Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) Encourage Ocean Empathy

By Philip Yenawine

Kristina Woolsey of the Hydrous and Philip Yenawine are long time colleagues, who share a deep interest in visualization and learning.In a spontaneous dinner conversation when Philip was visiting the west coast, he revealed that he had that day engaged students in a VTS exercise with the oceans. Over dinner he described how his students were not only immediately engaged, but that they developed a range of questions and hypotheses about stressors in the oceans based on their observational experience. Not to let this coincidence pass unnoticed, we have asked him to briefly describe this event.

Old Adobe Elementary Charter School sits on the eastern edge of rural Petaluma California, a small city in the middle of Sonoma County’s beautiful, bountiful wine country. Beginning in 2010—with the strong support of the then-superintendent of schools, Diane Zimmerman, and the principal, Jeff Williamson—Old Adobe initiated use of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) throughout the grades. These strategies encourage group discussion, and careful observations.

 When using a VTS approach, teachers facilitate the discussions but refrain from adding opinions or information, so that students learn to use their knowledge and experience to figure out, collectively, what’s new and unfamiliar. Given as few as ten such discussions a year over the course of the elementary grades, students learn how to have civil, probing discussions of topics connecting discipline domains.

 At Old Adobe, VTS particularly caught on with two teachers, Carol Henderson and Tracy McClure who currently teach the two sixth grades and who use VTS to engage students in discussions of all sorts of images and texts too, mostly poetry. The benefits of this continuous experience set me up for a recent visit where I led an hour-long class with six-graders on the devastation of coral reefs in part because of abandoned plastic.

Fortuitously, an article with great images had shown up in my email the week before from Atlas Obscura, an online journal. I copied and pasted the images into a Powerpoint without explanatory text, asked students to study each briefly, and, after they’d had a chance to explore, asked them to begin commenting on what they saw going on in the pictures. I facilitated conversations using VTS’ few questions and ways of responding to comments (again VTS is detailed below.) Students shared different observations and gradually built the sense that the thematic link was plastic waste in the ocean. I then showed them the opening paragraphs of the short article that addressed the damage being done to reefs and shorelines as result of plastic. I asked them to factor into their thinking the information provided.

Here is the picture that introduced the article. (The students didn’t see the brief caption until I showed them the article itself but this is what is said: Submerged plastic can sicken coral.) 


The students had seriously probed the images for what was conveyed to them. Not all of what they said ended up being the case, but that wasn’t the intention of the discussion; instead the point was exploring and sharing—discovering the visual content, considering its implications—as well as developing curiosity about the subject. Clarification would come in time, beginning when we read and discussed the article text.

Here’s the opening paragraph of the article that accompanied five images, that I shared with the students after we made our observations:

Dancing in an ocean current, a single scrap of plastic doesn’t appear especially insidious. Toothless, tailless, twirling, it might look, at first, more evanescent than threatening. But snared on corals or heaped in piles, plastic waste poses deadly risks to vast underwater ecosystems.

 At about the forty-minute mark, wanting to build further on this introduction, I asked the students to pull back from the discussions and to think about what they felt confident they understood as well as what they still wondered about. In groups of four or five, they talked for ten minutes forming questions they’d like answers to. And after we’d heard some of those, I asked them to return to their groups to brainstorm how to research answers to their questions.

The questions asked were good ones.

  • How did the debris get in the ocean?

  • Can it be prevented?

  • Is there a way to get the plastic back out of the ocean? How?

  • What was the accumulation through time?  When did it starting getting big?

  • Which materials are most common?

  • How widespread is the problem and where is it happening?

  • What are people thinking about this problem?

  • How long from water bottle to strangle?

  • How widespread is the destruction of fish and coral?

  • How do different materials break down?

  • Does all plastic kill the reefs or are some kinds more harmful than others? 

  • Can the effects of the plastic on reefs be reversed, and if so, how?

  • How does the plastic kill the coral exactly?

At this point my hour with the students had come to an end and they headed out to lunch.

 Colleagues at The Hydrous, having heard about the class, sent dated before and after pictures of reefs damaged by warming waters, a bleaching process that leaves coral badly weakened in a matter of weeks. I forwarded this link and these images added visual information about yet another threat to coral, raising more questions, which motivated the students to change their views.  Several said things like “I’m picking up this trash because I don’t want it to go in the ocean”, or “No coral reef for you, plastic bottle; you are being recycled”.

 This single hour looking at a few images has made an impact on these students, expanding their curiosity and also alerting them to the importance of recycling. They are now primed and ready to dive into the wide range of resources addressed to coral reef conservation.Just to inform my own curiosity, I asked my phone to tell me what caused coral bleaching and in a second had several trustworthy sources providing answers created for laypeople to understand. And I am now poised to pay attention to other resources in this arena.