Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), Using Art to Deepen Learning

The season for Professional Development is upon us! AMoA will be participating in a VTS training workshop this August that will give teachers the opportunity to practice their new skills in a museum setting.

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Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is a student-centered, research-based teaching method that uses art and photographs to build the capacity to observe, think, listen, and communicate. 

The art education world is ever changing, and it can feel hard to keep up! New instructional techniques and schools of thought are popping up here and there, and sometimes art instructors find themselves just trying to stay afloat.

VTS is one particular teaching strategy that the Amarillo Museum of Art has fully embraced, and uses regularly in tours, and outreach programs. It was developed over 20 years ago by Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine, and is used in museums and schools nationwide. It is a great resource for our docents to facilitate conversations while conducting student tours without the need to have a large body of information on every work of art. The goal of VTS is not to teach the history of an artwork, but to encourage students to participate in an open dialogue, and explore their findings by using supporting evidence through observation. These discussions are the avenue to developing an interest in, and curiosity about art because they build on the viewers’ existing experiences.

Originally designed to make museum programs more effective, VTS has proven to develop the kind of self-directed learning that Common Core asks for. Art engagements enhance the experience of learning in a holistic manner, and inform sophisticated thinking. Thus, the techniques can be applied to classroom learning, and are appropriate for a wide range of subjects.

Through VTS discussions, students cultivate critical and creative thinking, inferential reasoning based on evidence, and communication skills meant to inform and persuade. VTS provides an engaging experience for students that jump starts contextual thinking while helping students broaden their vocabulary and language skills. VTS introduces students to “group investigation” of visual evidence. Students evaluate what they see, listen to ideas from their peers, assess the credibility of these ideas based on the evidence, and decide whether to incorporate their peers’ ideas into their own interpretations. Best of all, students are not even aware of all this cognitive development occurring – they’re just having fun exploring “what’s going on in this picture”.

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Dan Traverso. Jack in the Box — Museum Director. 1978. Colored pencil on paper. AMoA purchase with NEA matching funds. 

Getting started is as simple as picking an artwork to discuss that you think will engage students. It can be a painting, photograph, sculpture, or any media that has a visible narrative. The images you choose should increase in complexity as students become more familiar with VTS discussions, and can start to include non objective artwork. It isn’t crucial for students to “get it right” when making observations about art, as this is an approach that does not include right or wrong answers. Teachers are merely meant to facilitate discussions to support student growth.

Here is how it’s done…

After a few moments of slow, silent looking,

Teachers are asked to use three open-ended questions:

What’s going on in this picture?

  • When a student responds, teachers will point to the area of the image being discussed (which builds language acquisition, especially for ESL students).
  • After a student offers a comment, the teacher should summarize and paraphrase the vocabulary with slightly advanced grammar and sentence structure.20160616_103329

What do you see that makes you say that?

  • This question encourages students to back up their comments with what they see in the work of art.
  • Teachers should link comments to build the framework of the discussion (students become aware of how thinking unfolds and meanings are discovered). The conversation should be left open to other interpretations by students.
  • Teachers remain neutral, and non judgmental to encourage participation by everyone.

What more can we find?

  • This continues the conversation, and encourages students to look even further.
  • Let the discussion continue for about fifteen minutes, or until the students seem to have run out of comments. Thank them for participating, and let them know they did a good job looking at the image.
  • Avoid summaries; linking throughout is enough to show how conversations build.

Below is an example of a VTS lesson in action with fourth grade students. (See more videos here.)

In summary, the specific goals for students are:

  • To develop flexible and rigorous thinking skills, including observing, brainstorming, reasoning with evidence, speculating, cultivating a point of view, and revising
  • To strengthen language and listening skills, including willingness and ability to express oneself, respect for the views of others and ability to consider and debate possibilities
  • To develop visual literacy skills and personal connections to art, advancing one’s ability to find meaning in diverse and complex art
  • To nurture problem solving abilities, curiosity and openness to the unfamiliar
  • To build self-respect, confidence and willingness to participate in group thinking and discussion processes

The Amarillo Museum of Art partners with AISD and Region 16 to share pedagogy with educators in the Panhandle. We participate in teacher training, using our galleries for hands-on practice. We hope to be a resource for helping teachers realize the effectiveness of VTS, its low investment of time/cost, and to implement it in their classrooms.


The VTS method can be enhanced with a trip to the Amarillo Museum of Art. The strength of museums is access to objects that are not otherwise available. Children are invited to look at and think about these things firsthand. Our exhibitions rotate frequently, including historical and contemporary works. Self-led tours are free, but reservations are required at least 2 weeks in advance. Visit our website to find more information on tours. Consider visiting the museum in advance to see what is on display, if you are planning a self-led tour. Our staff is happy to address any questions or concerns you may have.