Understanding Visual Literacy: The Visual Thinking Strategies Approach — Philip Yenawine (2023)

This essay is included in the book, Essentials of Teaching and Integrating Visual and Media Literacy: Visualizing Learning, Danilo M. Baylen and Adriana D’Alba, Editors. Springer, Switzerland, 2015.

By Dabney Hailey, Alexa Miller, and Philip Yenawine

Abstract This chapter makes the case for two aspects of visual literacy that the authors believe to be generally overlooked: 1) that visual literacy occurs by way of a developmental trajectory and requires instruction as well as practice; and 2) that it involves as much thought as it does visual awareness and is an integral component of the skills and beliefs related to inquiry. This chapter roots these ideas in the theory and research of cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen, co-author of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) with museum educator Philip Yenawine. Housen identified aesthetic stages that mark the development of skills helping to define visual literacy. Her research is also the basis of VTS, a method of engaging learners in deep experiences looking at art and discussing meanings with peers, a process that, this chapter posits, furthers visual literacy. This chapter presents that body of research and details the resulting VTS protocol. It reviews academic studies to date, subsequent to Housen, that document the impact of VTS interventions in various settings, and suggests beneficial areas for future research. In order to probe what development in visual literacy looks and sounds like on a granular level, two case studies of student writing from existing studies are presented and analyzed. Visual literacy skills enabled by VTS are briefly connected to broader educational concerns.

In order to produce children who know how to read well enough to perform practical tasks, at the very least, parents and caregivers talk to children as babies, introduce books early on, and prepare them for school, where various step-by-step processes are employed to help children achieve functional verbal literacy before the end of elementary education. Not so with visual literacy.

The culture at large seems to assume that somehow, perhaps because of our constant bombardment with images, visual literacy will simply happen without specific instruction. This attitude carries over to formal education, where achievement in reading, writing, and arithmetic sets the agenda, and where leaders are often mystified as to what visual literacy even means, much less how it may contribute to the teaching of skills prioritized by convention and mandate.

Even among the few who bemoan the consequences of a visually illiterate public, a gap exists between concern for the problem and offering solutions based in relevant theory and presented in terms of values common to those who set cultural and educational policy. In fact, as this chapter explores and tries to remedy, in the field of visual literacy there is no fleshed out, generally agreed upon definition or shared understanding of the skills involved. The wider world therefore has no sense of the relevance of these skills to educational practices that result in success throughout schooling and eventually in adulthood, work and civic engagement; there is even less understanding of the potency of integrating visual literacy with teaching the “3 R’s.” Fostering greater understanding in this area is the essential prerequisite for visual literacy to be regarded as the broad ranging, pertinent, and teachable matter it is.

This chapter aims to deepen comprehension of visual literacy and how it can be developed through teaching a specific methodology, Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). The authors’ perspective is shaped by longstanding practice as educators using VTS and regularly engaging in close study of VTS interventions. VTS is intended to nurture growth in aesthetic thought (the cognition that takes place as people look at art) as described by cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen, who co-authored the methodology. Beginning with a consideration of the definition of visual literacy, this chapter provides an overview of Housen’s theory and research, explains what is meant by aesthetic thought and how it develops, and connects Housen’s insights to the wider field of visual literacy. It further describes in detail the mechanics of the VTS teaching methodology, and reviews academic studies on its impact, which in turn are discussed to illuminate how visual literacy develops.

A Developmental Approach to Understanding Visual Literacy

John Debes’s (1968) definition of visual literacy—he’s credited with coining the term—establishes a clear starting point for understanding visual literacy at its core. He writes:

Visual Literacy refers to a group of vision-competencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same time having and integrating other sensory experiences. The development of these competencies is fundamental to normal human learning. When developed, they enable a visually literate person to discriminate and interpret the visible actions, objects, symbols, natural or man-made, that he encounters in his environment. Through the creative use of these competencies, he is able to communicate with others. Through the appreciative use of these competencies, he is able to comprehend and enjoy the masterworks of visual communication. (p. 27; IVLA)

This definition is one of the broadest in the literature. One of its strengths is the fact that it refers to visual literacy as competencies that “develop.” Even though Debes states that they are “fundamental to human learning,” these competencies are acquired and enhanced by dint of effort, exposure, and, ideally, guided experience. The intended outcome, for Debes, is fluency: the ability to differentiate among and interpret the things one sees and to appreciate “masterworks of visual communication.” He also includes the ability to communicate creatively applying these skills, a topic explored at length below. (The development of visual communication abilities—from drawing to design to creating diagrams, graphs and maps—requires teaching interventions beyond what is addressed here.)

As with any literacy, visual literacy begins with the development of the brain’s capacities over time, through both structured experience (i.e., teaching) and ongoing, informal interactions with the visual environment. Just as parents and teachers take pains to develop reading literacy, we can and should employ a similar process to ensure visual literacy, ideally by building on existing skills, challenging them appropriately, and structuring the experience to allow children to construct their understandings of what they encounter visually (Bruner, 1960). By stepping up attention to nurturing visual literacy through teaching methods rooted in research on its developmental and cognitive aspects, all levels of education will benefit (Arnheim, 1969).

But what are the cognitive aspects of vision? While the eye perceives, the mind processes observations, draws meaning from them, and organizes that meaning in connection with an array of current and prior experiences, memories and ideas as well as such details as the immediate physical context. Though responses to what is observed can materialize in many forms, a primary one is language. The visual cortex connects directly to language centers in the brain. The content of the eye-mind connection commonly appears in what people say and may be further facilitated by the act of speaking, an iterative process. Influencing this concurrence of observation, thought, and language (which necessarily includes other senses as well) is crucial to achieving Debes’s version of visual literacy and has serious implications for teaching.

In addition to Debes’s account, however, there is another powerful way to describe a visually literate person: someone who looks with a questioning state of mind. Importantly, visual literacy involves as much inquiry as it does visual acuity. “Inquiry,” write the authors from the National Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment (Olson & Loucks-Horsley, 1996), “is a multifaceted activity that involves making observations; posing questions; examining books and other sources of information to see what is already known in light of experimental evidence; using tools to gather, analyze, and interpret data; proposing answers, explanations, and predictions; and communicating the results.” This definition of inquiry, applied broadly in science education, is a useful framework for considering how developing visual literacy is integral to the cultivation of inquiring minds. As students engage with works of art and with each other in a structured group inquiry process, such as VTS, their visual literacy develops in tandem with a critical pathway into inquiry generally.

Perhaps because of the apparent effortlessness of a child beginning to recognize, categorize, and classify what she sees—Rudolf Arnheim parses this brilliantly in his seminal book, Visual Thinking (1969)—society collectively fails to appreciate both the complicated cognition involved in visual literacy and the steps required to ensure it develops. One way to study its presence is through asking people to talk about what they see: by capturing in language the lightning-fast transition of perception to thought to language. Asking people to think out loud, talking about what they see as they look, and recording their comments results in concrete data about the process of visual meaning making. These insights came into focus in the work of Abigail Housen.

Housen is a cognitive psychologist who, along with Yenawine, co-created the VTS protocol. Her research casts light on both the skills involved in and the developmental arc of visual literacy. She completed her doctorate in 1983 at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education alongside a number of scholars interested in how the mind develops. Her specific interest was in how viewers process what they see in art, which she knew from her reading of James Mark Baldwin (1975) and Rudolf Arnheim (1966, 1969), among others, to be a particularly rich and complicated way of thinking. While visual literacy involves visual encounters with both the natural and the human-made world, viewing art, as a particularly complex form of visual stimulus, is, it turns out, an appropriate place to study the range of looking and thinking skills involved in visual literacy. Art usually includes a certain amount of readily recognizable information, but it is intentionally ambiguous and layered with meaning, creating the impetus for searching beyond the obvious over the course of extended, thoughtful examination

Housen: Research Questions, Methods, and Findings

Housen’s work began with a number of key questions: “How could looking at art make some uncomfortable, others bored or edgy, and still others animated and excited? What goes on in people’s minds as they stand in front of a painting? Why do some individuals stay longer with art—finding more meaning for longer periods—than others? What goes on over their lifetimes as they look again and again at many works of art?” (1983, 2007).

Housen’s research process and resulting theory is ultimately indebted to the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget (Piaget, 1926, 1951) but is even more directly influenced by the methodologies and findings of Housen’s Harvard colleagues, including Lawrence Kohlberg (1971; Kohlberg & Hirsch, 1977; Duska & Whelan, 1975) and Jane Loevinger (1976, 1993). Michael Parsons (1987), another scholar working at roughly the same time, was also inspired by Kohlberg and posited a stage theory related to aesthetic development. Though their methods were quite different, Housen’s and Parson’s findings correspond in many ways. One significant difference concerns the detail with which Housen came to understand the novice viewer, who, as will be discussed below, is the subject of teaching strategies aimed at developing visual literacy.

Beginning in the 1970s and continuing for almost a decade, Housen interviewed hundreds of individual subjects while they looked at art. She developed a rigorous protocol called the Aesthetic Development Interview (ADI), in which the viewer speaks in an undirected way about what he sees while viewing an artwork. Housen recorded individuals at all levels of viewing experience; she simultaneously collected detailed biographical information on each participant. After transcribing the interviews, she broke the comments into distinct units of thought and studied them, eventually developing a method of categorizing and coding the immense range of thoughts she found (1983).

Housen’s analysis of her data is detailed, nuanced, and extensive. Analyzing the interviews thought by thought, she found a total of thirteen domains—including observations, preferences, associations, evaluations, negative or positive comprehension, and questioning—which were further broken down into as many as thirteen discernible issues or sub categories. All the interviews were coded by way of these domains and categories. She was able to determine that people with different experience in viewing art actually think in different patterns. Like her colleagues, she concluded that these patterns represent distinct sets of behaviors, with little overlap, that occur roughly sequentially. She found five such patterns and refers to them as aesthetic stages. (See Appendix for summaries of all five stages.)

While Piaget noted that developmental changes seemed to occur naturally over time, Housen determined that a specific form of experience—deep looking at art specifically, or what Housen calls “eyes on canvas”—is required to produce aesthetic growth. Movement from one stage to the next comes as a result of extended, thoughtful examination of visually complex material over time. In other words, in the absence of observing and thinking about meaning in complex imagery, growth through the stages does not occur. Notably, it is not until the later stages that growth is usually combined with acquisition of information. Importantly, beginner viewers can be any age. The key factor is experience in looking at art, rather than life experience in general or simple maturation.

Housen’s Early Stages: The Pre-Visually Literate

Housen’s account of the first two stages (called Accountive and Constructive viewers) clarifies what it means to be pre-visually literate and sheds the most light on the processes involved in reaching basic visual literacy, which, this chapter argues, occurs at the end of stage 2. She determined, for example, that people in Stage 1, who have had little or no contact with art and therefore have no references for it, only apply what they know from their own lives to make sense of what they see. Experts also apply lived experience but add other ways of thinking that result from their interactions with art over extended periods of time, relying on a variety of strategies as well as specific concepts and information acquired through lengthy effort.

Usefully, Housen found that a particular kind of observation—very simple ones—dominates Stage 1. These viewers make random, basic, perhaps one-word observations of things seen piecemeal rather than holistically or systematically. At first some observations are what Housen describes as “idiosyncratic:” clear to the viewer but not necessarily seen by others or intended by the artist. With time and experience looking, viewers begin to ground these observations in the logic of the image itself. They see things as connected to other things, in context, and in space. While at first their observations are concrete—it’s a tree, not a picture of a tree—gradually, the notion of images as representations created by someone with specific intentions comes into focus. Similarly, early on what is recognized in an image is based on the personal experience of the viewer making associations: that looks like my house.

When people in Stage 1 begin to make meaning from a set of observations, Housen found, that meaning usually takes the form of short pieces of narrative. For example, a beginner viewer will animate a still image by inferring that a depicted figure is walking or thinking. It is common to assign emotional meanings to what is seen, such as, he’s angry or sad. An early version of comparing shows up in phrases such as, this looks like. As viewers move into Stage 2, they begin wondering why something looks as it does, comparing the image to others in their experience. At that point, the standard of reference is usually what the viewer expects based on reality. These viewers often note that discrepancies between what they see and what they expect make something weird. With additional experience viewing and thinking about art, other frames of reference are invoked during Stage 2, such as craft (the way he painted is kind of blotchy,) medium (this is a black and white photograph,) or time/culture (I think this is Egyptian.)

Implications for Teaching

The great majority of the thousands of individuals across age groups studied by Housen—her research continued for two decades following the completion of her dissertation—is in the most basic stages of aesthetic development, Stages 1 and 2, with most in the former. Despite the plethora of images people encounter daily, they show little advancement in either range or scope of observations habitually made, and little development in terms of thinking. Virtually all of the individuals found in later stages (3 through 5) are directly involved in extensive and self-motivated studying, making, or collecting of art—and they’ve been doing it for years (Housen, 1983, 1999, 2007).

Housen’s work prompted some major museums (notably the Institute for Contemporary Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, both in Boston, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York) to request studies (Housen, 1984-1991; Duke & Housen, 1998). Sensing that there are gaps in their knowledge or experience, many museum visitors seek help finding meaning in what they see, and museum education departments are charged with providing the desired assists. Could something be learned from knowing visitors’ aesthetic stage? Could the impact of educational offerings be determined—did people learn what was taught in the programs provided?

Three findings from these museum studies are significant to this chapter: 1) the majority of museum visitors were at an early viewing stage and not yet visually literate, in the sense of the skills laid out by Debes (1968); 2) very little of the intended impact of educational offerings could in fact be documented; and 3) to the extent that the effects could be noted, they corresponded to the person’s aesthetic stage (Duke & Housen, 1998). Consistently, the information offered and the teaching strategies adopted by museums were operating above the level of most of those who sought help. Their educational efforts failed to stick.

Fortunately, Housen’s data analyses provided some major insights into how to redirect teaching, including what to avoid when creating interventions designed to help people see more, think in more complex ways, and find greater meaning and pleasure as result (De Santis & Housen, 2007; Yenawine, 2013). She and Yenawine—who was the Museum of Modern Art’s Director of Education from 1983-93—set about using these analyses to create teaching methods that actually spurred aesthetic growth among MOMA’s visitors. Over the course of a dozen years and several research studies, they created Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). The process involved many refinements and clarifications; the resulting teaching methodology and an associated elementary-school curriculum were published in 2000 and 2001.

Housen’s original research, built upon by subsequent studies designed to document the impact of VTS, shows that the range of processes involved in aesthetic development are not distinct from, but instead are a part of, thinking processes more generally. This finding is now corroborated broadly in neuroscience, where vision itself is understood to be “information processing, not image transmission” (Livingstone, 2002). Recent neuroscientific research continues to deepen our understanding of the art experience as particularly rich cognition. For example, Jean-Pierre Changeux (2012) describes the aesthetic experience, a multi-sensory activity rooted in the visual, as one that can make conscious short and long-term memories and elicit empathy. He also notes that aesthetic experiences are highly synthetic in terms of brain activity in that they stimulate the prefrontal cortex (the locus of complex cognition, decision-making, personality, and self-moderation) in concert with the limbic system (which involves emotions, memories, and fundamentally, self-preservation). Art historian Barbara Stafford (2007, 2008), who explores the impact of recent neurobiological research on our understandings of art, vision, and cognition, describes viewing art as a somatosensory experience, one of heightened attentiveness. She notes that it activates, and crucially has the potential to enable awareness of, high-level cognitive functions like intention, organization, and selection. These neurobiological findings cast light on why “eye-on-canvas” time is particularly influential to the development of aesthetic thought.

The cultivation of aesthetic thought—and, as this chapter argues, visual literacy—is fundamentally intertwined with active engagement with art because of art’s mix of observable information, emotional valence, ambiguity, and inferred meanings, some symbolic or metaphorical. Interactions with art involve a constant exchange between stimulus and response and between the viewer’s memory and current experience, building new frameworks through which to view the world. VTS is designed to fully exploit the richness of the art experience and its impact on cognition.

The VTS Protocol

VTS is constructivist in nature, aligning with precepts articulated by John Dewey (1934, 1938), Jerome Bruner (1966), and Lev Vygotsky (1962, 1978). It focuses on teacher facilitated but viewer directed discussions of art. The art is carefully chosen to provide subjects of relevance to the particular audience, always including accessible imagery to give participants a chance to begin by using their existing knowledge, interests and abilities. Images also contain enough ambiguity to pique curiosity so that what is recognized is used as the basis for exploring what’s puzzling (Yenawine, 2003; 2013). The looking is activated by questions asking viewers to start with a task that is simple for them—making observations—and helps them improve upon existing skills by presenting challenges within their reach and by fostering discussion. These actions spur intensive, ongoing engagement with and authentic experience of complex visual material.

VTS was developed over an iterative process of testing and using data to make revisions that lasted ten years, beginning in 1991. The resulting protocol instructs facilitators as follows:

Present a carefully selected image. Appropriate images account for the levels of experience with art, ages, and backgrounds of the specific group, and contain:

· Subjects of interest

· Imagery that represents both familiarity and newness

· Strong narratives, accessible but layered, i.e., “deep”

· Accessible intrigue: challenge but don’t completely stump them

· Ambiguity: enough complexity to puzzle and inspire debate

Allow a few moments of silent looking before beginning the discussion.

Pose three specific research-tested questions to motivate and maintain the inquiry:

· What’s going on/happening in this picture? (Asked once to initiate the discussion)

· What do you see that makes you say that? (Asked whenever an interpretive comment is made)

(Video) Philip Yenawine: Visual Thinking Strategies

· What more can you/we find? (Asked frequently throughout the discussion to broaden and deepen the search for meaning)

Facilitate the discussion by

· Listening carefully to catch everything that students say

· Pointing to observations as students make comments, providing a “visual paraphrase”

· Paraphrasing each comment, taking a moment to reflect on it while formulating the response to make sure all content and meanings are grasped and helpfully rephrased

· Linking related comments whether students agree or disagree, or build on one another’s ideas

· Remaining neutral by treating everyone and each comment in the same way

Conclude by thanking students for their participation and by citing behaviors that are particularly appreciated.

The method was constructed from Housen’s data about beginning viewers (those in Stages 1 and 2) and studied by way of her original research protocols. It was tested and tweaked to ensure that it nurtured the capacity of students to construct more and more complex meanings from works of art.

Rigorous facilitation using the specific techniques is critical to a successful VTS conversation. For example, opening with silence is necessary, for it provides each student the opportunity to form independent thought. Wording matters: phrasing the evidence-seeking question as, What do you see that makes you say that? instead of, for instance, Why do you think that? establishes a psychologically safe environment in which focus is placed on the work of art rather than the student personally; provisional ideas are welcome but visual evidence is consistently sought. The teacher’s neutrality matters because it leaves students free to find and think what they will, and it nurtures mutual respect among students, necessary for wide participation and risk taking. Repeatedly asking What more can we find? extends the process, allowing the group to find many possible answers. Linking allows the discussion to cohere while honoring disparate ideas.

By adhering to the method, which is intentionally precise, ideas can be openly discussed and tested; multiple perspectives can be reasonably, simultaneously considered based in evidence found in the image. VTS provides a means to hold the group in a process of inquiry, one in which divergent and convergent thinking, evidence seeking, and wondering intermingle.

A modest intervention in terms of time, the VTS school curriculum involves ten, one-hour lessons a year using the above method to look at two to three images per lesson throughout the elementary grades. The basic curriculum covers grades Pre-K to 6 and includes recommendations for building on experience with art in other lessons, including using images as prompts for writing; it also includes additional prompts and basic research projects when students show signs of entering stage 3. Currently, VTS is being implemented in over 300 schools in the U.S. (Yenawine, 2013; Shifrin, 2008). Versions for middle school and high school are being tested. Variations have been devised for use in museum teaching, university classes (Miller & Yenawine, 2014; Hailey, 2014), medical education (see below), and the professional world.

Data from studies designed to determine if VTS achieved the desired effect in elementary schools documented that it did indeed cultivate aesthetic development through Stage 1 and well into Stage 2; in concert, the techniques create a vigorous learning environment applicable with other imagery, subjects, and materials. Teachers currently use the strategy to allow students to construct meaning from a wide range of images as well as texts, and many teachers have implemented VTS in history, literature, math, and science lessons (Yenawine, 2013).

Literature Review and Findings

What is known in research about the impact of VTS? What do these findings mean for our understandings of visual literacy? This chapter’s summary of existing research is limited to peer-reviewed literature, two federally funded studies, and one recently published dissertation, though substantial knowledge from the realm of practice shapes the analysis of this research. It is important to note that Housen, Yenawine, Karin DeSantis and others studied additional examples of VTS teaching and learning throughout the development of the VTS curriculum (DeSantis & Housen, 1984-2003). Findings from many of these unpublished studies (undertaken in various school systems and in museums in different parts of the country) have been shared collegially across sites and at conferences. They were used to evaluate and inform the content of VTS curricula yet do not exist in peer-reviewed journals.

Data discussed here come from two distinct realms in education: first, K-6 partnerships with art museums and second, training programs within the healthcare professions (often in collaboration with art museums). It is important to acknowledge a key difference between VTS in K-6 and in medical education; research from K-6 interventions reflects the impact of the sequential VTS curriculum (discussions of a consistent body of carefully chosen images facilitated at regular intervals, approximately ten hours a year over three or more years, using the method of teaching across sites), while the VTS-based interventions in healthcare vary widely in scope (the longest intervention capped at about 12 total hours of VTS, allocated over three months), in the works of art used, and in the integration of VTS with other methods (such as structured reflections, clinical didactics, and drawing).

Impact Shown in Elementary Education

The VTS school curriculum was tested in studies beginning in 1991 at MOMA in New York City as well as in St. Petersburg, Russia; Vilnius, Lithuania; Byron, Minnesota and San Antonio, Texas (Housen, 2002 & 2007; DeSantis & Housen, 2007). Formal academic longitudinal research was conducted in one semi-rural school in Byron. The study tracked two cohorts, one advancing from second to sixth grade and the other from fourth to eighth, and was published in 2002. Another formal study—still unpublished—was conducted in one urban school in San Antonio; it tracked mostly English Language Learners from grades 3 through 5 (DeSantis & Housen, 2007). Both studies included matched control groups, the differences being that only the experimental students received VTS. Housen’s protocols for determining aesthetic stage were applied before and after the sequential curricular intervention during each of the study years and were enlarged to include additional methods.

The published data from Byron from 1993-1998 (as well as the unpublished San Antonio research) indicate that roughly thirty hours of focused experience with art—Housen’s “eyes on canvas”—nurtured a transition from the first stage of aesthetic development to solid ground in the second. In Bryon, all the students grew by an entire aesthetic stage over the course of three years (Housen, 2002). The study further documented the impact of aesthetic growth and VTS itself on a broader range of skills, including thinking behaviors considered aspects of critical thinking: habitually providing evidence to back up inferences and speculating among various possible interpretations, for example. The predictable expansion of these habits in the vast majority of students was correlated to their aesthetic growth; critical thinking capacities began to emerge predictably when students advanced into Stage 2.

The Byron study also showed that these thinking skills transferred from art images to objects from other realms such as science. These findings were derived from thoughts expressed in an additional protocol, the “Material Object Interview,” in which students were given an unfamiliar object—fossils, foreign coins, unusual tools—and asked to look and talk about what they saw. Unexpectedly, Byron intervention students also improved in performance on standardized tests after three years of VTS, gaining 2.5 times the state average increase on Minnesota achievement tests, suggesting possible transfer of skills from aesthetic development to other domains.

Two separate, federally funded studies (Curva, Milton, Wood, Palmer & Nahmias 2005; Adams, Foutz & Luke, 2007) were conducted in schools participating in VTS projects at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (Burchenal & Grohe, 2007) and at the Wolfsonian-FIU Museum in Miami (Rawlinson, Wood, Osterman, & Sullivan, 2007). These longitudinal interventions, which included roughly thirty hours of VTS lessons over three years, were shown to impact student thinking patterns in a manner that correlated with the increases in critical thinking skills observed in Byron. VTS students consistently talked or wrote significantly longer than control students about artwork in post-test interviews and writing samples (examples of which are detailed below), indicating increases in students’ capacities to observe, infer meaning, and back up inferences with evidence. In the Gardner Museum study, for example, VTS students averaged 28 lines per interview compared to 14 lines for control students. Across the three K-6 studies (Byron, Boston, and Miami), all treatment students looked longer, had more to say, and demonstrated a wider range of thought categories in their responses following VTS interventions. Consistently, thirty hours of VTS discussions over three years facilitated changes from Stage 1 into late Stage 2 within the groups.

Impact Shown in Healthcare Education

The literature on VTS interventions with students in medical training programs echoes the K-6 findings in the development of thinking and language skills, and also indicates attitudinal impact. A 2008 study at Harvard Medical School analyzed a ten-week intervention with first- and second-year medical students that mixed VTS with clinical didactics and drawing (Naghshineh, Hafler, Miller, Blanco, Lipsitz, Dubroff, Khoshbin & Katz, 2008). Results in post-test writing samples included significant increases in frequencies of observations—students made 38% more observations on both medical and art imagery than control group students—and in frequencies of use of evidence to back up interpretations. Importantly, students who attended eight or more sessions increased observation and language skills significantly more than students who attended seven or less. This “dose effect” speaks to the developmental nature of acquiring visual literacy skills. This finding is underscored by a researched pilot experiment at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS) (Jasani & Saks, 2013), in which students who participated in one intensive VTS-based workshop (they discussed eight images over three hours) did not show any differences in frequencies of observations made in writing post-tests.

The Harvard and RWJMS studies, along with others from the healthcare sector, also illuminated the impact of VTS on language development. The Harvard study included qualitative analysis of student writing samples documenting “increased sophistication” in the words students chose to describe both clinical and art imagery (i.e., the increased or new use of words such as “shading,” or “contour”). These language changes reflect that students’ abilities to observe, infer and express meaning from visual material (either clinical or artistic) became more robust and precise. In addition, their descriptions of visual material became more comprehensive, as demonstrated in the RWJMS intervention, where analysis of writing samples documented increases in use of speculative language, visual analogies, and in the scope of interpretations.

A third study conducted at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio (Klugman, Peel, & Beckmann-Mendez, 2011) looked at the results of three 90-minute VTS-based sessions with medical and nursing students; researchers examined student responses to both art and clinical imagery with both qualitative and quantitative tools in order to assess learning. Across the three studies—Harvard, RWJF, and Texas—students looked longer and had more to say following VTS interventions, indicating their enhanced performance of three crucial aspects of clinical observation: the ability to describe concretely what is perceived, the ability to separate fact from inference, and the understanding that observation takes time (Boudreau, Cassell & Fuks, 2008).

Finally, one radically different program in the Netherlands using VTS with brain-injured patients further probed the impact of VTS on language abilities (Ter Horst & Kruiper-Doesborgh, 2011). This pilot study with 13 patients documented increases in the tendencies to take time to reflect before speaking and to give reasoned opinions. Subjects also reported increased awareness of their own abilities with regards to critical thinking and their difficulties in this respect. This study underscores the way in which changes in visual literacy connect with metacognition and are reflected in language use.

In addition to looking at skill development, studies on VTS from the healthcare professions have also focused on the methodology’s effect on attitudes and beliefs about learning. Klugman et al. (2011) documented increases in positive views towards the essential role of communication within healthcare and the importance of discussions about what is seen and found as being necessary for effective diagnosis; they also showed an increase in participants’ tolerance of ambiguity—a cognitive variable significant to aspects of medicine including worldview, test-ordering, defensive practice, and discomfort in scenarios of death and grief (Geller, 2007). A separate qualitative study on nursing students’ experiences with VTS at Indiana University revealed two standout themes: “feeling safe in learning” and “thinking and seeing differently” (Moorman, 2013). Students particularly valued that during VTS discussions, they were able to express differences of opinions without feelings of criticism or judgment. They also positively emphasized the experience of having their own judgments change based on observations made by others. “Ok, I can see how you got to this” is how one student describes this experience, which connects with “mutual respect,” a sub-theme of the Indiana study.

A qualitative study from the social work field, conducted at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, examined an intervention in which VTS was used in diversity training for teachers (Chapman, Hall, Colby & Sisler, 2013). The researchers looked at both “schema change” and how images function in catalyzing dialogue. Their findings noted changes in participants’ descriptions of “shifts in awareness, perspective-taking, attitude change, and more complex thinking about Latino/Latina immigrants” (the subject of most of the images used in this case). Many of these attitudinal findings reflect participants’ reconciliation of their own visual experiences with the experiences of others, suggesting the persuasive influence of social interactions as part of the visual literacy learning process and its potential to alter schemas about the construction of knowledge.

What Do Shifts into Visual Literacy Look Like?

While the research findings synthesized above speak to the impact of VTS on elementary school and medical students, this section offers descriptions of the behaviors that mark shifts into visual literacy and provides specific examples. Understanding of these behaviors has evolved over time, through tracking both VTS discussions and writing samples. Here is what these authors have come to look for:

· Participants make more observations than when they started, and their observations become more complex and include more detail. Things seen singly come to be seen in a context.

· As participants begin to make meaning from their observations, they draw more and more complex inferences. They develop the habit of providing visual evidence to back up their inferences, interpretations, and opinions.

· They increase their use of conditional language to indicate awareness that what they suggest might be open to other interpretations.

· While at first they might be content with a single interpretation of what they see, they come to speculate among possible meanings, often holding several as equally plausible, including those offered by peers.

· After some time, they counter their own first thoughts and knowingly revise earlier impressions, often stimulated by the ideas put forth by others.

· They begin to cycle back to earlier ideas to elaborate by adding detail or clarifying.

· They develop a desire to know more about the makers of images and their intentions, the motivation for seeking additional information from other sources to fold into their analysis.

· They apply all of these thinking and language skills to a range of visual vocabularies across many media and images from diverse times and cultures. This capacity eventually transfers from art to material objects, historical documents, medical imagery, and scientific imagery including scientific imaging systems (maps, charts, diagrams). It can even extend to their understanding of other people, such as fellow students, medical patients, or colleagues.

Two examples of changes in student writing illustrate some of these points on a granular level: one from a third grader, the other from a third-year medical student. The third grader’s samples show the developmental nature of visual literacy as it is facilitated by VTS experiences. They make visible how language reflects thinking about what is seen, and how thinking patterns change in response to effectively stewarded, open-ended discussions about art—in other words, how visual literacy grows.

Fig. 1 Snap the Whip, 1872 (oil on canvas), Homer, Winslow (1836-1910) / Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH, USA / Museum Purchase 1918 / Bridgeman Images

On November 14, 2003, a third-grader in a Miami, FL, school (Adams et al., 2007; Curva et al., 2007) wrote for a “pre-test,” which sampled his thinking as it appeared in writing before beginning the VTS curriculum. He (and his classmates) were asked to look at Winslow Homer’s painting, Snap the Whip, and to write an answer to the question, “What do you think is going on in this picture?” They were also asked to include as much detail as possible and to provide evidence of their ideas. He wrote:

I think that the boys are playing in a field outside a school and that there are no girls in the picture.

The student summarizes what he sees in the picture, noting “boys playing” (observation and inference) as well as other observations—“a field” and “outside a school”—providing no evidence. He also observes the absence of girls. He begins with “I think” perhaps responding to the phrasing of the assignment but possibly indicating awareness that this might be a subjective opinion. Overall, he puts forth a reasonable description of the scene depicted, albeit minimal and lacking in details.

In a follow up “post test,” given the same instructions and image in early May 2004 after the first year of ten VTS lessons, he wrote:

(Video) Visual Thinking Strategies: A Lecture by Philip Yenawine

I think that the boys just got out of school because I see that there is a building that looks like an old fashion school house. I also think that the boys are having recess. I think that they are playing ring around the rosies. I also think that they are at the country side because I see mountains.

Again introducing each comment by “I think,” the boy’s opening compound sentence contains a description of the central figures (“the boys”) as “out of school” argued with a detailed observation as evidence: “an old fashion school house.” He infers that the boys might be at recess, a conclusion likely based in the same logic, and he further infers that they are playing a specific game (“ring around the rosies”) though he provides no evidence to back this up. He concludes with a comment that takes in the context (“the country side”) providing evidence (“I see mountains”).

This child’s dramatic shift from two basic, unsupported observations to several inferences (three out of four backed up with evidence) documents his growing ability to infer meaning from observation and the provision of visual evidence, as well as his persistence in looking and finding more. To convey his deeper looking, he wrote a good deal more and included descriptive detail.

Fig. 2 Paul Mathey, Woman and Child in a Room, 1890s. Oil on canvas. Musee D’Orsay, Paris. By permission of Art Resource, NY/Photo Eric Lessing.

Another sample of his writing, written shortly before this post-test but after a discussion of the image included here with his classmates, also reveals burgeoning visual literacy, especially behaviors borne in group meaning-making experiences.

I think the boy is punished because his face looks sad. I also think he got into a fight because his knees look dirty. I also think that the man at the top left of the picture is a (maid ?) and the lady is the boy’s mom because it looks like she is using a sewing machine. I also think that the boy just came in from outside because in the old days people used to play with those types of hula hoops. I think that the time of the day is afternoon because the light is very bright. I also think the wallpaper design is a tree because I see leaves.

This writing sample reflects a dramatic difference in terms of inferences made (nine), all but one argued in evidence (the “maid.”) He provides significant details including reference to the boy’s expression, time (both historical time “the old days” and time of day “afternoon”), and several aspects showing his attention to space (“at the top left,” “in from outside,” and “wallpaper design”). While the post-test shows what sticks with the student when working on his own, the post-discussion sample shows the rich impact of peer interaction on the growth of individuals (Yenawine, 2013).

Can we see similar shifts in visual literacy as a result of discussions among adults? A second example, below, shows a shift in observation skills and language from pre- and post-VTS samples from a medical-school student highlighted in the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School study. Written in response to the picture of a clinical patient, this sample is cited by the study authors as an example of shifting away from “subjective terminology”:

Pre-test: “His right arm and leg are positioned normally...”

Post-test: “Her right arm and leg are straight and lay flat. Her left arm is flexed at the shoulder and elbow with the hand clenched in a fist with the thumbs extended away from the fingers. The left leg is flexed at the hip and knee.

This pairing shows the students’ initial impulse to use an assumptive word (“normal”), which she then changed in favor of describing the observations that triggered associations with the word normal. These changes rendered the description lengthier (from eight words to 45) and based specifically upon what was actually observed rather than inferred.

These changes in vocabulary suggest the student gained the insight to separate observation from inference at a metacognitive level. This pattern, reflected broadly among VTS students, involves the conscientious mental work of suspending judgment. “Overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value,” writes Dewey inHow We Think(1910, p. 13), “involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance.” Such work is not easy (Dewey later calls it “painful” (p. 13)), yet such careful management of our impulses to arrive at conclusions is not only the basis of thoughtful decision making, but also essential to avoiding errors in judgment. In medicine, for example, “search satisfaction error” and “premature closure” are two types of error undergirding a significant proportion of medical misdiagnosis (Croskerry, 2003); at the root of both lay the cognitive tendency to close searches too early.

What Does Research on VTS Indicate about Visual Literacy?

The same careful looking, thinking, and precise description demonstrated by expert diagnosticians are at the heart of visual literacy—and cultivated by VTS. Visually literate people have the disposition to sustain the act of observation, recognizing that taking time to look is an essential part of the inquiry process and remaining confident that such looking will reveal new information and possibilities. The studies cited above begin to describe how group experiences discussing art through VTS, in which participants engage with one another as well as the work of art, nurture the linked skills of observation, inference, speculation, elaboration, and seeking and providing specific evidence, while concomitantly developing language.

The findings underscore the longitudinal nature of developing visual literacy and indicate how it is entwined with attitudes and beliefs about knowledge. As students develop visual literacy, they learn how knowledge is created, their role in creating it, the time it takes to acquire it, the role of biases in shaping it, and the sense that it is rarely fixed but instead constantly evolving. Related, they also become comfortable with ambiguity, a capacity essential to discovery in any discipline from the arts to history and science—indeed, to grappling with the real world in general. While most schooling prepares students to expect problems to be resolved fully and speedily, the process of becoming visually literate fosters the disposition to accept ambiguity as fundamental and the capacity to address it as a basic element of inquiry—one that requires time, a commitment to questioning any material confronted, and the awareness that understanding is enriched by the perspectives of others.

These capacities are markers of visual literacy as described by Debes (1968), the pioneering thinker in the visual literacy field whose definition grounds this chapter’s considerations. They fall into place as students move into Housen’s Stage 2, a long stage that involves the development of multiple frameworks for figuring out why an image looks as it does as well as probing its possible meanings. Over the course of VTS interventions, spread over time to allow for gestation, the pattern of thinking that emerges by the end of Stage 2 aligns neatly with the basic capacities included in Debes’s definition of visual literacy to “discriminate and interpret” as well as “comprehend and enjoy” what one encounters in the visual environment. In addition, the process of VTS—a teaching strategy of carefully facilitated group discussions—nurtures the ability to “communicate with others.”

The findings reviewed above suggest that key aspects of the VTS protocol were essential to the results: open-ended, rigorous facilitation, provocative works of art, ample gestation time, and a context of peers. Moreover, an environment in which students feel safe to cross boundaries into the experiences and perspectives of others is particularly important to attitudinal shifts. Visual literacy requires the propensity to integrate new information from different and perhaps unexpected or atypical sources, suggesting change across the thinking and sensory spectrum. As Moorman’s dissertation indicates, effective experiences in visual meaning-making depend on a learning context of psychological safety and mutual respect—one that must be cultivated with deliberate pedagogical actions.

Need for Further Study

More research is needed on the impact of longitudinal VTS interventions in the development of visual literacy, on the relationships between aesthetic thinking and visual literacy, and how Housen’s research and theory on aesthetic development might be expanded and built upon, in particular in concert with flourishing discoveries in neuroscience.

One significant potential area of research concerns how VTS impacts teachers. Because facilitating VTS discussions about works of art is quite different from most pedagogical methods, and because the process of learning the facilitation method takes time, practice, and both personal and analytical reflection, its effect on transforming teacher practice may be significant. While changes in teachers as they come to understand VTS have been observed and discussed anecdotally for years by Housen, Yenawine (2013), and colleagues at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Grohe & Egan, 2014), as well as some practitioners in the medical field (Hershman, Miller & Yadavalli, 2013;Fleischer, McManama, Miller & Zea, 2014), this potential impact deserves far more systematic study. Informal reports indicate that VTS facilitation strengthens abilities to teach using authentic, open-ended problems across subject areas, enhances teachers’ abilities to listen to and understand students, provides teachers with awareness of their own communication habits, and offers them an opportunity to examine the alignment between their philosophies and practices as educators. In addition to testing these anecdotal findings, research questions might include: how does the aesthetic stage of the teacher impact the ability to teach visual literacy? How does implementing the VTS curriculum shift the attitudes and practices of teachers across subjects, and by extension, their performance and job satisfaction?

Beyond the question of teaching, proposed future research topics comprise, but are not limited to, the following:

· How does the development of visual literacy affect attention and metacognition? What parts of the brain are activated during VTS discussions, and what does this tell us about cognition and the impact of discussions of art on the development of visual literacy?

· What is the impact of VTS on critical thinking, communication and language at various ages, and with challenged students (from English Language Learners to those with impairments and on the autism spectrum)?

· How does aesthetic stage influence the ability to construct visual communication, from drawings to graphs to films to digital media?

· What is the impact of increased visual literacy on standardized test performance in K-12 education?

· What gaps might be filled by using VTS to advance visual literacy within undergraduate studies? How might the methodology be implemented within intra- as well as cross-disciplinary studies with a variety of visual materials? What might be the outcomes for both faculty and students?

· What impact does increased visual literacy have on diagnostic accuracy and patient satisfaction?

· How does VTS and enhanced visual literacy impact collaboration, leadership and team roles, and problem-solving within a range of settings, from schools to hospitals to professional organizations and business environments?

To pursue these and other avenues of research, scholars and scientists will need to apply many additional verified measures of achievement in education, quality in healthcare, collaboration between individuals, and job satisfaction in the workplace. Advances in neuroscience and brain imaging open a world of opportunity to understand the mechanics of aesthetic development and visual literacy that could be used to create additional pedagogical models that nurture both. Researchers may also interrogate aesthetic development and cognition according to protocols other than those of developmental psychology or Housen. All of this research should lead to deeper understanding of VTS as well as additional approaches to the teaching of visual literacy by other means.

In Conclusion

In all of the contexts in which it is regularly practiced, VTS discussions of art play several important roles essential to understanding, developing and valuing visual literacy. First, by enhancing participants’ aesthetic thought and thereby deepening the range and complexity of frameworks through which they analyze what they see, VTS enables students and teachers to experience artworks as generators of ideas, not mere illustrations of concepts normally confronted through texts or other non-visual means. Effective integration of discussions about art into traditional teaching contexts supplements, and can potentially transform, traditional knowledge bases and problem-solving techniques.

Second, the VTS discussion is a rare space in which students’ personal knowledge and experience (including their memories and beliefs) are authentically activated and applied to useful advantage. They may experience, safely, some cognitive dissonance as they come into friction with other ways of knowing and being—ways posited by the work of art itself as well as the opinions and ideas of their peers. Over time, students become empowered to discover themselves and interrogate their and others’ constructions of identity and society—and propose new alternatives—through the practice of active looking.

Third, VTS models what might be called participatory visual literacy, or visual experiences that are essentially social exchanges. It is important to understand visual literacy as interactive and in flux—as an ongoing, developing way of functioning critically within and responding to the full sensory environment with a questioning, curious mind (Crouch, 2008; Dallow, 2008). Humanities and digital media scholar Peter Dallow (2008) describes the visual “as being like an interface or cultural zone of social exchange….a social sphere or arena where contemporary views of reality are displayed;” he adds that “a notion of visual literacy could be the capacity to negotiate or ‘navigate’ this visual cultural zone” (p. 98). The simple yet rigorous structure of VTS can become a powerful compass for this zone, as students together traverse spaces of wonder, inquiry, and uncertainty—art.

Fourth, VTS cultivates an inquiring, attentive mind. In How We Think, John Dewey (1910) wrote, “the most important factor in the training of good mental habits consists in acquiring the attitude of suspended conclusions, and in mastering the various methods of searching for new materials to corroborate or to refute the first suggestions that occur” (p. 13). During VTS discussions, students listen and talk with equal attention, reflect on their own and others’ thinking, shift perspectives based on what others notice, gain comfort with ambiguity, learn the impact of providing visual evidence, hold multiple perspectives simultaneously, fail and recover through persistence, and realize there can be more than one plausible answer. To put it another way, the work of art changes before their very eyes and in their minds as they discuss it. The attentiveness fostered by VTS deepens and extends the meaning-making experience, as they find more and more, constructing and deconstructing an array of viewpoints as the visual is persistently mined.

Barbara Stafford (2007, 2008), whose work focuses in part on “conscious vision in the construction of experience” (2007, p. 98) calls for pedagogy that can enliven the brain’s attentive functions. She argues that the ten percent of the brain’s neuroprocessing that is not automatic (or autopoietic) has the potential for what she calls “willed perception” (2007, p. 202) and should be nurtured. She describes the creation of art as an example of this kind of conscious visual activity. Of developing a similar, full sensory attentiveness through education, she writes,

Seeing, not seeing as, enables knowledge to grow. Educating the remaining ten percent, then, is about showing students the deep effects of volition and effort…. By changing the way they think about their thoughts, they can change their brains as well as the world. (2008, p. 46)

VTS structures experience to cultivate tolerance of such “volition and effort,” or in Dewey’s words again, the “willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance.” Students eventually come alive to their own thinking and become aware of their role in understanding what they encounter—indeed, potentially, of how they construct their knowledge of the world and by extension, their construction of the world itself. Experiencing that meaning can be plumbed through extended looking helps them increase their comfort with, and willingness to explore, ambiguity; understand and empathize with each other; and exist in a more attentive, present state of awareness. They learn that interactions with the world and our fellow beings require multi-sensory engagement and thinking across domains.

Just as medical professionals who slow their process become better care providers, most of us across the working spectrum could benefit from the heightened awareness of and empathy toward other people that visual literacy affords. These qualities could become part of the values of those who govern and create social policy. Intentional teaching of visual literacy is, in these authors’ view, core to addressing the issues we face globally. Who knows how many problems such skills might help us solve?


Abigail Housen’s Stages of Aesthetic Development with details about Stages 1 and 2 added. All quotes appearing here are taken from Aesthetic Development Interviews Housen and associates conducted over 18 years. Aesthetic Development Interviews are nondirective, stream-of-consciousness-type interviews (Housen, 1983).

Stage I

Accountive viewers are list makers and storytellers. Using their senses, memories, and personal associations, they make concrete observations about the work of art which get woven into a narrative. Here, judgments are based on what is known and what is liked. Emotions color their comments, as viewers seem to enter the work of art and become part of the unfolding narrative.

Sampling of thoughts

At Stage I, Accountive, viewers make simple, concrete observations:

(Video) VTS- Visual Thinking Strategies

Lines, ovals, squares …

At times, the Stage I viewer makes observations and associations that appear

idiosyncratic and imaginative:

A] giraffe’s back ... a dog’s face.

Likewise, the Stage I viewer may incorporate people and objects into an idiosyncratic narrative:

I see two ladies, holding each other.

It seems to me he’s going home now, and he can’t find his clothes.

Judgments are based on what the viewer knows and likes:

The wallpaper is beautiful.

Emotions color the comments, as the Stage I viewer animates the image with words and becomes part of an unfolding drama:

… Like he’s hurt [his arms] when he was swimming or like he was mad or something the way he was holding his arms.

The Stage I viewer (the “storyteller”) and the image (the “story”) are one. The viewer engages in an imaginatively resourceful, autonomous aesthetic response.

Stage II

Constructive viewers set about building a framework for looking at works of art, using the most logical and accessible tools: their own perceptions, their knowledge of the natural world, and the values of their social, moral and conventional world. If the work does not look the way it is “supposed to”-- if craft, skill, technique, hard work, utility, and function are not evident, or if the subjects seem inappropriate--then this viewer judges the work to be “weird,” lacking, and of no value. The viewer’s sense of what is realistic is a standard often applied to determine value. As emotions begin to go underground, this viewer begins to distance him or herself from the work of art.

Sampling of thoughts

At Stage II, Constructive, viewers observations have a concrete, known reference point:

And they have five fingers, just like us.

Aspects of images that do not conform to expectations can be seen as “weird:”

The hair on the first person is blond, and it is true, but there is no such thing as a purple face.

As this viewer strives to map what she sees onto what she knows from her own

conventions, values, and beliefs, her observations and associations become more linked and detailed. The viewer looks carefully and puzzles. An interest in the artist’s intentions develops:

The person has chosen, instead of using circles for the background, he used lots of diamonds.

Stage III

Classifying viewers adopt the analytical and critical stance of the art historian. They want to identify the work as to place, school, style, time and provenance. They decode the work using their library of facts and figures that they are ready and eager to expand. This viewer believes that properly categorized, the work of art’s meaning and message can be explained and rationalized.

Stage IV

Interpretive viewers seek a personal encounter with a work of art. Exploring the canvas, letting the meaning of the work slowly unfold, they appreciate the subtleties of line and shape and color. Now, critical skills are put in the service of feelings and intuitions as these viewers let underlying meanings of the work--what it symbolizes--emerge. Each new encounter with a work of art presents a chance for new comparisons, insights, and experiences. Knowing that the work of art’s identity and value are subject to reinterpretation, these viewers see their own processes subject to chance and change.

Stage V

Re-creative viewers, having established a long history of viewing and reflecting about works of art, now “willingly suspend disbelief.” A familiar painting is like an old friend who is known intimately, yet full of surprise, deserving attention on a daily level but also existing on an elevated plane. As in all important friendships, time is a key ingredient, allowing Stage V viewers to know the ecology of a work--its time, its history, its questions, its travels, its intricacies. Drawing on their own history with one work in particular, and with viewing in general, this viewer combines personal contemplation with views that broadly encompass universal concerns. Here, memory infuses the landscape of the painting, intricately combining the personal and the universal.


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(Video) Visual Thinking Strategies

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What are two general approaches that you may use to teach visual literacy? ›

Try some of these techniques to get your students thinking about images as well as the texts they read:
  • Picture analysis. Before reading a book or a chapter, talk about the picture on the cover or at the beginning. ...
  • Note sketching. ...
  • Take a color test. ...
  • Insert memes.
26 Feb 2019

How do you explain visual literacy? ›

A definition of visual literacy

Visual literacy is a set of abilities that enables an individual to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, use, and create images and visual media.

What are the three key questions when using visual thinking Strategies? ›

Questions to Ask during VTS:
  • What's going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can you find?

What are the benefits of visual thinking strategies? ›

VTS is an effective teaching method because it: uses visual images to engage, puzzle, and intrigue students while building ability and confidence in decoding complex and diverse material. is inclusive and fully respects all learners. is easily mastered because it uses existing strengths, interests, and experiences.

Why are visual thinking strategies important? ›

Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) transforms the way students think and learn by providing training and curriculum for people to facilitate discussions of visual art that significantly increase student engagement, performance, and enjoyment of learning.

What are the 3 important factors in visual literacy? ›

Object language (use of objects to convey information) Sign and symbol language (pictorial representation of a message) Abstract language (graphics or logos to represent ideas)

What are the four components of visual literacy? ›

Visual Literacy Defined
  • Determine the nature and extent of the visual materials needed.
  • Find and access needed images and visual media effectively and efficiently.
  • Interpret and analyze the meanings of images and visual media.
  • Evaluate images and their sources.
  • Use images and visual media effectively.

Why is visual literacy important in teaching? ›

Students skilled in visual literacy are able to create meaning from images, which in turn improves their writing proficiency and critical thinking skills. By integrating visual literacy into classrooms, we help students learn to collaborate and to discuss a wide range of ideas while expressing their own.

How can visual thinking strategies promote learning in the classroom? ›

“Visual Thinking Strategies is an educational curriculum and teaching method which enables students to develop aesthetic and language literacy and critical thinking skills, while giving teachers a powerful new technique they can utilize throughout their career.”

Which of the following is one of the skills Learnt through applying Visual Thinking Strategies VTS )? ›

Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is a teaching method that improves critical thinking skills and visual literacy through facilitated discussions of visual images.

How do you make thinking visible in the classroom? ›

13 Strategies for Making Thinking Visible in the Classroom
  1. Use Artful Thinking Routines.
  2. Try Close Reading of an Art Composition.
  3. Connect with Cooperative Poetry.
  4. Explore Ekphrasis Poetry for Vivid Language.
  5. Generate One Word Focal Points.
  6. Develop Collaborative Narrative.
  7. Sketch to Write.
  8. Create an Art Recipe.
13 Oct 2020

What are examples of visual literacy? ›

Visual literacy involves closely examining diverse visual texts across a range of text types. Text types include non-fiction, textbooks, picture books, art, advertisements, posters, graphic novels, comic strips, animations, film clips, web pages, and more.

What are the 6 parts of visual literacy? ›

The main components of the proposed VL theory were Visual Communication, Visual Language, Visual Learning, Visual Perception, and Visual Thinking. ... ... Connors (2011) defined visual literacy as the ability to interpret (read) and produce (write) images.

Why is visual literacy important essay? ›

Visual literacy enables people to gain meaning from the visuals, what they see, and are able to communicate with others through the creation of such images. Visual literacy enables people to understand the meaning, communicate messages based on the cultural context, and analyze the composition and stylistic principles.

What are visual strategies? ›

Visual strategies are a way of supplementing information which is supplied verbally with visual information. They can be used to accomplish a range of goals. You may use something visual to help a pupil to understand a situation, or to provide a visual prompt so a student can accomplish a task more independently.

Who developed visual thinking strategy? ›

VTS has been developed and refined over the past 30+ years based on ongoing research by VTS co-founder, Abigail Housen. Abigail and co-founder Philip Yenawine first developed VTS as an effective teaching strategy based on her theory of aesthetic development.

How would your elementary students benefit from the development of close observation skills through practice of VTS? ›

The Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) curriculum and teaching method uses art to help students think critically, listen attentively, communicate, and collaborate. VTS has been proven to enhance reading, writing, comprehension, and creative and analytical skills among students of all ages.

What makes you say that strategy? ›

The What makes you say that routine helps learners to: identify the basis for their thinking. elaborate on the thinking that lies behind their responses. foster a disposition towards evidential reasoning.

How can visual thinking strategies promote learning in the classroom? ›

“Visual Thinking Strategies is an educational curriculum and teaching method which enables students to develop aesthetic and language literacy and critical thinking skills, while giving teachers a powerful new technique they can utilize throughout their career.”

What is VTS teaching? ›

Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is an educational non-profit that trains educators in schools, museums, and institutions of higher education to use a student-centered facilitation method to create inclusive discussions.

How would your elementary students benefit from the development of close observation skills through practice of VTS? ›

The Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) curriculum and teaching method uses art to help students think critically, listen attentively, communicate, and collaborate. VTS has been proven to enhance reading, writing, comprehension, and creative and analytical skills among students of all ages.

How do you make thinking visible in the classroom? ›

13 Strategies for Making Thinking Visible in the Classroom
  1. Use Artful Thinking Routines.
  2. Try Close Reading of an Art Composition.
  3. Connect with Cooperative Poetry.
  4. Explore Ekphrasis Poetry for Vivid Language.
  5. Generate One Word Focal Points.
  6. Develop Collaborative Narrative.
  7. Sketch to Write.
  8. Create an Art Recipe.
13 Oct 2020

Which of the following is one of the skills Learnt through applying Visual Thinking Strategies VTS )? ›

Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is a teaching method that improves critical thinking skills and visual literacy through facilitated discussions of visual images.

What makes you say that strategy? ›

The What makes you say that routine helps learners to: identify the basis for their thinking. elaborate on the thinking that lies behind their responses. foster a disposition towards evidential reasoning.

Why is visualization important in reading? ›

Visualizing for comprehension means to formulate pictures in our minds based on the activities in a story. Creating mental images, as if watching a movie while reading, is important in reading comprehension because the reader is able to glean a deeper understanding of the story that will target long-term memory.

What are the basic strategies for developing literacy? ›

8+ Ways to Support Literacy Skills Development
  • Capture children's interest before you read. ...
  • Introduce vocabulary during a read-aloud. ...
  • Share the see-show-say strategy with families. ...
  • Highlight children's favorite books. ...
  • Establish read-aloud routines. ...
  • Read in small groups. ...
  • Support children who are learning two languages.
3 Aug 2021

What are the 7 thinking strategies? ›

The seven strategies of highly skilled readers include activating, summarizing, monitoring and clarifying, visualizing and organizing, searching and selecting, questioning, and inferring.

Who developed visual thinking strategy? ›

VTS has been developed and refined over the past 30+ years based on ongoing research by VTS co-founder, Abigail Housen. Abigail and co-founder Philip Yenawine first developed VTS as an effective teaching strategy based on her theory of aesthetic development.

What are visual strategies? ›

Visual strategies are a way of supplementing information which is supplied verbally with visual information. They can be used to accomplish a range of goals. You may use something visual to help a pupil to understand a situation, or to provide a visual prompt so a student can accomplish a task more independently.

What is the first question asked when facilitating VTS? ›

#1: “What's going on in this image?" The question, “What's going on in this image?” opens up a conversation with the group about the artwork (could also be a research, object, wireframe, etc.). It asks people to look closely and develop their own opinion on what is going on.

How can students improve their viewing skills? ›

Viewing authentic resources without audio

Some strategies students can use when “reading a picture” are: describe what they see (what is going on, who is doing what) make connections with the visual. describe how the picture makes them feel.

Which method can be used to develop student observation ability? ›

Demonstration experiment is an intuitive teaching method that deepens students' perceptual knowledge. It is also an effective way to cultivate students' observation ability.

Why is it important for high school students to develop their observation skills? ›

Additionally, being able to observe and gather information about the world is important because it's the basis of communicating well. Improving your observation skills allows you to “listen” with more than just your ears and make better decisions.


1. Visual Thinking Strategies
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6. Visual Thinking Strategies Public Seminar, UCC
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