Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) at a Glance

By Philip Yenawine

Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) provide a very carefully designed set of methods to encourage groups of individuals to observe carefully and to describe what they see.  Initially developed decades ago at the Museum of Modern Art by Philip Yenawine and his colleagues, it was first focused on enhancing aesthetic judgments of youth.  Over the years these methods have been expanded into a range of different disciplines, and proven particularly successful in the sciences where keen observational processes are critical in developing and then testing hypotheses.  At the Hydrous, we have adopted these methods in encouraging youth and adults to observe ocean scenes carefully, and to develop their curiosities about them.


VTS involves discussions—oral explorations of many topics by the students within a class. The topics are usually visual, building on the underutilized mastery students have of constructing meaning from what they see. To start, VTS makes use of selected works of art because of a combination of factors: they contain recognizable imagery and narratives and, importantly, elements that puzzle. They are thus open to interpretation and to reflection–first impressions often give way to other views when probed. There is a great deal of room for diverse opinions though part of VTS process is to ask participants to provide evidence—what do you see that makes you say that?—to ground students’ varied ideas in observations others can see.

Here are specific instructions for how to engage VTS in a classroom discussion.  You can find an example of its use in ocean education in the Hydrous Blog VISUAL THINKING STRATEGIES (VTS) ENCOURAGE OCEAN EMPATHY.

 Images: Present a carefully selected image, one that provokes good discussion. Productive choices contain

•       Subjects of interest to your audience, images that are immediately engaging

•       Some familiar depiction given the existing knowledge of your audience, taking into account their varied life experiences and eliciting comments that become points of departure for the discussion

•       Storylines/narratives with accessible meaning, again thinking about the specific audience; puzzling people is useful; stumping them is not.

•       Ambiguity and multiple possible meanings: room for differing interpretations and changes of mind

•       Diversity of visual language, medium, and maker

 Silent looking: Allow a few moments of silent observation before beginning the discussion; for very young people, make it a task with specific directions: for example, look from top to bottom, side to side, look for big details and small ones

Questions: Pose specific research-tested questions to motivate and maintain the inquiry

·      For PreK start with: What do you see in this picture? Or what do you notice?

·      For older people and for young ones as soon as you think they are ready, start with: What’s going on (or what’s happening) in this picture? Ask this only once to get the discussion started.

·      When you hear an interpretation or an inference as to meaning, ask: What do you see that makes you say that?

·      Before each new person comments, ask: What more can we find?

 Facilitate the discussion: Ask for people to raise their hands to contribute.

·      Listen carefully to catch all a person says; if young ones have no words, let them come to the image and point; if you can’t find what they see, ask for their help: Can you show us what you’re seeing? If you don’t understand what they mean, also ask for help: Can you add more words to help us understand?

·      Point to observations—a “visual paraphrase”—as people comment, and point to the observation again as you rephrase the idea

·      Paraphrase each comment, no matter how short, taking a moment to reflect if you need to: show you understand the person’s meaning. Use conditional language to convey that interpretations are not facts (“correct”) but possibilities.

·      Link related comments whether people agree, disagree, or build on one another’s ideas

·      Remaining neutral by treating everyone and each comment in the same way

 Conclude: Thank your audience for its participation. Tell them what you particularly enjoyed or appreciated. Suggest they share additional, unsaid ideas with someone sitting next to them.

 Extending exploratory discussions through questions and activities
The point of VTS discussions--whatever the specific subject, a work of art, or a scientific phenomenon—is to make observations, consider and reflect on what is seen, and debate possible interpretations. VTS discussions begin a process; they are not intended to be conclusive. They are an active and structured way of processing what one sees—of discovery—not coming up with the "right answer" kind of knowledge. Thus when the subject is science or an historical document, the discussion is only the start.

 The visual material chosen for the initial discussion works as an authentic starting place if it has certain elements. The needed prior experience must come from life that might include specific information but more dependably is skill at observing closely and the capacity to make personal sense of what is seen. The subject must interest the students and draw them in. They must be able to recognize enough from the beginning to start thinking based on what they already know; they need a sense that they have something to say. But they also need enough that's puzzling to allow for deepening the thinking; they need to wonder about enough aspects of what they are seeing to provoke probing.

Given a good subject and a group exploration, some understanding of, say, marine life will be generated from discussion-based observing of, say, an aquarium. But if the visual chosen for the initial discussion is a good one, students will have become interested in "knowing more" quite quickly. They seem to recognize when additional information will be instructive. To guide this learning—and to introduce the scientific method adequately—you have to follow the initial inquiry with additional questions that motivate learning of other sorts—probing initial discoveries further, for example, or searching for information.

 Here are some simple suggestions for taking the process a few steps further:

  • Ask students to step back and think about their discussion. Ask them to name things they feel confident they have figured out: what do you think we got right? Make a list of these for all to see and continue to add to it as time goes by. And then ask: how do we find out if we’re right? Continue to paraphrase all comments and make notes too, creating a record of thoughts.

  • Then ask what it is that they still wonder about: what questions do we have? This activity is best done broken into small groups. Reconvene after a period of time—at least ten minutes—and make a second list of all the questions. Follow this by asking: how do we find answers? This can be done in small groups or the class together.

  • Once methods of further inquiry are identified, decide how you want to continue the lesson: in class as small groups or individual pursuits, or as out-of-class work. Ask them to decide how they would like to report their findings to you and the class. Set a time frame. Allow time in the schedule for reports.