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Thursday Complexity Post
November 28, 2013  

 Art's Influence: Empathy, Tolerance, Critical Thinking

A national survey by the American Association of School Administrators showed that 30 percent of nation's schools eliminated planned field trips in the 2010-2011 school year and 43 percent planned to eliminate trips in the 2012- 2013 year. What are our future citizens losing? It may be quite a lot. Recent research showed a mere half day's exposure to art produced a wide range of desirable intellectual and emotional effects.


Brian Kisida, Jay P. Greene, and Daniel H. Bowen, in their New York Times essay "Art Makes You Smart" describe a controlled study that involved nearly 11,000 students and 500 teachers from 23 schools. Half of the students were selected by lottery to visit the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which opened in November 2011 in Bentonville, Arkansas. The museum, founded by Alice Walton, whose father Sam Walton founded Walmart, has more than 50,000 square feet of gallery space and an endowment of $800 million. The youngsters, in grades 3-12, were divided into anonymous pairs, based on grade level and demographic similarities. One member of each pair toured the museum, and the other paired partners had tours that were deferred until after the study. Students whose visits were deferred were the control group.

The Box
Kids who visited the museum saw and discussed five paintings, and some got to wander around looking at things on their own. All the youngsters were asked to write a short essay on a painting they had not previously seen, Bo Bartlett's The Box.
They were asked what's happening in the picture, and why do you think that? Mary Anne Janco, writing in The Inquirer, says Bartlett painted The Box after 9/11. It shows his son, Eliot, and a young girl who also modeled for his paintings, dressing up from military garb found in a box.


The student essays were stripped of identity information and measured for critical thinking using a rubric developed by researchers at the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston. The children who had visited the museum turned in higher performances on critical thinking, as well as showing greater historical empathy, tolerance, and sustained interest in art. The surveys were conducted between three and eight weeks after the museum visits, and results showed children remembered a great deal of the factual information about the art they saw, even though they hadn't been tested or required to memorize anything. Children who took the tour also observed and described more details in the images. Research results are also published in the Educational Researcher.

Ploughing It Under

In a story in, the three researchers describe how the assessments were done and the value for the kids. During the museum tour, children saw and discussed Eastman Johnson's painting At the Camp-Spinning Yarns and Whittling, depicting abolitionists making maple syrup to undermine the sugar industry, which relied on slave labor. And 88 percent of the youngsters remembered details of the panting and its meaning. Nearly as many remembered the artist and meaning of Norman Rockwell's Rosie the Riveter, showing the importance of women in the work force during World War II; Thomas Hart Benton's Ploughing it Under, showing a farmer destroying his crops as part of a Depression era price support program, and Romare Bearden's painting Sacrifice, part of the Harlem Renaissance art movement. While all the youngsters who had the museum experience demonstrated enhanced skills, students from rural and high poverty schools seemed to benefit the most.


Happy Thanksgiving!   


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Friday, December 13, 1-2 PM ET

Innovation and Resilience in Leadership 

Guests: Martha Johnson and Sharon Benjamin     



In her new book, On My Watch, Leadership, Innovation, and Personal Resilience, Martha Johnson, former administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration, tells of the strategic innovation that characterized her tenure before her abrupt resignation in the wake of a scandal regarding an internal training conference held in Las Vegas. The GSA influences all of government and can model desperately needed innovation, Johnson says, adding that the scandal headlines and political jokes shouldn't be the only public picture of GSA. Johnson's book details cutting edge improvement strategies she promoted, and the systemic challenges of leading a large agency-working without complete information, the distortions of scale-and the constraints of government service. She also reflects on her highly public resignation and the lessons she believes can help leaders advance innovation and shoulder risk.


Martha Johnson is leadership speaker and writer who draws on the lessons learned as an executive with a more than 30-year career in public and private organizations. Her focus is "Sensible Leadership" which reflects today's need for leaders who are strategic, resilient, pragmatic, and resourceful. She was nominated by President Obama and confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate to be the administrator of the GSA, a post she held for two years. She also served eight years with the Clinton Administration and was appointed to two commissions with the British Government. Her private sector career has spanned information technology, architecture, strategic consulting, and the automotive industry. In addition to On My Watch, Johnson has also published a novel, In Our Midst, which placed in the semi-finals of the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition. Johnson earned a BA from Oberlin College and an MBA from the Yale University School of Management. She is married, has two adult children, an elderly father, and lives in Annapolis, Maryland.


Sharon Benjamin, PhD is principal of Alchemy, a Washington D.C. based management consulting practice. She consults with multi-lateral, NGO and healthcare organizations. An adjunct at NYU, she teaches the leadership capstone course for MPA students. Her work supports leaders seeking to effect profound transformation -- within themselves and their organizations, pioneering innovative methods such as Positive Deviance. Her previous positions have included Vice President for Marketing for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Washington, D.C. and Director for Major Gifts for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge MA. She earned her doctorate in organizational behavior from the Union Institute and University in Cincinnati OH, where she has co-taught three leadership seminars. She has been active in the non-profit community, serving as Treasurer of the Board Earthworks, Chair of the Board of Directors of, and a member of Oceana's Board of Governors.


Audio from all PlexusCall series are available by searching the iTunes store for plexuscalls. Or, visit under Resources/Call Series. 


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