In 1987, roughly halfway through my 10-year tenure as education director at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, several trustees challenged my staff and me to find out if anyone learned from our many educational options. We were asked to be accountable for our teaching: were we effective? Did people learn what we taught?
Sound familiar? It’s a question that has been central to school-based learning for the past two decades as well. Answering the question led to discouraging findings at MOMA, also true of the ubiquitous testing of students in too many public schools. Our response to the news was to recast our teaching, and more than a dozen years of field research in diverse schools has led to a curriculum with positive implications for others concerned with effective education.
At MOMA, we were asked to be a site for learning, albeit in less formal ways than in schools. Surveys revealed that many visitors wanted help understanding why modern artists do the often-confusing things they do. In response, we offered standard tools of visitor education: lectures, gallery talks, interactive school group visits, teacher workshops, short courses, and an array of printed and audiovisual materials.
To all appearances, we did it well. Audiences were consistently responsive and enthusiastic. We could see their engagement. Evaluations were positive. Programs consistently filled. Visitor evaluations, however, didn’t quite satisfy the MOMA trustees asked to help pick up the tab for our efforts. They prodded us to assess more deeply: “Do visitors leave knowing more than when they came in?”
Given that testing visitors wasn’t really an option, we turned to Abigail Housen, a cognitive psychologist who studies how people think when they look at art, and asked her to help us see if people retained what we taught them. She went to work gathering data about our teaching programs in particular. To our surprise and great dismay, she found visitors didn’t retain what we taught. When visitors attending gallery talks, for example, were asked moments later to retrace their steps and relate what they remembered from the talk they’d just attended, they didn’t even recall all the images examined, much less provide an accurate recounting of what they’d been told. Our teaching seemed to engage audiences but not enable them.
One thing that was easy for us at MOMA was capturing people’s attention. While that might be expected of adults—MOMA’s grownup visitors came already interested (unless, of course, dragged by a date or mate)—it can’t be said of the kids who were put on buses in schools and ended up in our galleries. Nonetheless, we had no problem getting or keeping their attention, not always the case in K-12 classrooms.
Here are several possible reasons. First, all sighted people have the ability and innate habit of looking at what’s around them and thinking about what they see. Beginning as toddlers we examine everything–people, things, faces, bugs, the moon–and come to understand such things in our own ways. To reflect on this universal practice reminds us of the close interaction between the mind and the eyes; what we see inherently shapes what we think we know. Museum galleries are full of images created specifically to attract our eyes and challenge our minds. It’s hard not to be caught up in them. School-based learning focuses mostly on text, not capitalizing on innate human capacity.
Second, much of what we see in art is common to daily experience. Most art images depict people, places, things, expressions, interactions, moods, costumes, weather, spaces, light, colors: virtually all that we experience or imagine finds its way into art of various times and cultures. Importantly, however, works of art are also ambiguous in meaning, multilayered, intentionally open to interpretation, and often have symbolic and abstract elements; making sense of them offers great exercise for our minds. An important aspect of art is that feelings are embedded in it along with information, triggering a full range of responses from those who look at it thoughtfully. Few things engage so much of the brain’s capacity simultaneously.
With these things in mind, Housen and our team at MOMA set out to see if we could capitalize on the easily captured attention of our visitors. We were looking to hone what we came to call viewing skills—observing, interpreting what one sees, probing and reflecting on first and second thoughts, considering alternative meanings, and so on—these skills used so effectively in “real life.” Skills that are the basic processes of visual literacy, and also the building blocks of critical thinking. Over many years of research, Housen had been able to identify for different viewing stages what might be termed “their questions.” For example, beginner viewers often try to create a narrative out of a picture. Their mode of processing can be phrased as “What’s going on here?” When beginner viewers are asked this question, they easily respond because it has a deep correspondence to the way they are predisposed to think.
What didn’t help our beginning viewers—a large majority of visitors—were approaches like lectures and labels. While they could make sense of images in their own ways, once the specter of specialized knowledge was revealed, they thought, “Oops. I guess I need to know something to have the right experience. Please help.” But because the help we provided didn’t match the needs or questions people actually had, it didn’t stick.
In 1991, we began to test a protocol for viewing art with the help of elementary school teachers who were willing to work with us over an extended period of time. The method (and curriculum) we developed is called Visual Thinking Strategies or VTS, and it did what we wanted: learning stuck. It’s been adopted by many schools, where it is used not simply to integrate art, but also to teach young people how to dig into all sorts of unfamiliar material—from historical artifacts to scientific phenomena to poetry.
In VTS, the teacher facilitates a student-centered discovery process focused on images carefully selected to address age and developmental readiness. The teacher is central to the process but not the authoritative source; instead, the students drive the discussions, aided by the teacher. As facilitator, a VTS teacher helps students to:
Here is just a quick snapshot of a VTS image discussion as 4th graders consider a Depression era photo entitled “Cheevers Meadows and His Daughters” by Doris Ulmann. In this black and white photo, a grim faced man in overalls sits hands in lap, as a girl stands staring at him, while a younger girl buries her face into his sleeve. The discussion continued beyond the point where I cut it off here.
Teacher: All right, everyone, take a minute to look at this picture.
Teacher (again, after a pause): What’s going on in this picture?
Student 1: I think a poor family and there’s a little daughter, and a dad and maybe the mom left and they’re just living in this little tiny place. And that’s why—I don’t know if that’s a little girl or boy—is crying. [As the student speaks, the teacher points to all that is mentioned: the family, the dad, the child, the place.]
Teacher: Okay, so you’re looking at these figures and thinking they’re a family. And that they’re poor. Maybe the mother left them. What did you see that made you say they were poor?
Student 1: Because they don’t have, like, a very good house really. I think they’re in that house. They don’t have very good clothes either. Like their clothes are all wrecked up and ripped and the children’s clothes are really dirty.
Teacher: Okay, so you have several pieces of evidence that suggest they’re poor to you. You’re looking behind them, thinking they might live in a very plain house. And you’re looking at their clothing and noticed that it’s torn and soiled. All right, what more can we find?
Student 2: Um, I think that they’re a poor family and maybe their mom died and maybe like something happened, so they’re . . . And I also agree with Julian, I think that they live in a little place and maybe like a horrible storm happened.
Teacher: Okay, you have a few ideas. You are also wondering about the mother. What did you see that made you say that something happened to her?
Student 2: ’Cause they’re really upset and there’s no mother in the picture.
Teacher: Okay, so we’re missing a mother figure and you see the others as upset about it. And what did you see that made you say they looked upset?
Student 2: Because they’re not, like, smiling and the little kid is, like, crying.
Teacher: Okay, so you’re looking at their facial expressions and sort of seeing that no one’s smiling and this figure actually might even be crying. All right, what more can we find?
Student 3: Well, I was thinking they are not poor, ’cause it doesn’t matter what they look like. ’Cause they could have just finished, like, gardening and they are all just dirty from all the dirt. And the house, I just think it is a regular house, like all of our houses because, it is just showing part of the house.
Teacher: Okay, so you’re offering another interpretation, saying that people could be wearing clothes like this—sort of ripped and dirty—if they’ve been out gardening. Maybe we don’t know everything about their situation.
Student 3: Just because their clothes aren’t good, doesn’t mean they are poor.
Teacher: So wearing worn clothes doesn’t necessarily mean you’re poor. Maybe they’ve been out working. And you were saying that we don’t have a lot of information about where they are. It’s just a little piece of the background and you are saying it could be any house. Okay, so it’s another way to look at that. What more can we find?
It’s important to stress that in VTS the teacher facilitates the discussion but does not direct it, as you can tell. She contributes no information. She refrains from “correcting.” Instead, she echoes what the students observe, paraphrases their interpretations, citing the evidence they found to back up their ideas. She allows divergent observations and opinions letting students sort out among themselves what they think is plausible. In so doing, she may feel as if she misses “teachable moments” that she might ordinarily have directed the conversation.
Why doesn’t she? Why not intervene? What if she had introduced a vocabulary word like photography or added some historical information? What would be wrong with that?
Here are three quick responses: first, think of this as the start of a process, not the finish. The best images for VTS play to students’ interests, development, and ability to make sense of them, jumpstarting a process that builds over time. As such, an image is secondarily a historical document. Once kids are interested in it because of, say, the characters and the story, a teacher can always return to it as a way of illustrating life at a particular time. If and when it is reintroduced, given the interest nurtured by VTS, students are likely to appreciate the way such images enliven and flesh out history that can otherwise seem abstract.
Second, while teachers are required to do a lot of direct instruction these days, this is a chance to let students explore a complex subject without direction. Instead of thinking about what’s missing, it’s more productive for teachers to be excited about students’ enthusiasm for discovering and sharing; they do that well. Independent thinking, collaboration, listening, all sought as Common Core anchor standards: these are things very hard to “teach”; they have to be learned by authentic experience, and VTS has proved to be that.
And, third, we might assess this kind of experience in terms of what we learned at MOMA: we supplied information routinely, and it didn’t stick.
In VTS, students are busy probing images for meaning, not medium or history. Why imply that they’re missing something? Why dampen their willingness for and pleasure at talking about what interests them? Why limit thinking?
And what better way to teach it? The most important reason for a VTS teacher’s restraint is that, for these lessons, his priority is to teach thinking. He takes advantage of the open-ended nature of art to prioritize students’ thinking and sharing ideas instead of finding right answers. He doesn’t relinquish an active role, prompting students, for example, to supply evidence to back up observations and ideas. He facilitates in such a way as to stress respectful, extended examination and dialogue—collaborative peer interaction.
For thinking to develop, it’s essential to have both a strategy for teaching it as well as an opportunity for young people to exercise their brains. By remaining the neutral facilitator, we are actually teaching students how to learn. They internalize a strategy for constructing meaning from unfamiliar material, and they apply the thinking behaviors—supplying evidence, for example—in many lessons. Research by Housen’s team, corroborated by others, has documented significant impact on observing, inferring meaning, arguing in evidence, considering multiple possible meanings, revising and elaborating on an earlier thought.
Directly related to this, discussions foster language at the same time as thinking. Oral language precedes writing; discussions are necessary for students to become fluent writers. Talking through ideas eases students into writing as they find words to articulate thoughts of increasing complexity.
In schools that implement VTS, one-hour, image-based discussions are conducted ten times a year beginning in kindergarten. Images used are sequenced so that students discuss more challenging images over time and are exposed to a diversity of media and images representing different styles and periods. Lesson plans, images, and a huge compendium of information about VTS are available to teachers on a website: http://www.vtshome.org along with Housen’s research studies. The New York Times has also begun a blog as part of its online services to schools everywhere; a photograph from the news is posted once a week with an opportunity for students to post comments based on the VTS questions: http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/category/lesson-plans/whats-going-on-in-this-picture/
We weren’t long into our research testing the impact of VTS when some fifth graders turned VTS into a verb. A New York City teacher told us that her kids wanted “to VTS” the cover of a new chapter book they were about to start. She was willing and so asked them, “Well, what do you think is going on here?” Off they went. She felt that as a result of their discussion of the cover as well as a few illustrations, students read with more curiosity than usual and with a novel-but-welcome level of interest. They wanted to know if they had figured out the story from the pictures.
The teacher had a further reflection after the lesson: she thought that as a result of examining the images, students were able to visualize people, events, and locations in the story and that this had a positive impact on their comprehension of it. Consequently, she and the kids made “VTSing” all sorts of images a standard practice. We hear such anecdotes regularly to this day, and the teachers’ impressions seem to resonate with what reading specialists say about comprehension: that understanding is aided by readers being able to visualize what they read.
Again during one of our early studies trying to find what thinking skills developed from VTS—this one in Byron, Minnesota—VTS project coordinator Catherine Egenberger noticed a second-grade classroom teacher asking her students to choose an image hanging on the wall and write about it as their visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Art was drawing to a close. Given their age and usual reluctance to write, the teacher thought it would be a quick exercise to fill a few minutes before meeting the bus to take them the two hours back to their small community in the farmlands of southeastern Minnesota.
To her amazement, she actually had to pull the students away from what she thought would be simply a time killer. They were late for their bus, and while that was a problem for the driver, the teacher was intrigued—as were we. We began to watch for feedback that art as a prompt was an effective way to get kids to write. The feedback came and was consistent, so writing about images, usually after discussions, is now firmly entrenched as practice in most VTS classrooms. Writing samples collected “pre-” and “post-VTS” attest to significant change in description, narrative claims, evidence, and consideration of multiple possibilities.
That wasn’t the end of what we learned from teachers, and how they came to apply the strategy to many subjects, a practice we never expected. Because they see students looking deeply, describing with details, inferring with evidence, developing and debating various theses, teachers want to continue the practice to discuss literature, math problems, social studies and science.
A particularly inspiring example of this comes from Tracy McClure, a sixth grade teacher in Sonoma County CA. Tracy had incorporated poetry into her sixth-grade language arts lessons for years, convinced in part that if students were expected to become good writers, they needed many models to help them understand what that means. And they needed to experience writing in a way that helped them feel the power of words, the effects of considered expression, the breadth of available words, the rich potential in thoughtful use of language.
Once she saw VTS in operation with visual arts for a year, she thought, “Aha! Here’s a way to make my approach consistent and to give the kids a more active role!” She initiated “a poem a day” discussion applying the technique to poetry to see if kids arrived at the appreciation of language she sought, ideally one that might impact their writing. She rephrased the questions slightly to accommodate the fact that kids were examining writing instead of images. For the second question, she uses “What did you read that makes you think that?” Or even “What line?” or “What word made you think that?” to help home in on specifics. Over time, even the recalcitrant became as engaged as she hoped.
Tracy isn’t sparing with her choice of poems as you will learn from reading the following comment, sent to me in a welcome e-mail, about what she feels as a teacher:
Two days ago, we discussed one by Emily Dickinson, “As Imperceptibly as Grief,” which has lots of antiquated language. One student wanted to know the meaning of perfidy, and no one in the group could answer, so immediately ten or fifteen kids whipped out dictionaries to look it up, and at least that many recorded the meaning on their copies of the poem. Then, as we continued to discuss the poem, I noticed seven or eight kids furtively thumbing through their dictionaries, apparently looking up other challenging words. When I noticed them trying to “sneak” research, I said that it would be fine for them to look up other words and bring the definitions to the group’s attention.
Tracy’s class scored 87% proficient in language arts in 2012; the school’s overall student average was around 50%. Old Adobe principal Jeff Williamson, a constant and astutely critical observer of what happens in the classrooms of his school, has written to me that because of experiences like “poem a day,” “Our students devour literature.” It may not always show up on tests but it’s palpable in classrooms.
Tracy’s “poem a day” is the extension of a practice seen similarly in VTS teachers’ classrooms in many subjects. Marion Bageant, a second grade teacher in Spokane WA, capitalizes on the familiar practice to help her students, many of them English language learners, with word problems, the emphasis of her assigned math curriculum. She’s seen marked improvement in test performance, especially remarkable among those who were not learning given a more standard approach to teaching the lessons. Brian Fizer’s mostly immigrant third graders apply VTS to engage in rigorous discussions of primary documents that enliven history and align with Massachusetts’ social studies standards. Craig Madison’s third graders apply the method to their science explorations extended with a few other questions leading to group research projects that deeply engage the young scientists and involve literacies extending across disciplines in precisely the ways sought by Common Core standards.
Examples of this expanded practice abound, in part because the VTS questions and facilitation process enables authentic explorations of a range of unfamiliar material for students, puts into play group and individual behaviors familiar from art image discussions, engages more students in collective problem solving, and nurtures skills useful for life in general. Importantly, VTS is a tool that feels completely natural to teachers and aligns with values that led them to teaching in the first place.
To apply VTS in many lessons, teachers use the same steps and methods as in discussions of art. However, the questions are adapted slightly based on the type of subject under discussion; the following suggestions are not research-based as VTS questions are, but based on observations of teachers at work.
Many such discussions engage students with a topic that is further explored by individual, pair, or group projects, often based on questions or subjects the students themselves identify. Such follow-up depends on the subject and the intent of the lesson; with poems open-ended discussion itself might be the point whereas science or history discussions simply establish starting places for further inquiry. Following up on what is discovered in discussions gives both teachers and students room to be inventive as well as directive in their inquiries.
For over twenty years, Abigail Housen and I studied how looking and talking—facilitated by teachers—impacts cognition. Our intention was to produce people, of all sorts and ages, who could find meaning and pleasure in works of art on their own. But it soon became bigger than this. We found a way for teachers to nurture thinking and language skills that work even with kids who struggle. We used her data to painstakingly craft a teaching method for a particular purpose but we were surprised by the range of its impact. What I suspect Housen always knew was that the creation of meaning from works of art involved all of the aspects we describe as “knowing how to learn.”
Particularly after the years of mandated curricula and teaching to a very limiting form of testing, we as teachers need to adopt additional strategies to teach our young ones how to use and widen their capacity to learn on their own. We have always wanted them to become confident, engaged, curious, and enabled to find answers to their questions but that result has remained elusive as we prepped them for tests we’d hate to take ourselves. Common Core standards, despite the challenge presented by yet another battery of achievement tests, open the door for more expansive, better teaching that has been asked of us for a long time. Let’s seize the day.
Adapted with permission from Philip Yenawine, Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines, Harvard Education Press, 2013, and “’What’s Going on Here?’ Using Art to Deepen Learning,” Harvard Education Letter volume 29:5 (September/October 2013). Copyrights (c) President and Fellows of Harvard College. http://hepg.org/hel/article/577