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.
Over the years, my philosophy of education has evolved to reflect the concerns of the institutions that I've worked at. However, I have never lost sight of the ideas that lie at the foundation of my commitment to public education.
As a graduate student in museum education, I was required to develop a philosophy of teaching that has continued to guide my career as a museum educator. During that time, I identified three primary influences: Paulo Friere, Jurgen Habermas, and John Dewey.
Viewing education as a liberatory practice, I was drawn to Paulo Freire ("Pedgogy of the Oppressed") who opposed the "banking deposit" approach to education, advocating the view that education should empower and liberate (what he termed "conscientização" or "critical consciousness." Habermas's ideal notion of the Public Sphere ("The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere") helped me to envision how education could function in a museum setting, an institution historically committed to public education. The notion of the public sphere has guided my principles regarding teaching models and diverse modes of public engagement. John Dewey ("Art as Experience") helped to inform my understanding of education as a holistic process, embracing a long tradition of American pragmatism.
Currently, my philosophy of education has evolved, building on the legacy of John Dewey and taking into consideration more recent studies in museum education and visitor engagement.
Dewey’s dialectical approach to education defines the aesthetic experience as something that transcends the subject/object dichotomy, acknowledging the successful integration of the intellect, emotion, and practical experience. The experience embodied in the work of art is replicated by the viewer who undergoes the same transformative experience. Dewey’s Neo-Kantian view, seen through the lens of American pragmatism, thus defines the aesthetic experience as something that transcends the idea of art as an end in itself, and as the means for creating an analogous form of experience. Active looking through a process of questioning, coupled by critical reflection and an emotional investment in the subject lead to practical and constructivist engagements with works of art that can be classified as “experiences.” Dewey’s holistic approach has been adopted by a number of contemporary theorists and philosophers of education who have also defined the aesthetic experience as “flow” or an “autotelic experience” (Mihály Csíkszentmihályi), and other high level forms of engagement like “constructivism.”
In order to broaden our understanding of learning in a museum setting, George Hein proposed four models to encompass a range of experiences: Systematic (Didactic), Orderly (Behavioral), Discovery, and Constructivist. The Systematic museum is a didactic model of learning in which information is provided for the learner in the form of labels, catalog entries, and lectures to increase ones knowledge of a subject. The Systematic museum involves a learning setting that is designed and controlled by the educator, in terms of outcomes, but which takes into account the visitor’s response to certain stimuli, thus providing the context for positive reinforcement during the learning process. The Discovery Museum provides a context for further exploration, while still maintaining control over the goals and objectives of the lesson. The learner “discovers” by examining multiple options, embracing subjectivity as a vital part of the learning process, but ultimately arriving at outcomes pre-established by the educator. The Constructivist museum, on the other hand, embraces the idea that the learner is active rather than passive. As Hein explains:
“As an educational theory, Constructivism represents the view that learning is an active process in which we as learners make meaning—construct concepts—of the phenomena we encounter. In order to convert sensory input (what we see, hear, feel, and so on) into meaning, we rely on our previous experiences and on our previous meaning making. Thus, everything that we bring with us to any new situation—our culture, language, family background, companions on the visit—influences how we interpret our experience.”
In addition to the philosophy and theory of education in an informal learning setting, Falk examines learning in a museum from the standpoint of the visitor. He identifies five types of visitors: Explorers, Facilitators, Experience Seekers, Professional/Hobbyists, and Rechargers. Explorers are motivated by personal curiosity; Facilitators are motivated by other people and their needs (parents/docents); Experience Seekers are motivated by a desire to see and experience (a tourist); Professional/Hobbyist are motivated by the acquisition of knowledge (the scholar); and Rechargers are motivated by a more contemplative experience. In many ways, Falk’s assessment of various visitor types encompasses the models of learning addressed by Dewey and Hein, yet approaches the subject from a visitor’s perspective.
The ideas that have shaped my philosophy of education continue to evolve. Although I have devoted more attention to education theory and practice in more recent years, my earlier commitment to education as liberatory (Paulo Frieire) and inclusive (Jurgen Habermas) continue to inform my pedagogy for museum education.
As technology continues to transform how we access information and engage visitors with content, I have begun to consider theories of learning and visitor types in the context of digital modes of communication. As I move forward in my development as a museum educator, I will continue to explore the intuitive aspects of touchscreen interfaces, the graphical interface of the web, including the integration of video and multimedia. and other models of learning, such as, e-learning or online learning, user generated content, gaming theory, and "Blended Learning," a varied approach that encompasses traditional face-to-face instruction and digital models of learning.
What is beauty and what is sublime?
Kant and Burke can be very perplexing on this subject.
On the one hand beauty is defined as having a particular form with identifiable boundaries. The sublime is associated with pain or terror or with that which is boundless. Yet, what does this have to do with aesthetic judgements?
For example, let’s take beauty. We find something to be beautiful because it corresponds with our concept of beauty and not because of the sensible qualities associated with the object (i.e. “I love the fragrance of a flower or the taste of a lemon pie). The object is beautiful because of the inherent universality in our judgment. If we rely on our senses to determine that something is beautiful, we then find the object to be not beautiful but “agreeable.”
The sublime is tricky, especially when it comes to art. For example, we find something to be sublime because there is nothing in the sensible world that corresponds with the concept of boundlessness. In art, however, the situation is reversed. Because art involves artistic production, its sublimity is defined, not by the concept, but by the lack of available concepts that correspond to the paintings boundlessness or inherent sublimity. In a modern sense, painting strives to become a “pure idea” rather than relying on a pure idea for its own purposiveness. Hmmm. Maybe I need to give this some more thought.
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