Visual Thinking Strategies

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Key Takeaway: Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is a teaching method that promotes critical thinking skills through discussion of images. Outside of the classroom VTS can be used in lots of different ways. This post will show you how to adapt and why to use VTS at home and when reading.

Keep reading to learn more about this THINKING strategy!

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Visual Thinking Strategies. What is it? In short, it is a way of encouraging critical thinking and having a conversation.

In long, Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is an educational nonprofit that trains educators in a facilitation method centered on complex discussions of art. They offer training, curriculum, consulting, and more. I highly recommend you check out VTS and keep reading to learn more about how to apply it to different contexts.

I first came across VTS when I was a curriculum specialist. My tremendous colleague, who headed the Fine Arts department, invited me to a workshop. I was having brain explosions about five minutes into the presentation and I immediately wished I had known about VTS when I was a teacher. From that point forward I adapted VTS for English teachers and brought my version of a VTS workshop on tour to as many teachers as I could reach.

VTS is pure gold.

It is a great strategy for ALL ages as a way to encourage speech in pre-verbal children straight through to curious adults. It's also an amazing, low-stakes way to get English Language Learners talking. You can think of it as a combination of an engagement strategy, a thinking strategy, and a conversation strategy.

So how do you do it? Really, you can do it with everything, which I will get to, but let me demonstrate how to do it as I was taught:

Step 1: Choose an interesting image and look at it for a few minutes without saying anything.

Step 2: Ask, "What's going on in this picture?"

Step 3: Without confirming, denying, or adding any input to the response ask, "What do you see that makes you say that?"

Step 4: Finally, continue with, "What more can we find?"

You will see that it is a discovery process. You are thinking critically about the image and supporting your answers with evidence.

Take a deeper look from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston:

VTS at Home:

"But for a parent, how does this fit with my kids? How can I do this at home? Why does it even matter?"

Put simply, kids are curious.

They love to look at images. And more importantly, we need to encourage them to think on their own. So rather than tell a child what he or she is looking at, have your child tell you!

Using VTS at home might center more on "What's going on in this picture?"

and "What do you see that makes you say that?" Looking at the rich illustrations in the picture books you have and applying VTS will help your child see more than was there before and will also help your child build critical thinking and discussion skills.

Other ways you can use VTS at home:

  • Take a walk and look at murals or graffiti art on walls!

  • Head to an art museum!

  • Google something!

  • You can find an endless supply of interesting and significant images to explore for FREE on the Library of Congress website!

Every week the New York Times publishes a new, provocative image, and invites conversation. It's really intriguing. Check it out: What's Going On in This Picture?

VTS and Reading Skills

The English teacher in me wants you to use VTS when you are reading. As stated in the previous section, you can VTS illustrations in picture books.

What if I told you that you can (and should) also VTS text?

Choose a rich text and ask your child the following questions as you read, or after the story:

  • What is going on here?

  • Why do you think that?

  • What more do you have to say?

Brain explosions. They will happen. The more you encourage this type of thinking and normalize talking about it the easier it will become and the more confidence your kids will have in their ideas.

As you kids advance and are expected to read more complex text they will be expected to write about the text. In order to provide ideas and then support their ideas they will need to be able to think critically about the text and extract the details that evidence their thoughts. This is exactly what VTS has you do.

To all my teacher friends reading this post, I encourage you modify the steps from the beginning of this post to include books as well as a fifth step (in bold):

  • Step 1: Choose an interesting image (or text) and look at it for a few minutes without saying anything.

  • Step 2: Ask, "What's going on in this picture (or passage)?"

  • Step 3: Without confirming, denying, or adding any input to the response ask, "What do you see that makes you say that?"

  • Step 4: Finally, continue with, "What more can we find (or say)?"

  • Step 5: Write about what you discussed.

This post was a quick overview of VTS. I truly hope you try it out and dig around and learn more about it!

If you are an educator I encourage you to try it out with your students in whatever way works for your subject! If you're not sure, start by showing interesting images that are relevant to your subject. Use it as a hook to your lesson.

For families and caregivers reading this post, choose a strange image and watch the conversation unfold.

Check out "Become Your Own Mini Master: Claude Monet" for some great suggestions on books you can VTS!

Kids have amazing thoughts and things to say!

I hope this makes your child HUNGRY for books!

Happy thinking and discussing!

Comment and share on social media! I'd love to know how it went and any modifications you might have made. We're all here to learn from each other, not reinvent the wheel!

Additional Resources:

Visual Thinking Strategies

New York Times: What's Going On in This Picture?

Visual Understanding in Education's Visual Thinking Strategies: Understanding the Basics

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