Visual Thinking Strategies or VTS is a teaching model that has been used by museum educators for several decades. Based on the research of Abigail Housen, VTS relies on facilitated discussion to engage students more deeply about art.
The key to using VTS is the questioning strategy that is employed to elicit a broad range of responses, followed by specific observations, and more nuanced interpretations.. What's going on in this painting? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can we find? - these are the core questions that are used to layer the discussion.
What's going on in this painting?
This is the primary question that is asked to get students engaged about a work of art. It is an open-ended question or divergent question that encourages students to respond in the broadest possible manner. What's going on in this painting? encourages students to respond to a painting as if it were an event or a "happening;" it is very different from the question "what do you see?" which focuses more on description rather than narration. Students learn by telling stories, so this question is important to get the conversation going.
What do you see that makes you say that?
This question gets students to focus specifically on the painting they are looking at, taking their initial responses, which are primarily subjective, and linking them to the objective facts in the painting. This enables students to make a personal connection to the work of art, while strengthening their observation skills and providing evidential reasoning to support their observations.
What more can we find?
Willem de Kooning once remarked that "painting is the forever mute part you can talk about forever." The irony in this statement implies that paintings contain stories with endless possibilities. When students are asked to find more, they are encouraged to extend their mental powers to provide more complex and nuanced interpretations.
A Democratic Model
VTS is highly valued by educators and parents because it offers an inclusive approach to learning that encourages a wide degree of participation in a group setting. The high level of participation is mediated by the educator or facilitator who paraphrases responses and links answers so that every response becomes a part of a larger narrative. During the process of engagement, students' have an opportunity to learn from each other as the interpretation builds and unfolds; students also feel valued and affirmed as a result of their participation.
VTS and the Naysayers
VTS is valued by educators but there are many naysayers who feel that it dumbs things down and does not give students an opportunity to learn the "facts," which docents and art historians have spent a life-time studying and preparing.
For years, art historical research has been the basis upon which artworks are interpreted and understood. As education became more integral to how museums engage with the public, especially young audiences, museums began to consider, no only what people learn, but how they learn. Initially, this led to a dichotomous framework that put the learner on one side and what is learned on the other. Thinkers like John Dewey proposed to resolve the dichotomy that separates subjectivity from objectivity by defining "art as experience." This type of research led to a focus on the "process" of learning, superseding the boundaries that separate subjectivity from objectivity.
However, like most events that occur in history, developments of this nature do not occur in a linear fashion; they can reoccur at any time. As a result, the debate still exists regarding the value of education as "experience" versus education as the attainment of "facts." VTS is not immune from these conflicts.