Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is a research-based teaching method that improves critical thinking and language skills through discussions of visual images. VTS encourages participation and self-confidence, especially among students who struggle. VTS is easy to learn and offers a proven strategy for educators to meet current learning objectives.
Developmental Theory and Visual Thinking Strategies
Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) Theory was developed by Abigail Housen, a cognitive psychologist along with Philip Yenawine, the Director of Education at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
VTS is influenced by Rudolf Arnhiem’s theory of visual thinking, which deals with the connection between visual perception and thought. Piaget and Vygotsky’s theories suggest that learning results from interactions with the environment. Housen’s field of study addresses these theories as she examines how people (both children and adults) interact with art.
View an example of Visual Thinking Strategies in action in a video on the official VTS website.
How do Visual Thinking Strategies influence Learning?
It addresses the interests and strengths of the learners. Art has many meanings, and VTS allows students to debate over these many meanings. Students learn from others how to observe, use evidence to support their opinions and to think critically.
Five Stages of Aesthetic Development
All who view art fall into five stages. Most children fall into stage 1 or 2, according to Housen.
- Have immediate response to what is seen.
- Observations are short and random.
- See concretely, and not representationally.
- Viewers’ comments reveal a vague sense about what art is and may indicate some awareness of the process of looking.
- Build framework to make sense of what they are seeing.
- Viewers adopt the analytical and critical stance of the art historian.
- Art’s meaning and message can be explained and rationalize through looking at facts and figures.
- Viewers seek a personal encounter with a work of art.
- Appreciate the lines, shapes, and colors of the piece the viewer is looking at.
- Symbolizations of the work of art start to appear.
Stage 5- Re-creative
- Viewers, having a long history of viewing and reflecting about works of art, now “willingly suspend disbelief.”
- A work of art is like a familiar friend to the viewer
Using Visual Thinking Strategies in the Classroom
Introduce VTS to the class (explain what it is). Show an image to the class. The image should be a representational image with the potential for narrative, rather than an abstract work that may be too difficult to interpret.
Ask these questions: ‘What’s going on in this picture?’ If the answer involves an interpretation ask ‘What do you see that makes you say that?’ Keep asking your students ‘What else can you find?’ This helps the conversation about the piece alive. Once the students are familiar with these questions, don’t be shy to add variety to the way you ask the questions.
Being a Successful Teacher of Visual Thinking Strategies
It is so easy to lead a VTS discussion. It does take some time to really master the nuances of paraphrasing and pulling the words from the children, but an experienced teacher should have no trouble even the first time around. Just follow these simple steps:
- Listen! – Be sure you hear everything that your student is saying.
- Point – Point to what is mentioned in the image so that all student are aware of what part of the artwork is being discussed.
- Paraphrase – Restate / paraphrase what the student says for every comment, change wording but not the meaning. This helps expand students’ vocabulary and provide clarity to the students who may not have understood their classmate’s comment.
- Accept each comment neutrally – There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers. All comments are worthy of discussion.
- Link – Relate to student’s ideas to previous comments made by other students. These connections reinforce critical thinking and language skills.
Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is a Valuable Component of a Quality Art Education
I had the pleasure of meeting Phillip Yenawine, co-author of VTS, at the University of illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and watching him work with children and adults at the Krannert Art Museum and in the local public schools. I had read about VTS, but was not sold on it until I saw it in action. I was amazed at how simple it was to facilitate and how sophisticated the discussions were. I was also surprised at how much the children actually enjoyed talking about art.
Research shows that VTS improves critical thinking and language skills, across the curriculum. VTS is easy for teachers and students to learn and is ideal for integrating art into the curriculum. VTS is also a great alternative to a studio art lesson when time or clean-up in an issue.
Visual Thinking Strategies Home Page