The Art of Observation Through the Observation of Art: GSDM First-Year Students Connect Dentistry and Art with Visual Thinking Strategies at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

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

These three questions are the core of a student-centered discussion method called Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), which was created by Abigail Housen, cognitive psychologist, and Philip Yenawine, former head of education at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to engage museum attendees with the art, creating unlimited potential for new observations and interpretations. 

These questions may have been created for use in an art museum—but they can also be asked in a dental clinic, to guide the analysis of x-rays and intraoral images. 

After learning about VTS from an article in “The Wall Street Journal,” Neal Fleisher DMD 84 PERIO 86, GSDM director of predoctoral periodontology and clinical professor of general dentistry, said he was immediately interested in testing out VTS with GSDM first-year predoctoral students. He reached out to various Boston art museums and found the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was the perfect match—thus launching a collaboration that’s now lasted for more than a decade. Annually, first-year Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) and Doctor of Dental Medicine Advanced Standing (DMD AS) students visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for an immersive experience that challenges their observational and critical thinking skills. 

“Dentistry is more than a science,” Fleisher said. “You need to appreciate and understand both dentistry and art in order to be an accomplished dentist.” 

While similar programs exist at other schools, GSDM was the first dental school to integrate an art observation experience as a requirement for all first-year DMD and DMD AS students. 

“We’ve found, and we continue to do research that finds, that Visual Thinking Strategies develop students’ critical thinking skills,” said Sara Egan, associate curator of education at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. “It develops their social emotional learning abilities. It helps them to become lifelong learners in the arts. [With] all that knowledge of what visual thinking strategies can do, we then brought to this work with Boston University [Henry M. Goldman] School of Dental Medicine.” 

Fleisher said strong communication skills are essential within the dental profession, as all oral healthcare providers must explain to their colleagues and patients what they are seeing.   

“Sometimes a periodontist sees things differently than a prosthodontist does because they have different views and they’re looking at the same patient,” Fleisher said. “And when they collaborate on the patient, the patient’s care is better off for it.”  

Meeting Isabella: GSDM First-Year Students’ Unique Museum Experience  

On November 13, 2023, the GSDM DMD Class of 2027 and DMD AS Class of 2025 visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.  

As GSDM students arrived at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Egan welcomed them to the start of a unique learning experience.  

“We’re helping you get out of your comfort zone a little bit and try in a new space, but one in which there’s really no wrong answers,” Egan said to the students. “The great thing about art is that there’s so many right answers. There are so many different ways of looking at it. We’ll really use observations, and we’ll ask you to continuously ground your observations in evidence from the artwork or the objects that we’re looking at.”  

The Museum teachers, Jane Jackson, Marcie Campbell, and Francine Healey led the discussions throughout the day, focusing on three pieces of art that typically prompt great conversation: John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo, Anthony van Dyek’s Woman with a Rose, and Titian’s Rape of Europa. 

“BU Dental is my favorite [neighborhood partnership to work with,” Jackson said. “They are incredibly observant and don’t hold back and are open to sharing their thoughts. We are learning as much as they are.”   

When the students entered the museum, there was an immediate sense of calm and awe as they took in the beauty of their surroundings. The low murmurs of other patrons and the warmth of the sun from the museum windows heightened everyone’s senses, preparing them for an afternoon of observation.   

When it was time to start analyzing art, the museum teachers told the students to let their eyes scan the painting from top to bottom and side to side to ensure they were seeing everything. They encouraged the students to note the entire environment, from lighting to frame design, before coming to any conclusions.  

After giving students time for silent self-reflection, the museum teachers started an active conversation, building upon each person’s thoughts, never confirming, or denying their musings. The teachers never offered their personal opinions on the art, but instead worked to ensure that everyone understood what others were saying, paraphrasing each thought, and pointing to details in the artwork that was being discussed. 

As the day went on, the students grew more comfortable sharing their thoughts and noticed more and more details in the artwork. At first glance, they might not have taken notice of everything, but the longer they looked, the more they saw. 

During the final reflection period, Sausan Aljarrah DMD 27 said she had never interpreted art in a museum before visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. She noted that analyzing art together is similar to what students will be doing in the patient treatment center and in their professional future. 

“I think it was really important to listen to everyone and how they interpret each painting, and it was really interesting to hear because I would not have noticed a couple things if a classmate didn’t point it out,” Aljarrah said. “It was very moving and very interesting, and not what I expected at all, but it was awesome to be a part of. “  

Kamal Dabaja DMD 27 agreed with Aljarrah, adding that it’s essential that they all learn how to understand different perspectives, regardless of the subject.  

“Similar to all the art in here, every patient has a different case, different story and so to emphasize a visualized approach and really being able to see the different perspectives that every patient brings, it was really nice to able be to coordinate with other dental students and work together as a team to get those new perspectives,” Dabaja said.  

Seeing the Big Picture: Post-Visit Reflection Lecture Connects the Dots  

After visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the students were left with one critical question: How does VTS directly correlate to their dental studies?  

To answer that question, Fleisher and Dr. Carl McManama, professor of general dentistry led a follow-up lecture to ensure that students understood the main goals of the visit. (Fleisher worked with McManama and Ana Zea, director of community-based education and clinical associate professor of general dentistry, to initiate the GSDM-Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum collaboration.)  

During the lecture, Fleisher told students that using art to hone their observation skills gives them an opportunity to practice the same techniques they would use in the clinic–but without the same levels of self-inflicted pressure.  

“There is a lot of hesitancy in answering the question because it is a dental-related question and if you get it wrong, you [think] you are going to look bad in front of your classmates and you [spiral], thinking that you are not going to be a good dentist, so you hesitate to talk about it,” Fleisher said. “As opposed to a piece of work of art, where there is no right or wrong answer, and you go and speak your mind and answer questions and not be quite as concerned about it.”  

Fleisher also asked students in the lecture to be more attuned to the questions they need to ask their patients to make a correct diagnosis following their visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.  

“Observation is one of the essential ingredients [to diagnose a problem] but, you also have to have a good interview technique, including reading the body language of your patient and understanding the context of your patient,” Fleisher said. “The reality is humans are very complex. You can’t regulate diagnosis and treatment solely through processes. You can’t put everything through a computer and get the right answer. You need to look more closely at what is going on.”  

To further emphasize their point, Fleisher and McManama showed images of dental radiographs and discussed real-life case examples. As they discussed these images throughout the lecture, they asked students the same questions from the museum visit: What is going on in these pictures? What do you see that made them say that? and What more can we find? 

Fleisher reassured the first-year students, telling them that they are still developing their dental knowledge inventory and pattern recognition. He encouraged them not to rely on pure memorization but also to use their analytical critical thinking skills and be comfortable working through questions.  

In his section of the lecture, McManama stressed to the students that having VTS in their mental toolbox will make them stronger dental professionals. He said it takes time to develop dental knowledge and pattern recognition, but VTS will help them analyze any situation they are faced with.   

During their dental journeys, he said students will make a misinterpretation at least once, but it should be viewed as a learning opportunity, instead of a failure.  

“All it takes is making a mistake once or twice in your practice and you will never make that mistake again,” McManama said.  

After the lecture, Danielle Pintone DMD 27 said she hadn’t really known what going to a museum had to do with her dental education before her visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Now, she is going to have more confidence when analyzing dental images.  

“I won’t automatically assume that I’m wrong just because someone else has a different interpretation of what it could be,” Pintone said.  

During her time at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Claudette Elkhoury DMD 27 said she discovered how drastically different her interpretations can be from someone else’s. Going forward, when she is working with other students to form a diagnosis, she is going to be more open to hearing other people’s opinions and how they came to those conclusions.  

“I always knew that art is such a big factor in dentistry and especially paying attention to detail,” Elkhoury said. “I think [since] a lot of us come from a science background, we tend to ignore that.  Practicing being observant and looking at things you wouldn’t normally look at is going to help you a lot when you’re looking at teeth.”  

Before visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Michael Smith DMD 27 said he simply thought it was going to be a fun experience—but didn’t see how it pertained to his studies. Now, he is going to actively apply visual thinking strategies because he sees how vital it is to look at every part of a case instead of focusing on one aspect.  

“After today’s lecture, seeing [the] images of actual radiographs and images of cases, I realized how we could apply a lot of those same principles of observation in almost like a one-to-one direct translation,” Smith said. “It felt almost exactly the same, looking at the teeth today as it did looking at the art.” 

Note: Thanks to the Boston University Arts Initiative, Boston University students, faculty, and staff have access to free or discounted tickets to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum with pre-registration and a valid Boston University ID. Visit the Boston University Arts Initiative website page to reserve tickets and for more information. 


By Rachel Grace Philipson