I had the opportunity in January 2013 to attend my first professional development VTS event at the MoMA in San Francisco. The video above is of a Level 3 Practicum student demonstrating her image selection, paraphrasing and linking skills and proficiency. This recording later provided cameo videotape material in submission of her facilitation of the image discussions we shared and experienced, as VTS para-professionals and professionals.
I first discovered it several years ago in a museum training program I had participated in for nine months.
VTS stands for Visual Thinking Strategies. Within the first twenty minutes encounter with the basic way in which it is designed to work, I was totally hooked! I could immediately intuit the way in which VTS is uniquely designed to facilitate student development, because I instantly recognized parallels to the way the Looking/Seeing Project I once taught as an artist volunteer to elementary, middle school and high school students, had similar goals. Goals I can sum up in six words- Empower each viewer within a group!
As I say, the Looking/Seeing project I had designed in 1992, and taught over a six year period, had several goals. One was to teach students through the experiences of making art, to pay attention to their own perceptions. Through inquiry combined with individual and group work, I stressed noticing that each person’s perceptions- as recorded in their own visual expression, might differ from the person sometimes sitting right next to them.
The students worked on a whole class project within clusters of 4 students, each cluster sharing one historical art image to observe or not, while each art print was different from table to table.
In beginning to notice individual perception, I next asked them very simply to also notice those differences within their cluster group while pursuing their art projects.
In the next step, I asked them to bring their awareness for differences into the next phase of the process, as the whole group joined to brainstormed about their experiences to that point.
Once each student felt their art work was complete, they were guided to mat their individual works according to cluster mat colors agreed on together, as preparation to join their works with the other clusters, to a whole classroom arrangement.
Next they collaborated to produce a writing project with multiple focuses: 1_ talk about the art they were making individually in their clusters, and 2_ how they experienced discovering their differences in perceptions through visual expression, 3_ talk about sharing discussions of differences in small groups, 4_ and just describe joining both their visual work and their dicussions together as a whole group.
Lastly, they were asked to come together to produce and host their own exhibit as a final step of returning to a combined whole classroom experience, to open their multi-level experiences of process, observation and collaboration, up to their extended world through empowered and experiential articulation.
To summerize, students excitedly created an expression of their own perception. Participated in cognizantly noticing those perceptions at first as uniquely their own. Shared observations within small groups about those differences in perception through looking, seeing and discussion. Further acknowledged their experiences of individuality and participation within a small group by organizing their works together via agreed-to mat color. Rejoined the whole classroom as one large group through brainstorming to write a class statement together, to reinforce their individual and shared Looking/Seeing experiences of combining multiple processes.
Processes that ebbed and flowed as they encountered and experienced individual and collaborative observation, making and discussion; concluding by taking the entire set of processes into yet a larger world experience, via statement writing and hosting their own whole classroom exhibit, with family and extended community.
Visual Thinking Strategies is essentially interested in ‘what aesthetic skills are developed when a viewer looks at art. What causes such development?’
The ways I see this model facilitate empowerment, is found in the originator, Abigail Housen‘s early research: ‘…only by understanding viewing from the viewer’s perspective… how to support… nurture and finally, foster aesthetic growth.’
After years of teaching and research, she collaborated with Phillip Yenawine ‘to create educational practices that help learners move to new levels of aesthetic experience.’ ‘…teachers encourage student participation and sharing of each student’s current understanding by asking carefully designed and sequenced questions that have been paired with carefully selected images. Both questions and images are targeted to the viewers’ questions, interests, and skills based on their aesthetic stage.’ (Housen & Yenawine, 200a, 200b, 2001b, 2002).
‘Students are asked to do what they can do and they are challenged to do what they are ready to do next. Teachers paraphrase, in a nonjudgmental way, each student’s contribution, ensuring that each voice is heard and understood. They link ideas, ensuring that the conversations deepen, encouraging learners to continue to look for and construct meanings. In the course of talking about the image. learners effectively teach each other, bringing new observations to light, offering opposing views, and ever widening the discussion. The care of designing suitable and sequenced questioning paired with carefully selected images and paraphrased responses, are critical in the process of fostering aesthetic growth and critical thinking.
Art affords an ideal environment for teaching and learning. It provides an object of collective attention- something concrete for a classroom to observe and experience, provoking thoughts and feelings while at the same time generating simultaneous and distinctive meanings. The more one looks and discuss images, together with well chosen questions and adept facilitation by a teacher, the more there is to see, and the deeper and richer is the learning experience.
There are many pathways to move through a stage of aesthetic understanding and growth, and each viewer discovers her own way. Well-chosen works of art support these multiple pathways, and well-crafted educational designs can support a multiplicity of learners as their thinking develops. Together, they provide the foundations for lifelong viewing and learning.’ (VTS: Visual Thinking Strategies; Art Viewing and Aesthetic Development: Designer for the Viewer; Abigail Housen, Ed. D.; Visual Understanding in Education.)
Though different, the Looking/Seeing project engaged a hands-on combination of individual and group making with active self and collaborative observation, to provide students direct integration through which to articulately share their empowered perceptions and multi-level experiences with others.
VTS provides participatory discussion facilitated through carefully chosen images that are combined with non-judgmental paraphrasing and linking, as students are invited to discuss, listen, observe deeply, and build a shared viewing/learning experience that can be repeated. Over time, the stages of aesthetic development grows in active breadth and depth that is as individually empowering as it is inclusively interactive.
In my experiences with both, I continue to uncover rich parallels and cross-over possibilities with unending and expanding excitement. My experiences have evolved into revelatory explorations that have never rung more true for me, than in learning to design the developmental reality of joining the powerful critical thinking and articulation skills of VTS, within mobile app content creation.
From a vision I originated, and through talented on-campus collaborations that facilitated public launch to what has become the phase I prototype of my post-Bacc student design and development job, called the ARt project, is now entering phase two application refinement of the proof-of-concept. The goals of the ARt project are playing a dynamic role in opening up access to the facilitative conversations the visual arts in public places have to offer us all, in seemingly limitless possibilities, that are timeless and at once substantively empowering!