In the quest to develop well-rounded students, educators strive to engage their pupils in a wide range of thinking strategies. The introduction and utilization of diverse teaching materials and methods ensures that all areas of students’ brains are developed. One underutilized critical thinking strategy centers on understanding visual mediums such as art.

Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is a program developed by Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine to increase student interaction with and understanding of art. VTS is essentially a teacher-led discussion that follows a certain schematic. Using VTS is not limited to art classrooms as it can be useful for any curricula that include image-based materials.

The VTS Schematic

VTS progresses in three stages. Upon first seeing a work of art, be it a painting, photograph, or sculpture, students are asked what is happening. This first stage engages perception and narrative-building skills as students attempt to make sense of what they are seeing. After they have formed opinions about what is happening in the work, and begin to make observations that go beyond mere description, ask students what they see in the picture that makes them think as they do. This reinforces the idea of making informed decisions based on evidence. By pointing out the visual evidence in a painting, students are encouraged to justify individual beliefs. Finally, students are asked what else they can find in order promote further exploration and discovery.

Facilitating a VTS discussion

As the discussion leader, the teacher is charged with maintaining the inquisitiveness of students while also challenging them to probe deeper. There are a few instructional strategies that can help. First, be sure you are paraphrasing student comments neutrally. Art can be a very personal and revealing subject, so it is important not to judge the comments of those who open up. When a student shares his or her thoughts, summarize the main points so that other students can understand.

In addition, always point out the specific area being discussed. Discussions will be easier and more controlled if you point out the part of the picture that a student is describing rather than having the students do so themselves.

Finally, help students make connections by linking any similar or opposing viewpoints. If two students have differing reactions to the same part of the painting, don’t be afraid to highlight that fact. By showing how the same piece of art can be subject to two different valid interpretations, students will feel more willing to share their reactions, even if they are different from the majority opinion. When discussing the work of art, there are no wrong answers, only poorly supported ones. As such, always make sure students are supporting their reactions with visual evidence.

Critical thinking and VTS

The thinking strategies involved in VTS activate all four knowledge dimensions. Factual knowledge is expanded as students become familiar with the terminology of art. Knowing how to talk about a painting’s composition or color will arise naturally the more students discuss paintings in the classroom. Conceptual knowledge is developed by students making inferences about the painting and its meaning. This will result in the procedural knowledge of knowing how to interact with art in an intellectual way. Finally, a student can evaluate their own thinking when confronted with their evidence for their interpretations. This metacognitive knowledge challenges students to examine their own evidence for thinking the way they do. Interactions with art often start with an emotional reaction that the intelligent viewer will then try to understand by examining the work’s individual elements.

Using VTS is a great alternative method to help develop the critical thinking skills of students.