Created in 1992, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s School Partnership Program builds relationships with teachers, students, and administrators in Boston schools. This multi-visit program focuses on the processes of learning to look and making meaning from works of art—through professional development for teachers and regular, sequenced discussions about works of art for students, both in the Museum and in the classroom.

The Gardner Museum’s approach to school programs is grounded in the philosophy of working with a small number of schools to build deep working relationships through numerous interactions with Gardner educators both in the museum and the schools.

Our current School Partners include:

  • Boston Latin School
  • Maurice J. Tobin K-8 School
  • Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers
  • Mother Caroline Academy
  • Boston College High School

Educational Approach

The School Partnership uses a discussion-based pedagogy called Visual Thinking Strategies or VTS, which uses three questions to prompt students to make observations and provide evidence for their ideas:

What’s going on in this picture? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can we find?

Take a look at VTS in action in this video.

Rather than impart large amounts of information to the students, VTS is used to help the students explore works of art in a way that allows them to connect with their previous experiences and knowledge—in other words, students make meaning on their own terms.

Through these open-ended discussions, students develop visual literacy, flexible, rigorous thinking skills, and strengthen their language and listening skills. In addition, VTS nurtures problem-solving abilities, and builds confidence and willingness to participate in group thinking processes. These skills and abilities are essential in most contexts, both in school and out.

The Gardner Museum’s School Partnership Program asks classroom teachers to facilitate 10 VTS lessons (30-45 minutes each, depending on age level) in an academic year, and in grades 3-12 classes also visit the Gardner Museum multiple times each year. For most classes, each museum visit is 2.5 hours and includes an art-making project in our Education Studio or Greenhouse Classroom, and group VTS discussions are complemented by small-group work, writing, and sketching activities. Partnering teachers receive intensive, ongoing professional development and support, helping the VTS teaching method become part of the school’s culture.

Connecting with Families

The work that students create through the School Partnership Program completed either during their visits to the Gardner Museum or at school, is highlighted on the Museum’s art wall. This rotating exhibition space displays student artwork, and allows families the opportunity to view what their children have created in response to the Museum’s collections. Some partner schools help to organize a “family night” celebration at the Museum. Students, teachers, and their families also enjoy free family admission to the museum throughout the year with the use of their School Partnership buttons.

What is the Measured Effect of This Program?

From 2003-2006, the Gardner Museum’s major research study, Thinking Through Art, measured the effect of it multiple-visit program on the development of 3rd-5th grade students’ critical thinking skills. The study demonstrated that students who participated in regular VTS discussions with works of art made twice as many observations and interpretations, and provided evidenced for their ideas nearly twice as often as their peers in non-participating schools.

In the 2008-09 academic year, the Museum conducted a research study funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) which documented the effect our multiple-visit program had on the development of 8th grade students’ and teachers’ aesthetic development and critical thinking skills. In this study, students who participated in regular VTS discussions with works of art demonstrated three times as many supported observations and speculations in oral interviews and nearly twice as many of those critical thinking skills in writing as compared to their peers not participating in the program.

Learn more about these and other research projects.

“I believe that the VTS model is one of the most powerful models for really engaging young people, changing our perceptions about who can learn and who cannot, and also really building a foundation where teachers work in a very real sense.” –Dr. Carol Johnson, Superintendent of Boston Public Schools

Education and community programs are generously supported by the Barr Foundation, Josephine and Louise Crane Foundation, Lenoir Charitable Trust, Liberty Mutual Foundation, Janet Burke Mann Foundation, New Balance Foundation, Rowland Foundation, Polly Thayer Starr Charitable Trust, the Succop Family Charitable Foundation and the Yawkey Foundation. Studio activities are generously sponsored by Linda N. Cabot and Ed Anderson. These programs are supported in part by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which receives support from the State of Massachusetts and the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Boston Cultural Council, a local agency which is funded by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, administrated by the Mayor's Office of Arts and Culture.