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Visual Thinking Strategies Workshop: The Basics of VTS

Today I had the pleasure of sitting in with staff from South View Middle School as they explored Visual Thinking Strategies with from Mary Lewis from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The curriculum is based on Visual Understanding in Education, developed by Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine. These strategies were developed for beginning viewers.

Basic Visual Thinking Strategies
Asking the questions
1. Begin by asking the question, "What is going on in this picture?"
Staff noted that the process allowed them to "slow down" and think, rather than being told what to think.
The pictures Lewis chose told a story, and this allows for more reflection.
The classes where kids are really struggling is where kids really struggle to focus. She has found that if she says, "take 10 seconds"
If students struggle, ask them "What do you see?"
2. The second question is "What do you see that makes you say that?" What is the clue? "I'm going to ask you a hard question..." "Keep thinking, it will come to you..." Sometimes, 3 or 4 comments later, the answer will come.
3. Then ask, "What else can you find?" The thinking process is infinite, we're never just done! Writing is like that as well. This is where you can get depth. Sometimes you have to wait a couple of minutes!

When you are leading this discussion, it's not about you! As soon as you add your own thoughts, discussion drops dead! VTS is open ended questions, and neutrality is essential. It's important to be conscious of who is saying what, to what depth and detail. With middle school students it's important to get them to dig.
Self esteem is at work here, because it requires the learners to show evidence for why they think the way they do.

Responding to Comments
  • Listen carefully and paraphrase what students say (It's important to "be pure and not show bias!") You don't need to say, "Good Job!" As a facilitator, by paying attention and saying it back, you value what the students say.
  • Point to what they mention, stay neutral and be precise even if it's a repeat comment
  • Use encouraging body language and facial expression "You can say anything you would like as long as you back it up with evidence! This allows students to think out of the box. This is where creativity comes from!
One of my colleagues noted that the opportunity to think deeply and critically like this is a gift.
Why do students parrot back what others have already observed? Some may say, attention and validation, but students process at different rates, and so it may be new to that person.

Finally, after hearing the title, what does that do for you? Some found that it ruined it for them. They thought the comments from participants was more interesting.

Image Source: Remedios Varo 1957 painting the Creation of The Birds

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