OpenThink: Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) & Museums

VTS-bostonFor the past two decades, the overall discourse regarding Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) has been the subject of rather thorny debate.  The often-cited conversation between Philip Yenawine and Danielle Rice at the 1999 National Docent Symposium (published in 2002) productively drew out many of the disagreements about the role of information in museum teaching, especially with beginning viewers and first-time museum visitors.  In their recent book Teaching in the Art Museum, Rika Burnham and Elliot Kai-Kee frame VTS as a restrictive teaching method, wondering about participants’ experience in the galleries: “Have they not perhaps been cheated out of an authentic encounter with the painting?”  These debates continue to today, and, at times, it seems like one needs to draw a line in the sand and decide which side they stand on.

So what is VTS?

For those of you unfamiliar with Visual Thinking Strategies, it is an inquiry-based teaching method developed by Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine more than twenty years ago and used in museums and school classrooms across the country.  Here is how Philip Yenawine describes it in his latest book Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines (2013):

“VTS uses art to teach visual literacy, thinking, and communication skills—listening and expressing oneself. Growth is stimulated by several things: looking at art of increasing complexity, answering developmentally based questions, and participating in peer group discussions carefully facilitated by teachers.” (19)

Even those who do not practice VTS may be familiar with the sequence of open-ended questions that form one of the main aspects of VTS teaching practice:

  1. What’s going on in this picture?
  2. What do you see that makes you say that?
  3. What more can we find?

If you are interested in learning more about VTS, the foundational research behind it, and ongoing research in museums and classrooms today, here are some excellent resources:

Pushing Beyond the Protocol

My own approach toward VTS has been to set aside any controversy and more fully explore the research as well as the practical implementation of these teaching strategies ‘on the ground’ in museums.  Back in 2009, I led a panel at the American Association of Museums conference that called attention to the many questions, challenges, and apprehensions that exist regarding this method.  After interviews with more than 30 museum educators from across the country, I was able to gain a more complete and complex view of how VTS (and the research behind it) is being implemented in art museums—including adaptations of the original protocol, metacognitive dimenions as part of the VTS experience, pushing the boundaries of artwork selection, and alternative applications for docent and teacher training.  I have even found institutions that use Abigail Housen’s “stages of aesthetic development” (the core foundation of VTS) as part of their curatorial practice, the writing of labels and wall texts, and working with teaching artists to examine ways of creating art that addresses developmental stages of the viewers.  In addition to being one of the most commonly used teaching methods in art museums today, it is interesting to see how many other ways that VTS and its research has entered into museum practice.

Burning Questions about VTS: Ask Philip Yenawine

PhilipNeroVTSWhile I have never been trained in VTS myself, I have adopted it as part of my own teaching toolbox — often using its open-ended questions as a way to spark looking, talking, and listening with a work of art.  I respect the research and practice involved with VTS, which is why I jumped at the chance to partner with the national VTS organization to bring Philip Yenawine here to the Portland Art Museum.  Philip has been traveling around the country since his latest book was released last year, and his speaking engagement here at the Portland Art Museum (this Saturday, May 3rd, 2:00pm) will be part of that series of talks.

When we were first offered to host Philip’s talk here in Portland, I invited Philip to also join me for a conversation on stage as part of this Saturday’s program (which he gladly accepted).  I wanted to have the opportunity to discuss the applications of VTS with art museum teaching, and discuss some of the ‘burning questions’ that many museum educators have about VTS research and practice.

So, I am using this blog post (and the ArtMuseumTeaching community) to gather some juicy, burning questions that we all might have about VTS in museum teaching.  To seed this “open think” process of gathering your questions, I asked Jennifer DePrizio and Michelle Grohe at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (a leading museum in VTS research & practice) to send me some of their questions.  Here is some of what they sent me:

  • We know a lot about what VTS looks like (both in terms of facilitation and types of learning to expect) in elementary students, primarily in grades 3-5.  What does that learning and teaching look like with older students, particularly high school? 
  • Listening is the cornerstone of paraphrasing and ensuring that students know that you not only listened to their ideas, but they were heard as well.  That can be a difficult skill to encourage teachers to develop. Can you really train someone to be a good listener?  How can we design effective professional development experiences that help teachers become aware of how they listen, and how to listen better? What activities and practice can we put into place to help our gallery educators hone their listening skills?
  • Since professional development programs at the Gardner invest a lot of time, over time, with teachers, what does their growth look like in terms of: aesthetic development, comfort with visual art, use of student-centered teaching practices, use of VTS questions with non-visual art, overall attitudes and understandings of teaching and learning and role of visual art in the classroom/school?  
  • What is the long-term effect or stickiness for VTS?
  • What does the use of VTS look like with non-beginners, or with viewers who are moving from beginner viewers (Housen stages I and II), into different aesthetic stages such as Housen’s stage II/III, II/IV and III?  How could we best support their growth while also challenging the students effectively?  What would that facilitation look like?  How would we know that we were addressing the students’ actual questions, not just sharing information that we think would help them?  
  • How do we responsibly respond to the many misrepresentations of VTS that exist?  How do we help colleagues in the field of art museum education understand the nuances that are available within VTS?


Please help me crowd-source some more ‘burning questions’ about VTS, and use the Comments area below to add your own questions.  If you add your thoughts here between now and Saturday, I’ll bring many of these questions to my conversation with Philip Yenawine here at the Portland Art Museum (and I should be able to post the video of this conversation here next week).

Thanks for helping me think about VTS in this open space for exchange, questions, and ideas!  And I’m looking forward to my conversation with Philip on Saturday (join us if you’re in Portland — the event is FREE and starts at the Portland Art Museum at 2pm).

#PhilipYenawineSelfie #VTSselfie
#PhilipYenawineSelfie #VTSselfie

23 thoughts on “OpenThink: Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) & Museums”

  1. While looking at museum/school partnerships utilizing VTS, can we focus research on ELL and langue learning disability students to emphasize the importance of VTS in their developmental process?

  2. I was an early opponent of VTS – I was trained in a more traditional art museum manner and swore by Feldman. After 30 years in the field (actually sooner than that 🙂 I realize that I was short-sighted to believe that there was only one good method to use in an art museum. I now have been trained and am working on a huge pilot project to introduce VTS into our school district.

    I’m not sure why we have to draw lines in the sand – VTS is one of many tools that I use. I ran a workshop at MPMA last year investigating many methods of working with art – including VTS – all worthy. I believe that it is important to choose the method to fulfill the goal. VTS develops thinking skills, and I wouldn’t use it as part of an art historical tour, where I am more likely to use methods similar to those promoted by Burnham. I have also developed my own methods to link art and scientific observation and a set of material culture models to apply to art.

    The transfer possibilities of VTS as a skill (and we are looking at including it in a Math and Art grant) are huge. It links beautifully to Common Core or Career and College Readiness, and as mentioned above it has great potential for use with ESL and learning disabilities. It also helps viewers connect with art on a personal level. And maybe this is what some curators (and dare I say educators) are afraid of – that they will not be the experts.

    I hope the conversation with Philip is fruitful – and that I look forward to continuing my own training with VTS in Kansas City this summer.

  3. Hi There, I am an art educator in NZ, and we do use some similar questions as VTS however in the team i am a part of, we do not use it heavily. I believe questions that encourage observation, description, justifying ideas are a great way to start a conversation. They can expose multiple perspectives, develop language and close looking etc. I wonder though, where do VTS questions give space for the artist voice? And where do they give space for content (which can sometimes feel like a bad word in art education!)?

    Something i am aware of in my sessions in making space for the students voice, and also introducing the artists voice – learning an artists purpose and intentions is important in interpreting a work. This may enrich the interpretation, not shut it down. There is a place for content, you can introduce content meaninfully, not to say ‘this is right/this is wrong’, but if you introduce content and as ‘how might that change how you see the work?’. It can spark a whole new diagloue.

    As a learner myself, I know from personal experiences, that while open exploration is exciting, JUST this can leave a learner unsatsified and unheard.

    Those are my two cents, thank you for this post and good luck!
    Selina Anderson

  4. I have found VTS and other similar (and divergent) strategies extremely useful to engage across disciplines in the tertiary teaching context. I am now exploring, in the context of a module in a 2nd year (tertiary) science subject entitled ‘Thinking Scientifically’, how to best replicate these teaching and learning strategies in entirely online environments (in the MOOCS context, but currently internal to our own university only). Specifically, the module engages students in cross-disciplinary strategies for visual data gathering, inferences, hypotheses, etc. We are exploring online group forums for building meaning in the VTS mode, but still in early stages of development. Any suggestions for specific online tools or strategies that would replicate the group VTS experience in an online mode (not live, as students can access the modules at any time over a few weeks)?

  5. I am a freelance museum educator and am trained in VTS facilitation alongside other methods. For my purposes I tend to look at VTS as one of the tools or thinking routines I have as an educator to encourage discussion and dialogue and develop thinking skills. I work more frequently with routines from Visible Thinking ( as this method gives me the freedom to choose the type of routine that is suitable for a type of museum or educational programme or an exhibition or an object itself and allows me to add contextual information as and when required.
    Although I have read widely on the reasons for VTS not allowing the facilitator to add any contextual or factual information, I feel there are appropriate and important moments when educators can offer layers of content to extend the discussion further or to advance new lines of inquiry. The museum teacher’s role is not to correct errors or misinterpretations (as all opinions are encouraged and explored) but to add a nuanced layer of depth to the group discussion.
    Furthermore, I feel that careful observation is an important preliminary step in order to avoid hurried interpretations and hasty conclusions. The first VTS question (What’s going on in this picture?’) probes directly for meaning rather than starting with observations. Focusing on deep looking followed up by careful describing allows participants to see the ‘whole picture’ and notice parts they might have missed. As a group, they can build on other’s observations and learn a skill that is never forgotten and easily transferable to many other useful contexts.
    Looking forward to hearing all about the VTS talk in future posts!
    Claire Bown

  6. Has VTS been used as a way to model strong/engaged listening behaviors?

    I have been experimenting with it as a way to model particular transferable listening behaviors for volunteer guides

  7. Wonderful post on VTS! A powerful learning tool indeed. How are museums considering the engagement with VTS in elementary classrooms in their broader community while also being a tool for docents and educators within the museum? In other words, do museums consider ways to tie in their collections with the VTS work being done with k-5 students in their respective communities?

  8. I am a museum educator in Kansas City. My colleagues and I have been using VTS in the galleries and in schools for about a year now, both in its purest form (in schools) and in amended formats in which art historical collection connections are made at the end of the conversation (in the galleries). I have many wonderful findings to share, but will keep to just my questions:
    First, I’ve been very surprised by and happy with the increased empathy I’ve seen in the students who are a part of our partnership programs (they participate in VTS with us every other week.) I’m wondering if Philip has any thoughts or formal data on the link between VTS and interpersonal skills especially empathy.
    I would also be curious to hear if he has ever had an experience in which VTS was a struggle, or if he thinks there are any circumstances in which it just doesn’t work. I facilitate VTS conversations on average 3 days a week, and of all the groups and classes I have worked with I have only had one in which I felt like I was fighting them every step of the way. This is a class I visit weekly, and have labored again and again over image selection, and setting up the conversation in a positive way.
    Thank you so much for this post, I am really looking forward to the follow up!

  9. Buenas noches, soy Conchy Jiménez, vivo en Gran Canaria, Islas Canarias, España.
    Trabajo en el Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno (CAAM), y en el año 2004 tuvimos la oportunidad y el gran honor de tener en la institución a Felipe Yenawine que vino a impartir un seminario sobre VTS y al cual acudieron profesionales de toda España, posteriormente regreso a la isla, para seguir profundizando en el método, con miembros del Departamento de Educación y acción cultural; la experiencia en la isla de Gran Canaria, donde tuvimos la oportunidad de desarrollarlo con 10.000 escolares de casi todos los municipios de la isla repartidos por mas de 80 centros de educación reglada a la cual asistíamos a lo largo de nueve sesiones y la décima se desarrollaba en el museo, los alumnos tuvieron la oportunidad de desarrollar los diferentes grados, ya que la experiencia se desarrollo por cuatro años consecutivos. El VTS poderosa herramienta de aprendizaje para toda la comunidad escolar, no solo los alumnos sino también para el profesorado que compartía las sesiones los cuales aprendían a utilizar “VTS con el arte para enseñar alfabetización visual, el pensamiento y la comunicación habilidades de escuchar y expresarse,;. Mirar el arte, respondiendo a las preguntas:¿Qué está pasando ?; ¿Qué es lo que ves lo que te hace pensar eso?;¿Qué más podemos encontrar?.
    Creo que la experiencia ha marcado a varias generaciones de escolares los cuales han aprendido a escuchar, a dialogar a ver y a mirar, realmente toda una experiencia.

    Google Translate (apologies for errors):

    Working at the Atlantic Center of Modern Art (CAAM), in 2004 we had the opportunity and great honor of having Philip Yenawine who came to teach a seminar, attended by VTS and professionals across Spain, then back to the island to further deepen the method with members of the Department of Education and Cultural Action; on the island of Gran Canaria, we had the opportunity to develop 10,000 schoolchildren in almost all municipalities of the island spread over 80 centers of formal education to which we attended over nine sessions and the tenth unfolded in the museum, the students had the opportunity to develop different degrees, as experience was developed for four consecutive years. VTS was a powerful learning tool for the whole school community, not just students but also for teachers who shared sessions where they learned to use ” VTS with art to teach visual literacy, thinking and communication skills to listen and express, looking at art, and answering the questions: What is happening, what do you see that makes you say that, what more can we find?
    I think the experience has marked several generations of schoolchildren who have learned to listen, to dialogue, and to look to see, really all an experience.

    1. Conchy – thanks for your comment. I actually spoke with Philip about his experiences in the Canary Islands, which sounds incredible. What a powerful experience and transformation it sounds like there. It is great to hear about such a broad engagement with visual art and the museum. Thank you for sharing! I can’t wait to hear more.

      Google Translate (apologies for errors):

      Conchy – gracias por tu comentario. De hecho hablé con Felipe sobre sus experiencias en las Islas Canarias, que suena increíble. ¿Qué una experiencia poderosa y transformación suena como allí. Es muy bueno escuchar acerca de una amplia participación como con el arte visual y el museo. Gracias por compartir! No puedo esperar a escuchar más.

  10. Hi Mike, I really enjoy reading the articles you post. Keep up the good work!
    In the biginig of this article you mentioned that after the Danielle Rice conversation in 1999, was developed a discussion about the role of information in museum teaching. I’m writing about this, so I’d appreciate very much if you or someone else could send me references connected with this subject.
    Thank you very much! Judith

    1. Judith – thanks! In response to your question, there are lots of great articles out there about this topic. I’m not sure how much digging you’ve done already (so there may be obvious choices), but my favorites on the topic are Burnham and Kai-Kee’s book “Teaching in the Art Museum” (Chapter 1 is a classic), as well as Olga Hubard’s article “Productive information: Contextual knowledge in art museum education” published in Art Education in 2007. There is also the recent blog post by Jenn DePrizio:

      Lots more is out there, but those are the big ones I always link back to when I’m thinking about these issues. Hope this helps!

  11. Thanks Mike, I know well the book of Kai-kee & Rika Burnham and her last speech in Madrid to which I also find very interesting. I’ll keep looking the other references especially on the dilemma of the importance of providing info by the museum educator, faced to free interpretations of the public.

  12. I have recently begun volunteering as a Gallery Guide at The Frye Museum in Seattle.I’ve watched a number of YouTube videos that show teachers in museums applying VTS with students. They are very appealing.It seems to me that VTS works best with only certain images.Namely, those that are open to interpretation. How would one apply VTS to a landscape by John Constable, for example?
    I just conducted a tour composed of about 10 adults.
    I thought I chose my paintings well. All contained people engaged in some activity.
    ” What’s going on in this picture?” Silence.
    ” Don’t feel foolish to state the obvious”, I told them, ” It will help start us off.”
    “Well,it looks like a mother feeding her child.”
    That was a good answer because that was about all that was ‘happening’.
    After that, not much else was forthcoming from the group.
    Earlier, I had been a member of a group tour looking at the same painting.We talked about the darkness of the room, the clothes of the woman, Her economic state. That the picture was of people who lived at an earlier period of time. etc.
    None of these things came out with the group I led even after I asked ‘what else do we see.’
    So, my questions are:
    Does VTS work with any painting?
    What do you do when people simply do not respond?

    1. Hi Gerald, Well done for taking that initiative! I’ve been using VTs with healthcare students at University College Cork Ireland since 2012 and each session is still a challenge because to facilitate well in order to keep a discussion moving takes a lot of subtle skill.
      As skill develops it is possible to VTS any painting even an abstract work.
      I’ve sometimes had a discussion dry up and I just move on but I have no experience of a conversation not really starting and without knowing the image or the paraphrase after the first comment its hard to comment.

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