York have released data that shows a steep decline in fieldtrips, I believe MoMA and the National History Museum there. and the Field Museum in Chicago has seen a decline. And what this-- there's been a few surveys of school administrators and those types of groups that have found that they're less able to budget for fieldtrips. And the story that we've heard over and over, we visited 123 schools to do this research project. We surveyed 11,000 students and 500 teachers. So we got a lot of feedback while we were out there and it seems to be that schools are increasingly under pressure to maximize performance on standardized tests in core subjects which essentially means math and reading. So when a teacher wants to take her students to an art museum those benefits aren't being measured by the state accountability system. So the school administrators aren't incentivized to improve students on those measures. And that's really the story that we heard over and over as we visited these schools.

Jo Reed: Now, not to go too far afield but I know that your Ph.D. which you're receiving this year is in education reform.

Brian Kisida: True.

Jo Reed: Can you just give us a little bit of history on that? When did this pullback begin? And when did teaching to the test really come into play?

Brian Kisida: I think that we've been on that slide for a while now but I don't really have data to support exactly when this began. I can say that we can look at some things. The NEA's own survey of public participation in the arts has noted a decline amongst exposure to the arts. They suggest it started it in the mid-eighties. The increased pressure on standardized testing really ramped up after the passage of "No Child Left Behind" in the early 2000s and it's really only increased since then. Under Obama we've had the race to the top competition where states have been asked or encouraged to build more longitudinal data systems. And it really comes down to this push for more data and the fact that the data are really only being collected, typically math, reading, sometimes science that, you know, because schools aren't being measured in the arts or in the humanities they aren't incentivized to focus on them.

Jo Reed: Yeah. Well, let's talk about how your study came into being. It was the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. That was the museum that this study was focused on.

Brian Kisida: Right. And the museum contacted us. There was a person at the museum, the school programs coordinated Anne Kraybill contacted us at the Department of Education Reform because she had heard that we were good at measuring things and evaluating things. And she recognized that this was a one of a kind of opportunity. And by…

Jo Reed: Explain why it is one of a kind of opportunity.

Brian Kisida: So there's a few things that made it really special. For one, this is a museum that opened up brand new and there's really nothing like it in the area. It's a major addition to the world of art museums. It has an $800 million endowment and a world class collection. And the nearest museum before Crystal Bridges opened was two to four hours driving away. And so most of the students in this area had never been exposed to that. And if you want to study something, you know, if you can just imagine doing research on, you know, some sort of pharmaceutical drug, you would need a population that hadn't all ready been taking the drug. So what we had here was a population that hadn't really been exposed to this type of a cultural institution before. The second ingredient which we found out after we met with the educators at the museum was that they had an insane amount of demand for students to visit the museum. They have an endowment that allows for schools to visit the museum at no cost. So the tours are free. They reimburse them for the school buses and they even provide a lunch. So in the first year alone Crystal Bridges received applications for 38,000 students to visit the museum which was far more than…

Jo Reed: Thirty-eight thousand.

Brian Kisida: Thirty-eight thousands applications. And they could only handle 5,000 in their initial opening. So they had a problem. What are they going to do? Unfortunately, a lot of the times people have this problem and they'll solve it through first come, first served, which isn't necessarily a fair way to do it. A more fair way to do it is to have a lottery and we're particularly interested in any sort of lottery because that gives us the ability to do what's called the gold standard in evaluation research, a randomized control trial because we're able to randomly assign which groups got to visit the museum in the first year and which groups had to wait until the second year. And because we're able to randomly assign them then we're able to know that the difference in the two groups is that one got to visit the museum by chance and one didn't get to visit the museum by chance. Most research, most social science research, most existing research in the arts it's a rare opportunity to be able to do this, so typically they're not able to run a randomized experiment. And so what they're always plagued by is the problem of causality. So there's a lot of studies out there that are able to find that people who are involved in the arts are great in many ways. They're more tolerant and they are more creative and they usually have more healthy lifestyles, lots of good benefits are correlated with the arts. But we really aren't ever sure if these things are caused by the arts because it could just be that more awesome people are attracted to the arts naturally. So what we're able to show with this study is that actually the arts do in fact have a causal relationship to creating human beings that have broader thinking skills and are more tolerate, more empathetic.

Jo Reed: When you framed your study, were you looking for the specific traits that you noted a marked difference in which was critical thinking, historical empathy, tolerance and the predisposition to visit museums again? Were you looking for that particularly?

Brian Kisida: We were. Those things were guided by theory and previous research that has found correlational relationships from those types of experiences. And we met with the museum and we asked them to articulate their goals. What are your goals for bringing students here? What are you trying to accomplish? And then we set out to measure the things that they were trying to accomplish. The number one thing they said they were trying to accomplish was to create the type of people that wanted to visit art museums and to come back again. So we measured that in two different ways, actually. We has survey items where we asked the students are you likely to visit a museum when you're a grownup?  And those results were statistically significant. They were positive. Students who visited the art museum are more likely to say that they want to go back. But we don't always want to just trust what people tell us. So we actually built in another measure which this is a behavioral measure, everybody who was involved in the study, the treatment group and the control group received a coupon to come back to the museum free of charge to see a special exhibit. And we actually coded the coupons so when they were turned back in we could know if it was from a treatment group member or a control group member. And when those coupons came back the treatment group was far more likely to have used their coupons than the control group.

Jo Reed: In other words, the group that had gone to the museum previously were more likely.

Brian Kisida: Right. And you might actually expect the results to go the other way. You might think they were just here, they're sick of it and these other students who never got to go might be more inserted in but that's not the way it came out. Actually, that initial visit seems to be a necessary ingredient to cultivate a taste for visiting cultural institutions. There's maybe an initial hurdle that has to be overcome.

Jo Reed: Why do you think that is?

Brian Kisida: I think that it's not something that we're necessarily born with an ability to appreciate or desire. So you might liken it to other acquired tastes. So I think if you-- if we polled the children do you want to go to an amusement park they sort of have a concept of what an amusement park is. They've seen commercials for it. It sounds like fun. It's accessible. Everybody wants to go. But when students are-- when they're contemplating the idea of visiting an art museum, it's not necessarily something they know especially in this area and there's probably some hesitancy. There may be some even class boundaries that they wonder if they're the kind of person that would be visiting an art museum. And I think a lot of it is probably an unfamiliarity with it.

Jo Reed:  Right. Do I know how to behave?

Brian Kisida: Exactly. It can be an intimidating thing, I think, to people who haven't been exposed to it.

Jo Reed: Well, let's look at some of the other findings that you had. And what I'd like you to do, if you don't mind, if first give us the way you're defining the term critical thinking and then how you demonstrated the fieldtrip's impact on critical thinking.

Brian Kisida: Right. So this was also something that the museum was very interested in because what they do with their tours is a progressive education model where the students really drive the discussion. And so they break up into small groups and they visit a small number of paintings and they sit down and they discuss and they interpret and dissect what they think the painting means. And they borrow a little bit from the visual thinking strategies methodology where they ask very open ended questions. So they ask, what do you think is going on in this painting? What do you see that makes you think that? So the students are asked to observe closely and then to provide evidence for their conclusions.  We had the students write an essay about a work of art that they had never seen. And then we had two coders blindly score the essays. So the coders didn't know if they were looking at a treatment essay or a control group essay. And then we tabulated the number of items that they had scored according to the rubric and we run a statistical model where we compare the treatment groups and the control groups. And the treatment group does significantly better on this measure. So if you want to understand the measure a little bit more, I can tell you on average the treatment group is more likely to make a higher number of observations, interpretations and evaluations about the painting. They think more deeply about it. they notice more and they draw more conclusions. They provide evidence to back up those conclusions. And this one of those measures where we had an overall effect that's nine percent of a standard deviation which is a statistical way of understanding in an education policy and lots of social science it's a way for us to put the results in perspective. And that would be considered a very modest effect. But for students in smaller towns, students at high poverty schools, minority students and students who had visited the museum for the first time we saw results that were two to three times bigger. And we think we have a good theory for why that is. It's because these students aren't exposed to these things and it's a new experience for them. And so their initial ability to look at a work of art and analyze it critically is really effected by this museum visit. Whereas, the other students who possibly have been to the museum before, possibly taken more art classes they were not as effected. And I think it really goes to show that if public policy is going to target, you know, where we're going to put our efforts into exposing more students to the arts, it really is in these disadvantaged populations where it's most needed and the most benefits can be seen.

Jo Reed: And did rural students and students who came from poverty as well as certain minority students, was there a marked difference in all of the categories or most particularly critical thinking?

Brian Kisida: No. It was really consistent across all categories. The one category where I didn't see it was in the ability to recall themes and knowledge about the paintings. Those seemed to be uncorrelated with these measures of disadvantaged status. But when we looked at tolerance and historical empathy we also saw the same patterns where the rural students and the students in higher poverty schools, sometimes the minority students, definitely had larger benefits, fairly consistent across it.

Jo Reed: Well, let's talk about historical empathy because that is an unlikely term for many of us.

Brian Kisida: It's something that's considered a goal in the teaching of social studies in history. So it's not just about the retention of facts, but actually being able to put yourself in another time and place and understand what it might be like to live in that time and place. So having empathy with history, essentially. And Crystal Bridges is really well suited for this. It's an American art museum and as you go through the collection you really do go through American history from pre-colonial times up through the modern day. And you experience history through the eyes of the artist and they depict everything from westward expansion to World War II. So we had items on our survey to get at this and so the items were things like we asked students to agree or disagree if they had a good understanding of how early Americans thought and felt? Or if they could imagine what life was like for people if they lived 100 years ago? We aren't concerned with this measure to find out if they can remember facts about history but if they have sort of a sense and an understanding of how those historical people-- how they lived and what life was like for them. And yeah, this is one where we had fairly modest impacts for the full sample, the students in smaller towns and students who were visiting the museum for the first time saw the biggest impacts on this particular measure.

Jo Reed: And tolerance, how did you measure tolerance?

Brian Kisida: That's a challenging one because you're dealing with children and so the typical way that people have measured tolerance in political science and other social science methods can be kind of complicated. So we made it fairly simple for the kids. So we asked them to agree or disagree with statements like people who disagree with my point of view bother me. Or I appreciate hearing views different from my own. Or I think people can have different opinions about the same thing. And I think theoretically the reason that we would think that this might be associated with visiting an art museum is well, for one, the type of tour that they are involved in is all about hearing other people's opinions, all about the notion that there are multiple ways to look at something and you have to have some amount of respect for that in this environment that the museum educators were leading. Second, they're looking at works of art that are often very subversive and are often challenging their perspective of how the world might be and that can have an effect on their tolerance levels too. I mean that's sort of how the theory goes is that as education rises and as exposure to a diversity of opinions rises tolerance values go up and that's what we found and that's sort of how we think that that one works with the art museum.

Jo Reed: Did you find these differences in students no matter their age group? Or was it easier to see a change when they were a particular age?  

Brian Kisida: Well, we actually surveyed students as young as kindergartners and as old as twelfth grade. The kindergarten, first and second graders had a survey that was read aloud to them and they circled pictures to indicate their level of agreement or disagreement. And we had strong effects for the kindergartners. I actually felt like if there was a pattern, the effects were strongest at the lower grades. I think maybe this is because the students are more malleable at that point where they're able to take in new information a little bit easier than the high schoolers. We also had a lot more kids that came from elementary schools. They compromised a majority of the sample.

Jo Reed: How long did the fieldtrip take? How long were they at the museum? And was it just once?

Brian Kisida: It was just once and the students were there for, I think, on average about a half a day. So the actual guided tour experience is a guided tour for , I think, about an hour and an hour of activity and lunch. And then if the school had time they would stay at the museum for free time, free exploration until they had to get back to school. For some groups, I'm sure that that was longer than others. Some of these groups traveled two to three hours by school bus to come to visit the museum. Some only had to travel ten minutes. So between a half a day and a full day. They also received some pre materials that were sent out to the schools, a DVD that they watched in their classrooms to get them ready for how to behave in the museum and to expose them to some of the types of question they would be encountering at the museum and some post visit materials. So the full treatment is some pre and post curricular materials and about a half a day at the museum.

Jo Reed: Did they have a docent take them around? Or was their teacher their guide?

Brian Kisida: I think that's a really important question because it was led by a fulltime paid educator that was trained by Crystal Bridges. So I don't think that we can generalize our results to just any random visit to the museum. This was a guided tour with a particular perspective on how the tour should involve the students, how they should be interacting with the educators, with the goal of deeper understanding at the end of the tour being the thematic approach.

Jo Reed: What do you think is-- and I'm asking you to speculate here, what you do think is so special about the experience of physically going to the museum that has this impact where it wouldn't in a classroom let's say focusing on the paintings of James Whistler?

Brian Kisida: I think that we've talked about this and we've referred to this as possibly this is the cathedral effect. So it matters that you go to a large building that's been constructed sort of as a symbolic way of asserting that this is something that's important. And here's the things that are important inside hanging on the wall with security people around them and really nice lighting and we're being quiet and we're taking our time and we're observing these things closely. I just don't think that that can compare to a reproduction of a piece of work in a classroom. It's not going to carry the same amount of gravitas, I suppose, which is important. I think it's important for the experience. I think there's also probably something about a work of art being original. So, you know, the difference between going to a concert and listening to a CD, you can't really replicate that live experience. There's something special about it. And I think that's what art museums provide.

Jo Reed: Did you find any results that you weren't looking for? 

Brian Kisida:  I'll say that I was surprised that things came out as good as they did. So the norm in social science research especially education research and especially really tough research designs like randomized control trials the norm is to find nothing. It's really hard to move people and be able to measure whether or not they've had a change in values. It's a difficult process. So, you know, if you look at traditional educational research the journals are full of studies that find nothing. So actually I think what we were really amazed by is how even though I think these effects are really modest, the intervention itself was modest. So we were really, I think, really just surprised that it had this much of an impact on these students.

Jo Reed: Now, is Crystal Bridges going to continue to offer free trips to the museum?

Brian Kisida:  They have a permanent endowment to bring students in for no cost to the schools. It's a mission of theirs. The endowment came from a local philanthropist family-- sorry, you'll have to edit it. I have to remember. They have an endowment to allow for the school tours to continue. It's a $10 million endowment that will cover the cost of the tours, the educators and the school buses from a generous donation from the Walker Family Foundation.

Jo Reed: Well, as you said, there's such an emphasis on improving test scores in math and reading. Were you at all interested in seeing if there was any causality or even correlation between the trip to the museum and the kids' scores?

Brian Kisida: I think that's a dangerous way to judge the value of art. This is a debate in the field for sure. And there are a lot of studies that have looked at the effects of art on other core subjects like math and reading. I just don't think it's necessarily a strategy for making sure that our kids have access to the arts. There's not a good theoretical reason that I know of why there should be that much of a spillover effect. And it may not even be the best way to improve math or reading achievement. And I know another thing that we hear a lot about now is arts integration. That's a popular thing in school curricula especially among advocates of the arts and that concerns me as well. I think that we might want to hold on to the fact that we think art is important for its own sake. And it should not have to show benefits in other subjects to be something that we want or something that we consider valid. My fear is if you have enough arts integration that the policymakers and school administrator will say well, I guess we don't need art class at all anymore.

Jo Reed: And as we, as a country, move away from arts in the schools, I'm very mindful that I interview a lot of NEA jazz masters, people who have been given a lifelong achievement award for their work in jazz. Almost to a person they talk about the music classes they had as students in public schools.

Brian Kisida: Absolutely. I think that parents want this. My hunch is that there's possibly a disconnect from what schools are focusing on right now and what parents want for their children. So maybe we're just in a-- maybe this is a blip in the evolution of schools, where we've landed on these accountability measures on math and reading and that's where everybody is focusing on their energy om as far as policymakers and school administrators. But I don't necessarily think in the long term that that's what most people want their child's education to be composed of.

Jo Reed: Where can people read more about your study?

Brian Kisida: Right. Well, we've got a couple of publications out there. You mentioned the New York Times article "Art Makes You Smart", that's a very brief overview of the study. A deeper version you can find at the website for the Journal Education Next. And the title of that article is "The Educational Value of Fieldtrips." And we also have an article that just came out about the critical thinking skills in Educational Researcher. So people can look for those on the Web.

Jo Reed: Well, Brian Kisida, you certainly have given us much to think about and I thank you for that.

Brian Kisida: Thank you, Jo.

That was researcher Brian Kisida.

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.

Many thanks to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at You can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U; just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

"Art Makes You Smart" and Brian Kisida co-published a study that proves it! [27:05]