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February 1, 2017
Vol. 74
No. 5

Permission to Ponder

The Visual Thinking Strategies protocol helps students slow down and think deeply as they talk, listen, and reflect.

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Credit: © Susie Fitzhugh
Consider these writing samples by a 5th grader named Sarah, the first from the beginning of the year and the second from the end of the year.
First Sample: I see children play out side on a cloudy day. I see green grass all around them and trees. I see a red cabin in the back round. the children are pulling on each other but I don't know why. they all are wearing pants, hats, and long sleeve shirts. I see a little church and school house far away but not to far. flowers all around them. there clothes are not very color full they are brown, gray, and white with a little brick red here and there.
Second Sample: I think that in this picture 7 boys are playing a game, also I see that one boy has fell and another wants them to stop playing the game. I see that all the boys are facing the guy that fell. Maybe the red shed is there house and they are playing out side. I think it maybe it's spring because it looks like every thing has just sprouted and the weeds are still short. And the clouds are heavy so it might rain.
What's going on in these writing samples? The paragraph Sarah wrote in September described her observation of Winslow Homer's painting Snap the Whip. Sarah used simple adjectives to describe the setting, noting the colors of clothing and the size of buildings. She reported on what she saw, but she did not reflect on its possible meaning.
In May, Sarah wrote about this picture again after participating in ten Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) discussions throughout the school year. Now she attempted to make meaning of the art. She considered the boys in the painting as a group and individually, proposing possible reasons for their actions. She speculated that it was spring, and she supported this theory by citing details, such as the short, "just sprouted" plants. She predicted rain after noticing the "heavy" clouds.
Sarah's first sample simply described the scene. Her end-of-year sample, in contrast, used conditional language such as "maybe" and "I think," demonstrating her ability to speculate, weigh possibilities, and support ideas with evidence.
Over the past seven years, with support from the South Dakota Art Museum, we've used VTS to guide teachers and students through carefully designed discussions of visual images. We helped implement the VTS curriculum for 4th and 5th graders at Camelot Intermediate School in Brookings, South Dakota, and we studied how viewing and talking about selected art images established a valuable mental routine for these students.

Three Questions

"In many ways, images are the vehicle of comprehension, thought, and action. We integrate parts of images, we remember images, we manipulate images" (Zull, 2011, p. 18). Images are at the heart of the Visual Thinking Strategies protocol, which was developed as the result of more than 15 years of collaboration between cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen, veteran museum educator Philip Yenawine, and their colleagues (see Housen, 2001; Yenawine, 2013).
A VTS discussion begins when the teacher, as facilitator, says, "Let's take a moment to look at this image together." The invitation sets the stage to explore the image and cues students to slow down and pause, creating space for carefully focused attention. The facilitator allows a whole minute for students to transition. This may seem long at first, but learners need the full minute to become calm and centered, to focus their attention on the image (Hoey, 2016), and to achieve a state of relaxed awareness (Caine & Caine, 2001).
The VTS protocol includes three essential questions. The call to engagement begins with the question, "What's going on in this image?" This question prompts individuals to explore the "story" of the image and tie it to their own experiences. As they strive to make meaning of the image, their neocortex & subcortex—the regions of the brain where critical thinking occurs—become more active (Caine, Caine, McClintic, & Klimek, 2015). As students offer comments, the facilitator points to what each student has described and paraphrases his or her description, thus validating the student's observation and adding it to the possibilities of what may be happening. The teacher's neutral paraphrase builds the culture of respectful listening, creates space for students to consider all perspectives, and gives participants a chance to compare the response with their own viewpoints. Finally, the paraphrase sends the message that this is a safe place to say what you think.
The second question, "What do you see that makes you say that?" engages students in seeking evidence to put the pieces together and provide a sound argument. This helps develop critical thinking skills, such as building arguments, developing an open mind to new possibilities, and increasing confidence in reasoning (Bresciani Ludvik et al., 2016).
The third question, "What more can we find?" invites students to remain engaged. With this open-ended query encouraging further contemplation, the brain re-enters a relaxed, alert state to listen, discover, and reflect on others' responses. The internal dialogue between what a student is thinking and how others are responding to the same question allows the brain to continue engaging in critical thinking.
The facilitator ends the VTS discussion with "Thank you for your responses," and "We can always come back and find more." With these comments, the facilitator leaves the discussion open for more thinking. Students recognize that they have made meaning together by talking, listening, and reflecting. They feel valued for their contributions. This positive, problem-solving experience builds resiliency and a willingness to continue to engage in community dialogue.
We've often seen students become completely immersed in VTS discussions, even talking past the recess bell. We've seen teachers look at the time and say, "I can take just one last comment, please!" and then, to address the students' disappointment, add, "OK, you can tell the person next to you one more thing!" This type of energized focus is known as flow, a state in which "individuals become totally involved, sometimes to the point of being unconscious of other things going on around them" (Arends & Kilcher, 2010, p. 71).
VTS discussions are not just engaging and playful; they also develop mature thought processes and promote the use of critical thinking skills. "While the activity of examining art is not so different from a young person following a line of ants along the sidewalk to see where it leads, it is also how a scientist studies climate and a historian pieces together the past" (Yenawine, 2013, p. 13).

The Discussion Leader

The facilitator's actions in guiding this process involve both the art and science of good teaching.
Effective teachers recognize the power of scaffolding questions and information within their lessons to build student understanding. VTS works in a similar way as the facilitator
  • Listens respectfully and closely to each student's response to affirm individual contributions.
  • Accepts all responses in a neutral fashion to level the playing field, setting the tone for the egalitarian discussion and cultivating a growth mindset.
  • Trusts the process to vet the responses.
  • Paraphrases each response to show understanding, and gives students opportunities to clarify.
  • Includes conditional language in the paraphrase, such as "perhaps" and "might be," to convey open-mindedness and flexible thinking.
  • Maintains focus on the responses and creates attention by pointing at the image.
  • Links to previous comments within the paraphrase.
  • Inserts new vocabulary as appropriate.
  • Refrains from directing or co-opting the students' focus by maintaining the facilitator's role.
  • Asks "What do you see that makes you say that?" to reinforce the need for evidence.
  • Challenges students with "What more can we find?" to encourage divergent thinking.
Although VTS uses only three essential questions, the method's cofounder, Abigail Housen, described them as "deceptively simple" and carefully crafted (personal communication, March 14, 2009). The wording matters because even small changes would elicit different responses and send the discussion in different directions. For instance, rephrasing the second question as "What do you feel (or think) that makes you say that?" would not require verifiable proof. VTS questions proceed in a logical order and have the power to drive the discussion toward insightful speculation and deep, thoughtful consideration of the evidence—if they're used faithfully. In the hands of a practiced facilitator, these prompts become invisible as the students' responses emerge to direct the discussion.
For an excerpt from a typical VTS discussion, see "Using Visual Thinking Strategies to Focus on an Illustration."

Not Just for Art

Teachers at Camelot have told us that in the course of VTS discussions, they discover their students are much smarter than they had realized. And as teachers compare pre-VTS and post-VTS writing samples like Sarah's, they see improvements in thinking that reflect the skills and thought processes cultivated during VTS sessions. Further, teachers notice these skills being transferred to other content areas (Yenawine, 2013). For example, in one math class, students spontaneously initiated a VTS-inspired discussion of multiplication tables, uncovering patterns their teacher had not recognized herself.
Seeing these improvements in the learning, Camelot teachers began a quest to consider further content-based applications of VTS-style discussions. By reviewing their curriculum materials with an eye for visuals, they strove to "VTS" other content-area lessons.
Social studies teachers found that VTS prompts worked as tools to analyze maps, videos, historical photographs, timelines, charts, and other content-rich visuals. Other teachers used VTS questions to jump-start discussions of Google Earth images.
Camelot reading teachers often use VTS questions to investigate illustrations in texts and to spark interest in plot. When 4th grade teacher Molly Moran wanted to poll her students on their picks for literature-circle books, rather than simply providing synopses of the plots, she introduced the choices with a VTS discussion of the book covers. Moran noted that as students elaborated and speculated on details of the cover illustrations they deemed to be important, their curiosity about the books grew. They also respectfully disagreed with one another.
For example, when some students identified a structure on the book cover as a barn, one student asserted that it was a house instead. He said that the black or brown marking on the building was actually an attic window instead of a hayloft as his peers had said, and he proposed that it was painted dark (instead of white like the windows at the bottom of the structure) because there was no light turned on inside. He speculated that this was because "people usually did not spend large amounts of time up in their attics, so most of the time the light would be off." By synthesizing his observations for his interpretation, the student built a reasonable case.
In science, teacher Lisa Weier used VTS questions to help students analyze parts of a flower, using magnified microscopic images of real plants. She wanted students to review for the state assessment by theorizing about their observations while providing evidence with specific details. Here's some of the students' discussion, about 12 minutes from the start, illustrating the reciprocal, constructive, and wide-ranging nature of the VTS group processing:
Mike: I disagree with Carol and Lewis because it looks like pollen.
Teacher: What do you see that makes you say that?
Mike: It's yellow and looks like some of the pictures we've seen with little spikes coming out.
Teacher: So Mike thinks this is not a cactus plant. He thinks it might be pollen because it reminds him of images we've seen in the past of yellow pollen, and it reminds him that pollen has those little burs as well.
Joe: I agree with Mara and Reina that it could be sunrise or sunset because you see some spots have a certain amount of lighting. Towards the top it looks like there's more light.
Teacher: So Joe notices the tops—they are lighter, so he agrees this is some sunlight.
Eta: I disagree with Steph and Clint. I kind of think it might be like an underwater plant that's close to the surface, from like a coral reef or something.
Teacher: What do you see that makes you say that?
Eta: Well, the green stuff kind of reminds me of like seaweed; the spikey stuff reminds me of the coral how it's spikey so it might be a coral reef.
Teacher: So, for Eta, this is reminding her of seaweed and she figures this picture is of something underwater.
Eta: Close to the surface.
Teacher: What do you see that makes you say that?
Eta: Because if it were very far down, there wouldn't be much light on them like there is.

From Self-Awareness to Social Awareness

As a result of Camelot students' participation in VTS discussion over the year, their writing samples, as a whole, illustrated growth in their ability to probe their own thought processes. The discussion process also cultivated understanding among individuals. Students not only considered the ideas of others; they also traced those ideas back through the discussion. Camelot teachers reported that students were able to accurately track the flow of debates by explaining the various perspectives and identifying the ideas with which they agreed or disagreed. To build their own cases, they needed to listen closely and actively seek to understand others' perspectives. Students quickly learned to include "because" in their responses along with the evidence to support them.
Growth thus occurred within the students' own thinking process and between students as they conversed. By listening respectfully and considering alternative ideas, students developed a democratically open communication style and a growth mindset, which carried over into civil real-world discussions. Camelot principal David Fiedler observed this dynamic during a student council debate about the use of their funds; students engaged in respectful discourse and maturely handled different opinions. They said, "I agree with ___ because …" and "I disagree with ___ because …." They listened to different perspectives and supported their own reasoning, ultimately resolving their conflicts.

When Discovery Leads to Joy

A well-facilitated VTS discussion elicits a sense of wonder in participants. It's fun when "action and exploration lead to discovery and discovery leads to joy" (Zull, 2011, pp. 16–17). These words describe what we've experienced and seen while working with VTS at Camelot Intermediate School—students growing in their abilities to think carefully and make meaning of their worlds.

Using Visual Thinking Strategies to Focus on an Illustration

Below is a brief excerpt from a Visual Thinking Strategy discussion with elementary students. (Student names are pseudonyms.) The facilitator, Kay Cutler, begins by inviting students to look at an image together—in this case, an illustration by Paul Goble from pages 3–4 of his book, Her Seven Brothers (Aladdin, 1993)—and asks, "So what's going on in this picture?"

Mekayla: It looks like there is a Native American woman and she's admiring the nature.

Facilitator: And what do you see that makes you say that she's admiring the nature?

Mekayla: She doesn't have a bow and arrow with her, and she's just looking at it peacefully. And maybe it looks like she is gathering herbs.

Facilitator: Okay. So Mekayla is thinking that maybe this Native American woman is looking at the nature and just sort of looking at the different animals there. She's thinking and maybe she is gathering herbs. What do you see that makes you say that she might be gathering herbs?

Mekayla: I can see her bag down there.

Facilitator: Okay. So Mekayla's noticed there's a bag here and thinking maybe she is gathering something. Maybe it might be herbs. What more can we find? Gabrio?

Gabrio: I think it's like somewhere in like a forest because of the trees.

Facilitator: Okay.

Gabrio: And I think that it's not been explored by that many people because the animals don't seem afraid because they are right next to her.

Facilitator: Okay, so Gabrio is thinking about where this might be taking place. And he's thinking maybe this might be a forest. And he noticed that because of the tree that's here [pointing]. And then he's also noticing the reaction of the animals and that they're pretty close and they might not be afraid. What do you see that makes you say that they might not be afraid of her?

Gabrio: Well, they seem curious just by the position that they are in, and they are not far away. They are just next to her.

Facilitator: So really, Gabrio is looking at where the animals are and noticing. Are you mainly looking at these here?

Gabrio: Yeah, the birds.

Facilitator: Okay, so really looking at the birds and seeing how they are not that far away. They seem a little bit curious about that person. And what do you see that makes you say that they might be curious?

Gabrio: Because one of them is looking back, and so I'm thinking that they are trying to figure out either what she's doing here or what she is.


Arends, D. I., & Kilcher, A. (2010). Teaching for student learning: Becoming an accomplished teacher. New York: Routledge.

Bresciani Ludvik, M., Goldin, P., Evrard, M., Wood, J. L., Bracken, W., Iyoho, C., et al. (2016). Enhancing and evaluating critical thinking dispositions and holistic student learning and development through integrative inquiry. In M. Bresciani Ludvik (Ed). The neuroscience of learning and development (pp. 234–265). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Caine, G., & Caine, R. (2001). The brain, education, and the competitive edge. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow.

Caine, R. N., Caine, G., McClintic, C., & Klimek, K. J. (2015). 12 brain/mind learning principles in action: Teach for the development of higher-order thinking and executive function (3rd ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Hoey, C. L. (2016). Enhancing well-being and resilience. In M. Bresciani Ludvik (Ed). The neuroscience of learning and development (pp. 144–176). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Housen, A. (2001). Aesthetic thought, critical thinking and transfer. Arts and Learning Research Journal, 18(1), 99–131.

Yenawine, P. (2013). Visual thinking strategies: Using art to deepen thinking across school disciplines. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Press.

Zull, J. E. (2011). From brain to mind: Using neuroscience to guide change in education. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

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