Co-authored with Jessica de la Garza, Museum Educator Advisor for Museo Nacional de San Carlos in Mexico City, Mexico.
To what extent is the practice of museum teaching a truly democratic process, aimed at bringing multiple voices together, seeing things from multiple perspectives, dialoguing, discussing, debating? As museum educators, do we view learning as an ongoing dialectic process that is built around the experiences of the student — even breaking down the hierarchies between teacher and student? How often would we define our own practice (or the programs we plan, facilitate, or present about) as authentically embracing openness, respectful dialogue, serious inquiry, equity, and comfort with ambiguity?
These are difficult questions we should be asking ourselves as we reflect on the pedagogies we adopt to deepen learning and increase student or visitor engagement in our museums. And one teaching methodology that exists to support and guide this type of Freirean (à la Paulo Freire) framework is Piensa en Arte. Never heard of it? Well we’re about to remedy that.
What is Piensa en Arte?
Piensa en Arte is a visual arts education initiative of the Fundación Cisneros and Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC), aligned with the Fundación’s deep commitment to improving education, promoting the appreciation of modern and contemporary art, and sharing Latin America’s impressive cultural contribution with a wider audience. Through conversational questioning, the use of conditional language, inclusion of contextual and cultural information, and guided reflection, the Piensa en Arte methodology supports mediated learning as the framework for collaborative learning experiences around works of art. Overall, the approach emphasizes learning as a shared endeavor, empowering students to generate their own knowledge. As the CPPC’s website describes:
Piensa en Arte develops a series of exercises that, although generated from works of art, are not recognized immediately as being directly linked to them. Once the exercises are solved, learners discuss the artist’s work in relation to their own problem-solving endeavors. Like the artists whose work they discuss, learners become active participants in the development and questioning of cultural meaning rather than the passive recipients of cultural products, and apprehend education as a process of investigating, questioning and creating.
To date, Piensa en Arte has been implemented in Argentina, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mexico, Venezuela, and the United States. The program has reached more than a thousand educators, who in turn have brought it to hundreds of thousands of students. One of the main ways it reached the United States was through a unique collaboration between CPPC and Wheaton College, which led to the publication of an Education Guide that provides a useful guide to this teaching methodology as well as a set of teaching posters for use in the classroom designed by Wheaton students and CPPC educators.
The Learning Process of Piensa en Arte:
Piensa en Arte is a methodology that combines the use of various tools, including questioning as a strategy to mediate the conversation along with contextual information related to a work of art. A crucial aspect of the methodology is the inclusion of contextual information that places the work of art historically and culturally.
While the focus of the methodology is to emphasize the art object as a primary source for the exploration, contextual information (carefully selected) and questioning are essential for the best application. An essential component of the methodology Piensa en Arte is mediating learning as a framework to create teaching experiences in a group through conversation.
The process suggests to start the first conversation with the students asking them to establish the rules of the good listener and good talker, having them make a list of attributes of each of them. It is then followed by questioning as a strategy to mediate the conversation. These questions are organized into categories and intended to create a climate of interaction between the students:
Key Questions, that initiate and sustain conversation, and support students to formulate their own ideas:
- What do you think can / could be happening in this picture?
- What else do you think can / could be happening in this picture?
- What do you see in this picture?
- What else do you see?
- What do you see that makes you say / think that?
Questions Seeking Visual Evidence, that encourage students to provide comments to support their interpretations:
- Is there anything else? What makes you think / say …? Please describe it.
- What specifically do you see?
- What is the visual evidence that support your opinion?
- What elements in the image you have to think / say …?
Follow Up-Questions, that invite the exchange amongst students who seek an interest in contributing different views and fosters visual evidence that support interpretations that were not originally thought by them:
- Who can add something that … thought / said about …?
- What do we see behind it … thought / said about ….?
- What other visual evidence can we say about …?
- Who can reply to the comment / idea that …?
Questions after providing contextual information for students seeking to return to work as a primary source, after receiving contextual information from you, allowing for the further enhancement of their approach to the works of art.
- Now that we know …
- How does this information provides to our conversation?
- What else can we say about this picture based on this information?
- What else do you see in this picture now that we know …?
- What would you add to the previous thoughts / ideas now that you know the artist’s words?
- How does this affects your thoughts / ideas know that we are having information about the work of art?
It is through the combination of these questions as a strategy to mediate the conversation, plus having the tools for a conversation, as well as the supply of contextual information about the work of art that will facilitate an exhaustive and rich discussion between students. This approach gives priority to the thinking processes of individuals.
Why is Piensa en Arte one of the best kept secrets?
Well, first, we hope that we can help the methodology become less of a secret. And, in addition to questioning, there are several core elements of Piensa en Arte that make it worthy of sharing with colleagues and educators (both in museums and in the classroom):
Use of Conditional Language: Language is a powerful thing, especially when working to create equitable, empowering conversations with students in which the teacher attempts to take a neutral stance. Piensa en Arte recommends paying close attention to the words we use as mediators of conversations, applying words such as “would,” “could,” and “might” when asking questions and rephrasing students’ interpretations.
Providing Contextual Information: While some visual literacy strategies prevent an educator from bringing additional cultural and historical information into the discussion, Piensa en Arte values the way that the context surrounding a work of art can build cultural awareness. Using relevant information to deepen the dialogue, this approach focuses on works of Latin American art from the CPPC (or similar artworks from your own museum’s collection) and can remind students that they are part of a global community.
Enabling Reflection: At the core of the Piensa en Arte approach is the element of reflective practice and metacognition. As outlined by Paulo Freire, critical pedagogy must involve asking questions about our own thinking process. In this way, Piensa en Arte enables students to become aware of the teaching methodology being used and how it is structured. For example, after becoming familiar with the process, students might be asked “What questions do you notice I use frequently during our conversations?” or “How do you think these questions help us analyze the work of art?” This can also model a reflective practice for students, who can apply this metacognitive process to other areas of school and non-school learning.
Modeling Inquiry & Dialogue: Overall, the Piensa en Arte methodology can be a process of inquiry that the students can learn from. Teachers are regularly modeling this open exchange of ideas and opinions so that students can use it respectfully to converse among themselves and ask each other questions.
“Never does an event, a fact, a deed, a gesture of rage or love, a poem, a painting, a song, a book, have one reason behind it. In fact, a deep gesture, a poem, a painting, a song, a book are always wrapped in thick wrappers. They have been touched by manifold whys. Only some of these are close enough to the event or the creation to be visible as whys. And so I have always been more interested in understanding the process in and by which things come about than in the product itself.” -Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Hope (1994)
Note: Some of the information above has been taken from one of the tutorial programs of Piensa en Arte of Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC), written by Maria del Carmen Gonzalez, Curator of Education of the CPPC, 2006. Special thanks to Maria for her vision in developing and promoting this transformative approach to teaching with art.