Visual Thinking Skills

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Visual Thinking StrategiesVTS is a student-centered, research-based teaching method that uses art to build the capacity to observe, think, listen, and communicate. The VTS K-5 curriculum with ten lessons per year has been shown to Increase writing skills Raise reading and math test scores Bring art into the lives of young people Create confidence in student!s ability to comprehend complexity Foster a desire to learn and take risks Encourage students to value their own ideas while listening to and building on the ideas of others Watch VTS in action and review extensive research and literature at:

How Does VTS Work?

In a typical VTS lesson, students 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 multiple interpretations


Raises Test ScoresResearch proves that VTS can significantly raise scores if used for a minimum of 3 years consecutively. A recent US Department of Education-funded study of an arts-integrated social studies curriculum for Grades 3-5 in Miami-Dade County demonstrated that VTS was associated with 12% higher scores in Language Arts (+.35) and 16% in Math (+.40).From Artful Citizenship Project: Three-Year Report, Curva and Associates, 2005.

In another study, a school in Byron, MN using the VTS curriculum jumped 23 points in state ranking, ten points above the state average, where the school then remained. FromHousen (1999), comparing a VTS school in Minnesota to a control school as well as the state average over multiple years.

VTS Works Students Pass Within Budget

VTS has proven to increase the critical thinking skills required in over 70% of questions on state tests.

VTS has proven to work with all students, including disadvantaged youth. Since manyof these students are just shy of the mark, a modest boost translates to passing scores.

VTS is dramatically less expensive per projected percentage point of gain than the costof current reading programs.

VTSWhat Do We Learn From Looking?

Builds Cognition Through ArtInfants start using their eyes to learn as soon as they open them. They observe everything and gradually make sense of what they see. VTS asks students to apply these intrinsic visual skills. VTS asks questions everyone can answer but still challenges students to observe and think deeply. Intrigued by images and aided by supportive teachers, students find language to express complicated ideas and emotions. Students develop a wide range of visual memories invaluable in reading. Students put their minds together, building on each other!s observations, ideas, and knowledge. They learn to listen, argue respectfully, and find more solutions together. They hone skills as individuals who communicate easily within a group. Students apply these abilitiesobserving carefully, thinking deeply, expressing themselves, listening to othersto other subjects.

Why Art?

Thinking about art, or aesthetic thought, is rich and complex. Art!s subjects cover age-old stories often addressing universal human concerns and conditions. Art!s subjects transcend economic and cultural boundaries. Art is intentionally ambiguous, open to a variety of valid interpretations. Feelings are embedded in art along with information, triggering a full range of expression from those who look at it thoughtfully. Layers of meaning, symbols, and metaphor encourage probing and reflecting in young people, as they do in adults.

The VTS curriculum is comprised of works of art and put into careful order (as one might select books for young readers) to give students a chance to use what they know to figure out what they don!t.

VTSThinking Behaviors

Develops Thinking SkillsMost thinkingindeed most knowledgebegins with observations that form the basis for ideas later given shape in language. VTS builds habits of Making complex observationscontinuously adding breadth and depth Drawing conclusions, making inferences and interpretations based on observation Expressing and articulating these ideas in discussions and in writing Citing evidence to back up interpretations, a thinking skill known as evidential reasoning: "I think this because! Considering a range of possibilities; being able to brainstorm, to accept multiple viewpoints, to speculate, and to use qualifying language: "It could be this.! Or "It might be that.! Revising: "At first I thought, but now I think! Elaborating: "What I meant was! Applying these habits to other subjects without prompting

A Fast Start

VTS develops critical thinking skills beginning in kindergarten. VTS works early because it is based on children!s ability to reason about what they see, a universal and natural ability that begins to develop in infancy. VTS links a child!s natural reasoning abilities with their language development, helping VTS students get off to a fast start.

VTSVTS Supports

Builds Language LiteracySince research on VTS began, teachers have commented on how easily writing comes to most students after VTS discussions. Furthermore, significant growth in writing skills has been documented in more recent data. Why does this happen?


In order to write we must first learn to speak. In order to write well we must first learn to speak well. At school and home, too little time is spent in conversation to allow speaking skills to develop. When asked to talk about a well-chosen work of art, students stretch their vocabulary and means of expression to articulate their thoughts.

Writing Skills

Since teachers paraphrase each student!s remarkswhich entails expressing the same idea in different wordsVTS helps build grammar, syntax and vocabulary. This effect is especially strong for non-native English speakers. After extended VTS experience, teachers see students develop confidence in their ability to write, with and without visual prompts.

Reading Skills

VTS strengthens reading comprehension skills through ongoing exposure to a wide range of art, which expands one!s visual memory and thus helps students to form a mental picture of what they read. Reading tests assess students! ability to make observations, draw inferences, and, often, provide evidence in support of their opinions. In a VTS lesson students practice using all of these skills.

Respectful Debate

Students begin to understand that there are numerous valid interpretations of any work of art. As a consequence, they listen attentively to others and learn to share their own ideas within a respectful group dynamic.

VTSMeeting State Standards

Standards and ResearchVTS curriculum meets state standards in a wide variety of areas for grade levels K-5 including reading and writing, discussion, mathematics, science, social studies and visual arts. Lesson plans will cite subject standards for your state and grade, and are available on the Internet for downloading and printing. Discussion-based VTS lessons build many of the skills that are tested on standardized tests such as literary response and analysis, writing, mathematical logic, scientific observation, and reasoning. More detailed information about how VTS addresses specific standards can be found at

Background and Research

VTS is one of the most respected art education teaching methods in the country, frequently cited at professional conferences. The VTS method is utilized in dozens of art museums and schools across the country and in Europe. VTS is the result of collaboration between cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen and veteran museum educator Philip Yenawine. For over 30 years, Abigail Housen, a Harvard-trained educator and psychologist, has conducted empirical research exploring how viewers, experienced and novice, think when looking at art objects. Philip Yenawine, former Director of Education at MOMA and NAEA Museum Educator of the Year (2000), has taught and implemented VTS in urban and rural settings, with disadvantaged populations, and across languages and cultures. VTS was field tested for over twelve years in many sites in the US and abroad and is the subject of much independent research. Research findings are detailed in reports and articles ( Writing by Housen and Yenawine, as well as research by Housen and Karin DeSantis, are seminal to the study of museum education.

VTSProgram Model

ImplementationVisual Thinking Strategies school-wide implementation can be structured to fit different situations, but the ideal professional development plan would follow this basic structure: VTS Year 1 PD Schedule: Late Summer/Early Fall: Initial Full-Staff Training 6-7 hour training for all teachers (including non-core, support, and resource staff) Fall: Debriefing 1 one-on-one coaching followed by group debriefing session Winter: Debriefing 2 one-on-one coaching followed by group debriefing session Spring: Debriefing 3 one-on-one coaching followed by group debriefing session VTS Year 2 PD Schedule: Late Summer/Fall: Initial Full-Staff Training 3 hour training for 4th and 5th grade teachers (including refresher and breakout sessions for new and returning staff) Fall: Debriefing 1 one-on-one coaching followed by group debriefing session Winter: Debriefing 2 one-on-one coaching followed by group debriefing session Spring: Debriefing 3 one-on-one coaching followed by group debriefing session VTS Year 3 PD Schedule: Late Summer/Fall: Initial Full-Staff Training 3 hour training for 5th grade teachers (including refresher and breakout sessions for new and returning staff) Fall: Debriefing 1 one-on-one coaching followed by group debriefing session Winter: Debriefing 2 one-on-one coaching followed by grou