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The Art of Problem Solving

[2006-2010]
An educational research project with an art museum
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum contracted RK&A for the 2006-2010 study The Art of Problem Solving (APS).  The APS study was the second of two studies funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Arts in Education Model Development and Dissemination (AEMDD) grant (the former being the 2003-2005 study Teaching Literacy Through Art) that examined the Guggenheim’s long-standing teaching artist in residency program Learning Through Art (LTA).  The APS study was designed specifically to determine the effectiveness of the LTA program in teaching problem-solving skills. 

How did we approach this study?

The APS study measured student and teaching artist outcomes related to problem solving using an experimental research design.  To begin, RK&A, Guggenheim staff, and an advisory board identified six skills believed to support problem-solving—Imagining, Experimentation, Flexibility, Resource Recognition, Connection of Ends and Aims, and Self-reflection—and developed measureable criteria for the six skills.  To explore student outcomes, RK&A used pre- and post-questionnaires to examine attitudes, interviews, and observations related to a specially designed art-making activity to explore problem-solving abilities, and individual student case studies to explore students’ behavior and problem-solving abilities during LTA lessons.  RK&A measured all six skills with a treatment group (students who experienced LTA) and a control group (students who did not experience LTA).  To explore teaching artist outcomes, RK&A, along with the Guggenheim staff, identified teaching strategies believed to cultivate problem solving.  RK&A observed three teaching artists multiple times over the course of the school year and calculated the frequency with which they incorporated the problem-solving strategies into their instruction.

What did we learn?

The study provides strong evidence that LTA enhanced students’ abilities in three of the six areas of the problem-solving rubric: 1) Flexibility, 2) Connections of Ends to Aims, and 3) Resource Recognition.  LTA students scored significantly higher than non-LTA students in these three areas on the art-making activity.  Furthermore, questionnaire findings also show that participation in LTA is correlated with more positive attitudes in the areas of Flexibility (i.e., not giving up when encountering problems) and Connections of Ends and Aims (i.e., planning).  Moreover, case study findings show that students participating in LTA exhibited Connections of Ends and Aims more often than the other problem-solving skills during LTA sessions.  On the other hand, evidence indicates that LTA did not affect students’ abilities in other areas of the rubric, including: Imagining, Experimentation, and Self-reflection.  In each of these areas, treatment students did not score significantly higher than control students on the problem-solving activity.  In fact, in one area—Experimentation—control students scored higher than treatment students.  Notably, case study findings provide support for this last finding, in that LTA case study students infrequently experimented during LTA sessions.

What are the implications of the findings?

These findings have positive implications, especially when considered in the context of “21st Century Skills” (IMLS, 2009).  For instance, one could hypothesize that Connections of Ends to Aims and Flexibility, in particular, are skills with wide application across students’ academic careers and highly relevant to “21st Century Skills.”  Ultimately, this study took preliminary steps in defining and measuring problem solving—a complex thinking skill—and raised interesting questions for further research, including:  How can teachers cultivate students’ abilities to experiment, imagine, and self-reflect?  Is the ability to experiment, imagine, and self-reflect linked to developmental stages, and if so, at what age is it appropriate to expect children to experiment, imagine, and self-reflect? How does achievement of Flexibility and Connection of Ends and Aims transfer to other subjects or real world experiences?    While the APS advisory team set out to capture problem solving in terms accepted in the field and most consistent with what one would expect from LTA, the definition of problem solving must be further refined as researchers and practitioners continue to explore what problem solving is, particularly given its prominence in literature about “21st Century Skills.” 

Institute of Museum and Library Services. (2009). Museums, libraries, and 21st century skills. Washington, DC: Institute of Museum and Library Services.

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