Looking Deeper: Visual Thinking Strategies

VisualThinking

Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the story of every piece of artwork is in the imagination of the viewer. Teachers practicing Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) can use selected works to get a better understanding of what their students are thinking while simultaneously building students’ critical thinking and observational skills. VTS is a method of inquiry that asks students to observe and comment on a work of art. VTS is an offshoot of Abigail Housen’s (1999) work on aesthetic development. Although her original research was done in anticipation of outcomes for the art world, VTS can be used in a wide range of school subjects with favorable results.

How can you use VTS in your classroom?

VTS can be used for a variety of outcomes and across grade levels and class subjects.

  • Hook students with an interesting image that relates to the class subject and get them talking about it.
  • Assess what students already know through their comments during an informal conversation about the artwork.
  • Build language skills by reframing student comments with correct grammar and more sophisticated wording.
  • Spur critical thinking by asking students to support their opinion with evidence.

How does VTS work?

Ask the students what they see in the work of art, which puts the student in the role of “expert.” Instead of asking the student to come up with the correct answer, you are asking them to share what they know. As students listen to one another, they begin to see that more than one correct answer, with multiple perspectives, is possible. When you ask the students to look for more clues in the picture, you are encouraging their observational skills. These skills have been shown to transfer across subject areas after students become familiar with the process (Huh, 2016).

How can you implement VTS?

  1. Select a work of art that is accessible to the class and has something going on in it.
  2. Invite students to silently observe the work for a minute or so, giving them time to form ideas about it.
  3. Start the conversation by asking “What’s going on in this picture?” As a student makes their observation, point out what is being addressed in the work so that everyone can follow along.
  4. Paraphrase the students’ observation, correcting any grammatical errors and using appropriate vocabulary. This ensures that students understand what the speaker is saying, and it gives the speaker feedback.
  5. Ask the speaker, “What do you see that makes you say that?” Encourage the student to give supporting evidence for their claim.
  6. When the conversation has ended, ask, “What more do you see?” to the class, and move on to the next observation.
  7. Throughout the conversation, keep an even tone, neither praising nor condemning anyone’s ideas.
  8. Thank students for participating at the end of the session.

How do you choose a piece of art to view?

When selecting a piece of art for students to view, consider the audience: What subject matter might especially appeal to the age group or acknowledge their cultural background? Choose a piece that has a narrative; abstract art will not work for beginning viewers. Be sensitive to topics that might cause emotional upset to your particular population.

What should you expect from VTS?

Using this practice requires getting comfortable with silence. When you first start using this technique, students won’t know what to expect. Most students are used to being asked for the “correct” answer, so a new approach might take a little getting used to. VTS also will require you to share your status of “expert in the room.” The rewards of which could be a better understanding of the students in your class and a more genuine learning environment.

Finally, while VTS can be a great way to begin a lesson, you have no guarantee that the conversation will go in the direction you anticipate. You must be prepared to alter your lesson based on where students take the conversation. The tradeoff is that you will be teaching a lesson in which students are truly engaged and interested.

Image result for christina connors family and consumer scienceMs. Connors has been teaching Family and Consumer Science at Lakeland Copper Beech Middle School for 13 years. She attended the Visual Thinking Strategies Practicum at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2014. Ms. Connors aspires to create students who are as curious and excited to learn new things as she is.

Additional Resources

Visual Thinking Strategies (https://vtshome.org)

  • Trainings in VTS offered nationwide.
  • Subscription includes printable classroom materials, student assessments, facilitator reflection, and image curriculum for Grades PreK–8.

References

Housen, A. (1999). Eye of the beholder: Research, theory and practice. Retrieved from https://vtshome.org/research

Huh, K. (2016). Visual thinking strategies and creativity in English education. Indian Journal of Science and Technology, 9(S1).

Research from The Educational Forum: A Call for Teacher Support of Art

Dr. Jodi Patterson is an art educator who wrote a paper for The Educational Forum titled “Too Important to Quit: A Call for Teacher Support of Art.” The essay is largely based on her experience teaching an undergraduate course called “Art for the Elementary Teacher,” a required methods course for education majors to earn their teacher certification in Washington state. A variety of students—including science, physical education, and math majors, not just art majors—take her course.

When Dr. Patterson first interviewed for her position, the department chair asked Jodi a key question…

The chairwoman asked me, “What is the most important thing you think your general education students should learn from taking an art methods course?”  

I replied, “I believe the most important thing a general education teacher should take away from my art class is an understanding that much of what they think they know about creativity and their personal art-making abilities is wrong.”

I elaborated on my answer, stating that many people believe humans are either born to be artists or not, or seem to think people are either creative or not. I offered a few key facts, something along the lines of how the workforce demands skills that cannot be outsourced, neuroscience backs up claims that the arts help with cognition in general, and drawing is a skill that can be taught. Then I ensured the committee that I would work hard to debunk art and creativity myths by providing them with concrete examples of what I would teach non-art students, including how to carefully observe the world so they can draw it, how to expand their notion of creativity from mere self-expression to include branches of interdisciplinary innovation, and thus, how to recognize the ways art can be harnessed to enhance both teaching and learning.

My answer to the “most important thing” question was a line in the sand. It was a promise that future teachers would have an opportunity to realize art’s power firsthand if they studied education at our university, and reinforced my desire to take the position.

The “most important thing” question was vital for another reason: It provided me with a focus. Sometimes the teaching profession gets hectic, passion gets diffused, and repetition of content can feel burdensome. But a simple mantra can help fortify convictions and serve as a basic reminder of why we teach. In this case, the department chair’s question framed my mantra: Authentic experience can obliterate fallacy. Such fallacy is propagated in and by our current educational system:

  1. Most young children emphatically enjoy engaging with the visual arts.
  2. Most teens quit art.
  3. Some teens who quit art become the teachers of young children who enjoy art (but as teachers are largely afraid to effectively employ art in their classrooms).

Future teachers need to be exposed to authentic art experiences to help obliterate this creative-crisis cycle. With all of the promises the visual arts bring to education, the specialized art teacher cannot do it alone. I fully realize such a statement is disruptive to both my field of art education and the educational system itself, so I took pains to outline my declaration in The Educational Forum. In reality, teachers don’t need published academic papers to clue them in to the benefits of art. We (the teachers) already stock our classrooms with art supplies because we know students enjoy using them. But what if we expanded art’s offering beyond paint and crayons? What if we believed in the power of active versus passive observation? What if we collectively encouraged divergent thinking over exalting the one right answer? Or if we all believed artistic skills could be taught, honed, and assessed just as readings skills can be? What if we understood the reading of both images and text to be equally vital skills for generations of digital natives? Could we obliterate the pubescent creative-crisis by being confident mentors who modeled, taught, and encouraged artistic behavior? How about instead of saying “I can’t,” we all said “I am learning”? How liberating would it be to the delicate psyche of humans to not feel self-defeated when confronted with trial and error opportunities—to have the confidence to practice, err, and re-invent? These are just some of the things the visual arts teach us.

The field of visual art must release itself from its specialized stronghold. Art is not exclusive unto itself, but rather inclusive to nearly all forms of human existence. If we hone generations of humans who are fierce warriors of mark-making, aesthetic up-taking, and divergent think-tanking, then together we can create a world of humans who, as Edmund Feldman coined it, become “human through art.” Art has the power to make this and many more beneficial promises so, but it needs a collective force to make it be.

KDP is proud to partner with Routledge to share Dr. Patterson’s essay free with the education community through August 31, 2017. Read the full article here.

Art—A Necessity for Development

Having taught Fine Arts for decades in New York City public school middle and lower grades, I was delighted to be invited to visit a Lower East Side Settlement House with the prospect of presenting an early childhood Reggio-inspired art program for their Early Head Start.

Excited, hopeful, filled with plans and ideas of collaboration and artistic outreach to the community of my childhood—where my father, as a young boy, played on sports teams and my mother worked as a Settlement House secretary—brought tears of nostalgic joy.

I studied Reggio concepts at Bank Street College, visited many Reggio-inspired nurseries, read countless books on beautiful objects, concepts, and methods for incorporating Reggio into American schools. I attended workshops and programs throughout New York City on Reggio philosophies.

I was assigned two classes of older two-year-olds and met with each class for close to 1 hour once a week. Gaining their engagement, awareness, and reception to my program was not an easy task, as the teachers were quite set in their ways.

Yet, I forged ahead to introduce a newer, more creative approach.

My focus was on nature—the changing of the seasons, color, shapes, textures, incorporating awareness by seeing, talking, touching. We looked at the trees, the patterns on the leaves, and the natural world around us. As we transitioned from summer to fall, we looked at the light, the sun, shadows, and colors. I decided to transform the rooms through color and translucency by using tracing paper and opaque papers with collage and painting.

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Over the weeks, the children began to create wonderful panels that were placed on the windows. We created paper trees with leaves and crunched up tissue paper in orange, green, and red hues.

We observed the branches of trees outside our room dancing in the shadows of our window shades and made crowns of leaves for our hair. Our winter trees became snowy and bare. The blues, whites, silvers, and greys of winter were dramatic on the windows. Panels of cotton ball snow and ice were created with paint and mobiles attached to twigs. Spring heralded soft greens and pinks, yellow and lavender-blue colors in paint and collage.

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Our spring exploded in tissue paper blossoms and birds in nests, eggs, and flowers on our spring tree.

We made fairy head pieces for our hair and looked at the trees in blossom. We also explored with clay and created stabiles referencing Alexander Calder’s works using our own pipe cleaners, tissue paper, and found objects.

I encouraged the teachers to follow through with documenting techniques of inquiry as the children had much to say and discuss.

As my program winds down, I am hopeful that the staff will continue with the efforts I proposed and developed. The families and children were greatly inspirational and the need to explore and express ideas enriches and expands the capabilities of the children.

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Working at the Settlement House was a great experience for me on many levels, and I appreciate the opportunity to connect as a teacher and artist—especially with the educational changes imposed by testing and the rigidity in learning.

Creativity is vital, and children need to emerge and flourish through exploration and hands-on experiences.

Art is a necessity for such development.

Today, many Reggio programs are based in private nurseries and learning facilities in inner cities, which is of benefit to children and families. Still, many families of very young children lack access to this exceptional teaching and learning method, which has the potential to support and nourish creativity within individuals, families and entire communities.

Ms. Adele Phyllis Unterberg is an Art Teacher in New York City and has both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree from New York University in Fine Arts Education.