Schools and Museums: Interview with Anne Kraybill

Anne Kraybill is the Distance Learning Project Manager at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, where she is developing an online for-credit course for high school students in the state, and eventually the nation, to take online. She was formerly the Museum’s School and Community Programs Manager, where she oversaw the implementation of the Willard and Pat Walker School Visit Program and initiated a random-assignment evaluation measuring the impact of a one-time visit to an art museum.


The research on field trips to Crystal Bridges is important and widely circulated. You looked at, and found you had impacted, students’ critical thinking, historical empathy, tolerance, and interest in art museums. Why did you choose these four areas to measure?

When we first met with Jay Greene and Brian Kisida, we had not identified the outcomes of tolerance or historical empathy. That evolved as the research evolved.

At our initial meeting they asked questions about what we hoped the program might accomplish. We felt that on a tour, students learned how to look at and make meaning from works of visual art. This process required an exchange between the educator and the learner. And I say that somewhat ironically, as I constantly find myself in the position of learner, as students share observations I have not yet discovered.

We initially settled on measuring the following: knowledge acquisition, the desire to return to art museums, and critical thinking. Jay, Brian, and then-doctoral-student (now bonafide Ph.D.) Daniel Bowen shadowed tours to listen in on what was discussed. Our tours are not scripted, but there are approximately four artworks that everyone on a particular tour will view and discuss. The tours are student driven, meaning that student observations and ideas are central to the conversation. The student observations and inferences provide the basis for what context and relevant information the educator will provide. So in the end, students learned some information about the work of art, based on their ideas and interests.

Even though our tours are uniquely based on the exchange of observations and ideas elicited from each group, there are patterns that emerge. Students notice similar visual cues, such as the swastika in Rosie the Riveter, or the small flying squirrel in Mrs. Theodore Atkinson. The observations, and the information provided as a result of these observations, formed the basis of multiple-choice knowledge acquisition questions. When treatment and control groups took this part of the test, the kids who came on the fieldtrip knocked it out of the park. They remembered a lot about what they learned, even though they didn’t have too. There was no test, no homework; they just remembered this information because it was memorable.

Around that time, I had started working with teachers on enhancing students’ affective domain. The research team and I felt that it was important to measure this aspect of student learning, so for the second half of the study the knowledge questions were replaced with questions related to tolerance and historical empathy.

More importantly, what we choose not to measure was standardized test scores. No one thought it was plausible that a one-hour tour would result in an increase in scores on a test taken in the spring. The field trip was not designed for that.

What your study proves is not that field trips lead to increased critical thinking, historical empathy, tolerance, and interest in art museums, but that Crystal Bridges field trips lead to increased critical thinking, historical empathy, tolerance, and interest in art museums. What are the components of a field trip there? What are the design elements that you think were critical to your findings?

I have written a bit about this in Art Museum Teaching, and more formally in the Journal of Museum Education. Bottom line, our tours are student driven. While we have specified stops, the meaning-making is completely dependent upon what the students share. This requires that prior to the start of a tour we emphasize that the tour is all about them and their ideas. It also requires that our educators are skilled in facilitation. I don’t care what methodology one adheres to (except for the pure lecture), and I think most practitioners incorporate a combination of strategies, but I do care that the tour is student-centered and the facilitator have thorough training and ongoing review. This can be done with volunteers if they agree to be consistently observed and constructively critiqued in their practice, though the staffing required to evaluate a large group of volunteers make this difficult.

For more detail on our training program and what the tours look like, you can read the JME article Inside the Black Box.

school group at Crystal Bridges

A school group at Crystal Bridges. Photography by Stephen Ironside.

I understand that one of the ways Crystal Bridges makes trips easier for teachers is to take care of many of the logistics, such as transportation. What are the logistical responsibilities Crystal Bridges has taken on?

Thanks to the unprecedented generosity of the Willard and Pat Walker Charitable Foundation, Crystal Bridges has a $10 million endowment to provide teachers with 100% reimbursement towards transportation and substitute teachers. In addition, we provide every student with a lunch. This makes the burden much less for a classroom teacher and allows specialists, who typically don’t get to attend fieldtrips (especially elementary arts teachers) to join their students in this experience. Lunch is a critical component. Even if we didn’t offer lunch, we would need to figure out a place for groups to have a brown bag. Teachers can’t schedule a trip and feed their students 2+ hours after they normally eat. If museums don’t have a space, try and coordinate with a site close by.

You told me that you embarked on this research with the idea that you would convince school administrators of the value of field trips. However, none of the areas you mentioned is part of the Common Core Curriculum, nor is it tested on standardized tests. Do you think this research is meaningful for school administrators? If so, how?

While our tours are not specific to standardized state testing, they are very much aligned with the Common Core standards such as providing evidence, speaking and listening skills, etc. You actually cannot avoid the standards on an interactive, student-driven tour. But there are a lot of other things that are happening on our tours that cannot be captured by the Common Core standards, things that I think parents, teachers, and administrators care deeply about. So if we care about these other things, then we ought to start measuring them, and do so in a rigorous manner that can hold up to scrutiny. I think administrators might be grateful to have data other than the test scores to present and use.

Standardized tests in the future actually might measure critical thinking and some of the other skills we hope to inculcate in students on a tour. This is not to say that the tour should ever be used as a means of preparation, but as states implement PARCC or Smarter Balance tests, it will be useful to know if there are deficits in certain areas that teaching from works of art naturally cultivate. Both of these tests have far more open response items, and require students to look for evidence and provide justification.

In an earlier conversation, you mentioned that there are a number of non-cognitive areas that museum visits might impact, and that you think museums and researchers might look at. Can you speak about some of these?

When we teach in a museum, we stick with an artwork for some time. Students are asked to dig deep and find more. This is quite the opposite of the 2.5 second flyby taken by most visitors. Students are also asked to exchange ideas – sometimes opposing ideas – with each other. So the idea of tolerance is one museums cultivate all the time through their programs and interpretation.

I am also interested in our ability to help the learner to imagine new possibilities. This I think is so important for people who have a limited experience with the world, and I think that is why we had larger effect sizes for students in rural homogeneous populations. Recently, a football player from Amity, Arkansas visited Crystal Bridges. It was his first time to an art museum. After his tour, we asked him what image resonated the most. He said Our Town, by Kerry James Marshall. He had never understood or even imagined what life was like for African Americans, particularly in the Civil Rights era. Museums, and the objects they contain, can be transformative for students – if and only if the experience we provide allows for that.

As for other areas we might look at: James Heckman studies malleability in early childhood. The Toledo Museum of Art has been doing a lot with early childhood education and have started some preliminary research regarding vocabulary acquisition. This is vitally important as children in low-socio economic households arrive in kindergarten with “word gap.” My dream research project would be a longitudinal study that starts with an early childhood intervention and persists through early elementary school.

Angela Duckworth’s research focuses on skills such as persistence. Art museums also do a lot with teens, and I think there is a lot of research that can be done to see if we are able to help cultivate skills like persistence that are vitally important in secondary education.

Students in front of Kerry Marshall's painting "Our Town" at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Students in front of Kerry James Marshall’s painting “Our Town” at the Crystal Bridges Museum. Photography by Stephen Ironside.

Is Crystal Bridges embarking upon any new research projects?

Currently, we are looking at the effects of a week-long teacher professional development program upon student outcomes. There has been lots of research about teacher’s impressions of professional development and what constitutes quality professional development, but there has been very little about the effects these programs have upon students. There has also been very little research that I am aware of on teacher professional development in museums. We hope to find out if the program impacts non-cognitive skills such as collaboration and cooperation, critical thinking when looking at a work of art, and enthusiasm for learning history, to name a few possible outcomes.

In addition, we are in the midst of building a for-credit online course for high school students. We plan to do an observational study to understand student impressions of the course. Based on that data, a more rigorous research design will be implement in the in the fall. Stay tuned for results!

2 thoughts on “Schools and Museums: Interview with Anne Kraybill

  1. Pingback: Schools and Museums: Goals for Students | Museum Questions

  2. Pingback: Schools and Museums: Ideas and Implications, Part II | Museum Questions

Please add your thoughts to the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s