Welcome to my session at the CTA Good Teaching Conference! Using images, video, and other visual forms of stimuli in my lessons has been a central focus in my instruction for several years. To meet the demands of the Common Core Standards, students will need to demonstrate their abilities to think critically, problem-solve effectively, reason clearly, listen constructively, and speak and write persuasively. Using the Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) protocol can increase student participation and engagement while deepening their thinking, language ability, writing skills, and visual literacy. VTS nurtures deeper learning, as a counterpoint to repetitive exercises and standardized tests.
Visual Thinking Strategies is an inquiry-based teaching protocol appropriate for all grade levels. You don't need any special art training to use this strategy. The goal is NOT to teach or preach or delve too deeply into the technicalities of each artwork, but rather to encourage students to observe independently, interpret what they see, probe and reflect on first and second thoughts, consider alternative meanings and to back up their comments with evidence. The range of plausible interpretations for any work of art allows us much leeway; most of what we think and feel can be justified if we take care and time to look, probe, and puzzle over what we see. We can find layers of meaning beneath what we think at first. Given time, we can recognize symbols and ponder metaphors.
Simply put, as facilitators you are helping students to:
- Look carefully at works of art
- Talk about what they observe
- Back up their ideas with evidence
- Listen to and consider the views of others
- Discuss and hold as possible a variety of interpretations
1. Ask students to look closely and silently at the artwork for a minute or two. Have them avoid reading the labels/artists statements right away as you want them to make their own observations instead of being led to conclusions based on the title or artists statements. Once the discussion gets going, you can invite them to look at the labels and then they can talk more about the artwork and what the artist is trying to convey.
2. Then ask students to answer the following open-ended questions, in this sequence. Listen intently to what students say, pointing to what they mention and responding to each comment, paraphrasing every student's comments. Finally, the facilitator links agreements and disagreements, while refraining from adding comments, correcting, or directing the students' attention.
a. Open with "What's going on (in this picture, video, etc.)?" This initiates the inquiry into the meanings contained in the image: not just what's depicted but also what it conveys. Summarize student responses using conditional language, e.g. "Nathan thinks this could be about..." This keeps the conversation open to other interpretations by other students. Remember, ALL responses are valid (provided they're being respectful).
b. You can then ask, "What do you see that makes you say that?" which is a non-threatening way to introduce reasoning; students must provide evidence for their interpretations. This encourages students to back up their statements with what they see in the work of art.
c. And finally you can ask "What more can we find?" which helps continue the conversation and deepens the meaning-making process. Repeated use of this question also reinforces the notion that no matter how quickly we think we grasp something, further observing and reflecting often enlarges or changes our initial thoughts.
3. The ways in which you respond to student comments is very important to the VTS process. You will actually point to the observed details and respond verbally to all student comments, paraphrasing each comment and linking one comment to others.
- Listen carefully to catch all that students say.
- Point to what is observed so that you're ensuring everyone else sees it too, keeping all eyes focused on the subject of discussion. This way, students also know you're seeing what they do, and if you don't, they can correct you.
- Paraphrase by accurately rephrasing each student's comments. Take a moment to reflect on what was said while formulating your response to make sure all content and meanings are grasped and helpfully rephrased. Your role is not to correct the student, but to simply provide another way to express what you just heard. This indicates that you not only heard the comment, but that you also understand what's been said. It's also a way to honor and affirm each student. The importance of feeling understood can't be overstated. By taking the time to listen and reflect back what the students say, you are building all students' sense of feeling valued and capable. It has the added benefit of leveling the playing field; the risk of speaking up is reduced when students feel that you understand everyone and treat them all equally. It is also important to use conditional language when paraphrasing, no matter how certain students are of their statements. For example, "Ok, so Brianna is looking at this figure and thinking it's a homeless woman. What do you see that made you think she's homeless?" or "Oliver is offering another interpretation, saying that this woman is wearing dirty and ripped clothes because she's been working in the garden we can see here in the distance. And you're saying that maybe we don't have enough information here to know for sure this woman's situation. What more can we find?"
- Link related comments whether students agree or disagree, or build on one another's ideas. Pointing and paraphrasing indicate that individual contributions matter; by linking you're showing how ideas interact, making sense of a conversation that otherwise might seem random, or disjointed. By connecting ideas that agree, you make it clear that drawing similar conclusions is often appropriate: "It seems that several people see that...." By linking ideas that disagree, you're indicating that it's also possible for different people to respond differently to something they see: "We have a variety of opinions here...."
- Conclude by thanking students for their participation. We often feel the need to provide closure to activities, to summarize. But if you maintain the stance that this isn't about right and wrong, but about thinking, and indicate through paraphrasing and linking, that students singly and together are capable of wonderful, grounded ideas, then summaries are superfluous. VTS conversations most appropriately end with a simple "thank you" and ideally a comment about something you, as the facilitator, learned from listening: "I was excited to hear how many details you noticed in this image, more than I had," for example, or "I had not thought about _____ in that way before, thank you."
Additional VTS Tips
- It is important to facilitate in such a way as to stress respectful, extended examination and dialogue - collaborative peer interaction. Let the students do the thinking, independent of you! They're exploring and probing for meaning, not medium, technique, or history.
- Maintain a neutral stance throughout, which communicates important concepts, such as that you don't always need a teacher/authority to help you figure things out. Students learn that knowledge is created; it's not simply "delivered" by an authority.
- Allow the conversation to go where it will, even if it gets off topic. Remember, the goal is not to give them information, but to encourage them to think for themselves.
- Listening carefully is crucial. As teachers/facilitators our minds are usually on what's next, but you have to be present in the moment with the students to make VTS work.
- Remember, there are NO wrong answers when talking about what one sees in a piece of art.
VTS gives students confidence and clarity that, with the help of peers, they can comprehend what they encounter around them, learn from it, and move on from a grounded position. Through VTS students do indeed learn a strategy they can and will employ without prompting, to make sense of what is unfamiliar both in art and objects of another nature (like fossils or scientific implements) probing what they see for more than first impressions. Deep encounters with visual art are useful in teaching people to think!
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