by Susan Mackey and Rose Ann Schwartz

Music, the visual arts, and dance can be used to develop critical thinking, which includes the ability to use logic and reasoning in problem solving.   Critical thinking is an active, purposeful, organized, and cognitive process that research has shown can be explicitly taught.   The skills required for critical thinking support higher learning, which necessitates the ability to see connections between concepts and topics, and to generalize understanding between disciplines.   There are various methodologies available to teach critical thinking.

Multiple routines can be applied to the process of teaching critical thinking skills. For example, presenting the student with a copy of Romare Bearden's painting, "The Piano Lesson," then asking the student to describe his/her interpretation, followed by listening to Jelly Roll Morton's "Jungle Blues" then asking the student to make a collage from items of his/her choice to further represent that interpretation or even any other choice of subject, provides a basis for eliciting critical thought.

Thinking routines are an excellent pre-writing exercise.   They provide students with a concrete focus for their writing and scaffold students' idea development.   Using these routines provides experiential focus prior to the writing process.   It also supports risk taking as students develop the ability to make observations and to draw conclusions.

A thinking routine, seeing/thinking/questioning, also can be used with the visual arts.   In this process, instructors ask students to describe what they see, then proceed to answer such questions as: What does it make you think about?   What questions do you have?   What does it make you want to explain?   Thinking routines can be used across topical areas in music, artwork, and topic/text.

Music also can be approached using two different thinking routines, Hearing/Thinking/ Questioning and Hearing/Thinking/Visualization.   In Hearing/Thinking/Questioning, the instructor asks students to describe what they hear.   From there, they share what it makes them think about and what questions they have.   In Hearing/Thinking/Visualization, students describe explicitly what they hear; describe what the music makes them think about, and create a visualization of what they heard or interpreted through color, value, and texture.   Color has values of light and dark and helps to create the mood of a design.   Bright, warm colors give a feeling of warmth or energy; cool colors give a feeling of peace and calm; while very dark colors can convey sadness.   Value indicates how much light and dark is in a design, and makes some elements of a design more dominant than others.   Texture refers to how the surface looks and feels, and can be presented through rubbings or through points, lines, and shapes.   The following techniques are helpful as well.

Additionally, reasoning routines can be applied to the visual arts.   The instructor should support the student's ability to see connections between concepts, topics, and the artwork and to develop and express his/her understanding.   This method can be used with works of art as well as with topics in the curriculum that invite explanation or are open to interpretation.   Students learn to develop thoughtful interpretations of an artwork or topic by being encouraged to support their reasoning with evidence.

These processes can be adapted for visual, kinesthetic, and auditory learners.   For the visual learner, use illustrations and visual arts as pathways to learning.   Wordless picture books and tests with strong illustrations can be used to develop thinking skills with students of any age.   Students demonstrate understanding through graphic organizers or other visual representations.

Kinesthetic learners can enhance their understanding through the use of rhythm instruments, and through the use of tableau, using their body to extend meaning.   The movement activities can support extensions and interpretations of text and other art forms.

Auditory learners can use music to support understanding of basic literary elements.   For instance, song lyrics, prepared or original, along with short text, can help students develop thinking skills.   Students also can be encouraged to use assistive technology such as books on tape and electronic readers.

The routines were adapted from the Artful Thinking Program of Harvard Project Zero, Shari Tishman, Principal Investigator

Interactive Art Web Sites for Students


Albright Knox Art Gallery

Denver Art Museum

Metropolitan Museum of Art


Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Museum of Modern Art - Destination Modern Art


National Gallery of Art-NGA Kids

Odyssey Online

Sanford Artedventures

Tate Gallery


Arts Alive

Chicago Field Museum

Dallas Symphony Orchestra

Mattatuck Museum

New York Philharmonic Game Room

PBS Kids Jazz

Ricci Adam's Music Theory

Susan Mackey is a Media Specialist and Rose Ann Schwartz is in the Department of Staff Development at the Kensington Parkwood Elementary School in Bethesda, Maryland.  

Bibliography / Suggested References

Artful Thinking. Tishman, Sheri: Principal Investigator. Educational Resources

Carr, Kathtyn S. How Can We Teach Critical Thinking? ERIC Digest # ED326304

Cotton, K. (1991). Close-Up #11: Teaching Thinking Skills.

Frohardt, Darcie Clark (1999) Teaching Art with Books Kids Love

National Gallery of Art. The Art of Romare Bearden (Video) (Closed Captioned) NGA- Department of Education Resources. Washington, DC

Regional Educational Laboratory's School Improvement Research Series Web Site:

Saskatchewan Education. Understanding the Common Essential Learnings. Regina, SK: Saskatchewan Education.

Schumm, J.S. and Post, S.A. (1997). Executive Learning, 282.

Mantione, Roberts. Smead, Sabine (2002) Weaving Through Words: Using the Arts to Teach Reading Comprehension Strategies.   Newark, DE: International Reading Association

Wilhelm, Jeffrey D., Ph.D. (2002) Action Strategies for Deepening Comprehension.   Scholastic Publication: New York, NY: Scholastic Press