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Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines

reviewed by Kimberly M. Sheridan - January 31, 2014

coverTitle: Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines
Author(s): Philip Yenawine
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1612506097, Pages: 208, Year: 2013
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Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is a carefully honed curriculum to support learners’ analyses of visual art that the author Philip Yenawine co-developed, implemented and researched with Abigail Housen over several decades.  VTS begins with learners’ sense of wonder about a work of art, taps their collective existing knowledge, and supports their ability to collaborate and construct increasingly rich and complex interpretations.   Yenawine’s book, Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines is an engaging introduction to the VTS curriculum.   Yenawine walks the reader through the key components of the VTS method and provides strategies for learning to use it through examples in diverse settings from art museums to elementary schools.  He describes how after elementary educators introduce VTS through visual art, they (or their students) often extend it in analyses of images and objects in other subjects, such as math and history. VTS is presented as a way to learn to think intelligently about form and meaning in the visual world.

The book begins with a premise that what people need when they view art is “permission to wonder” (p. 1). Yenawine argues that the work of VTS is to grant this permission and then help learners extend their natural wonder about the visual world into a more sustained and critical analysis.  In VTS, a facilitator of a group of learners looking at a work of art begins with simple question, “What’s going on in this picture?”  After a period of quiet looking, learners begin to respond with words and pointing at the sections of the work and the facilitator paraphrases each response and extends it with the questions, “What do you see that makes you say that?” and “What more can we find?”  Yenawine outlines the key components of this seemingly simple process:  1) a work of art that is familiar enough to be accessible but complex and novel enough to invite wonder; 2) time to look; 3) questions that encourage viewers to use their senses and build on prior knowledge to not only identify what a work of art depicts but also what it conveys and means; 4) group discussion which introduces diverse perspectives on the work, and 5) a facilitator that artfully asks questions, paraphrases responses, and creates links between learners’ responses but resists adding new information or his or her perspective on the work.  

VTS is an open-inquiry model rooted in a socio-constructivist view of learning: knowledge is gradually built up by each learner and new ideas are tested with direct evidence and viewed in relation to one’s prior knowledge and others’ viewpoints.  The facilitator helps the learners keep track of the knowledge constructed through discussion and poses questions to extend their understanding.  The facilitator does not lead the group towards a particular interpretation, rather makes visible the elements of the interpretations they are constructing. The stance to be communicated by the teacher is that “the students singly and together are capable of wonderful, grounded ideas” (p. 31).  The firm requirement that teachers do not supply their own viewpoints or add external information leads to ready objections:  contextual information that is central to understanding a work may not emerge as part of the discussion and teachers may miss particularly apt moments to introduce formal aesthetic concepts they wish students to learn.  Yenawine anticipates these objections in three ways.  First, he suggests that VTS be viewed as the start of engagement with a work, not the final interpretation.  He describes examples of how through this more learner-centered approach to art students became engaged to later pursue research about works.  Second he points to how much time is spent in direct instruction in schools. The typical VTS elementary school curriculum involves just ten hours over the course of the year and as such VTS provides a brief protected interlude for children to explore their ideas without adult supplied information.  Lastly, he points to his own experience in museum education, where he argues direct instruction “didn’t stick” when they assessed what viewers remembered.

Like Yenawine, I agree that educators frequently underestimate the power of children’s prior knowledge, leave untapped the motivation of their wonder and leave inadequate time for deeper thinking.  VTS’s constructivist approach aligns with decades of research in the learning sciences showing the need for learners to actively construct ideas and connect new information with prior knowledge in order for knowledge to be usable.  In a section on assessing visual thinking through writing, Yenawine shows how students who have experienced VTS write more about what they see, support their points with evidence, and create more complex interpretations. Clearly there is value in having learners see how far they can go with just taking time to wonder about a work, to see what theories they can develop, test and revise just out of their senses combined with their prior experiences.

However, I also believe that Yenawine creates an unnecessarily sharp distinction where learner-led discussions with just a work of art are a place for wondering and the providing of any information is considered direct instruction that shuts down wonder and exploration.  I would like to see VTS explore where else wonder comes from.  Finding out that a particular referent is a Depression era photograph may provoke wonder—it may unlock a range of mental images and associations that open a discussion further.  Information about a work can be presented to be wondered with, to be considered in relation to the interpretation one is building.  The value I see here is not to move the group to a more “correct” interpretation or to impart knowledge, but to provide opportunities to see one’s conversations as connected to and relevant to a larger discourse.  The VTS curriculum, with its strong commitment to open inquiry seems particularly well suited to support learners’ entry to this discourse.

There are some limitations to this book. Though Yenawine frequently mentions that VTS is a research-based curriculum and identifies findings about its impact, readers looking for a thorough and disinterested  analysis of research on VTS will not find it in the book.  Yenawine writes as an enthusiastic advocate to an audience of interested practitioners.  Nor is this a book for readers interested in a range of strategies for approaching the interpretation of art and other visual objects: its focus is narrowly on the VTS approach.  However, for educators seeking how to use VTS in their classrooms, Yenawine serves as a nurturing, practical and knowledgeable guide.  Through vivid and nuanced discussion of diverse examples, he shows how the VTS approach encourages learners to wonder about what they see and think, find evidence for their ideas, consider them in relation to others’ ideas, and explore alternate possibilities.  As information is increasingly conveyed through visual means, both the VTS book and curriculum it describes are relatively simple yet invaluable tools for educators seeking to awaken wonder in and deepen their students’ critical thinking about our increasingly visual world.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 31, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17396, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 9:44:41 AM

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About the Author
  • Kimberly Sheridan
    George Mason University
    E-mail Author
    KIMBERLY M. SHERIDAN is an associate professor at George Mason University with a joint appointment in educational psychology and art education. She is a co-author of the book Studio Thinking: The real benefits of visual art education and has authored numerous articles on arts, cognition and technology. In her current project, Learning in the Making: Studying and Designing Makerspaces, funded by the National Science Foundation she studies learning in these multi-disciplinary, multi-age environments for designing and making. Kim received her doctorate in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard University Graduate School of Education.
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