WolfBrown: On Our Minds

A recent study on the educational value of museum field trips may provide a model for assessing other types of arts exposure in school settings. The study, published in EducationNext by researchers from the University of Arkansas, identified significant gains in knowledge retention, critical thinking, tolerance, historical empathy, and future interest in art museums among K-12 students who went on a field trip to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art versus a control group that did not. The study further showed different levels of impact among subgroups — namely, that this particular field trip had the most impact on students from low-income and rural areas, as well as the very young (i.e., students who were least likely to have had a similar cultural experience prior). In fact, students from large towns and low-poverty areas showed little to no significant educational gains by the study’s measures. Looking purely at the study’s aggregated data would have obscured this revelation. The educational impact of a single school tour of an art museum, therefore, can indeed be measured, and if done thoughtfully, can also yield valuable insights into the diversity of impact on different segments of school-age audiences.

Conceivably, this framework for measuring educational impacts can be adapted to any arts-related intervention, such as group visits to theatre performances, visiting school assemblies, teaching artist residencies, and programs for learners of all ages. Because we know the educational impact of a work of art can differ widely based on who receives it, school-based educational programs can utilize this kind of research to fine-tune the design of their programs, as well as their messaging strategies. Arts programs of all kinds might be wise to embrace this approach to impact assessment as a valuable way to reflect on goals, improve programming, and report success.


Sean Fenton is the manager of WolfBrown’s Intrinsic Impact program and a Bay Area artist rooted in educational theatre and theatre for young audiences.

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