What is Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS)?

Good question!

VTS, or Visual Thinking Strategies, is  a collaborative exercise in critical visual analysis – which is a cross-disciplinary skill and a  foundational component of a liberal arts education. While this excercise can be applied to almost any visual data – graphs, scientific diagrams, our physical environment – students of the sciences will benefit equally from doing VTS with art.

This is how the exercise goes:

A group of individuals –  in this case students – are directed to look at an image/artwork/object/ for 10 seconds or so in silence.

A question is then posed to the students: “What is going on in the image/artwork/object/environment?” The verbiage of this question is intentionally designed to invite any and all responses.

While the response is given, the facilitator points to any visual elements of the object that are explicitly referanced. The facilitator then, reiterates the observations that were made and asks for explanations of any unsubstantiated interpretations by asking “What do you see that makes you say that…?” This prompts the individual to analyze and give observational evidence for their thought process.

The facilitator prompts more responses by asking “what more can we find?” This question is intentionally structured in a way that does not validate or invalidate previous responses.

This is important: the positionality of the facilitator is that of mediator, not expert. Facilitators must respond impartially. Professors often find this concept problematic, but allow me to reframe this for you. VTS is not intended to give students the right answers – rather it gives them the tools to find those answers on their own.

VTS trains students to

  • notice details
  • ask probing questions
  • use evidentiary reasoning
  • question their own biases/assumptions
  • listen and respond respectfully to their peers

In short, VTS prepares students to perform their own research; It trains them to identify a question and consider all potential outcomes.

ALWAYS consider doing VTS with your students, but especially if:

  • you are teaching a class with students from multiple disciplines.
  • you are teaching an FYE or a class with many freshmen.
  • your students are reticent during class discussions.
  • you are preparing your students for independent research.

You may schedule a VTS session for your students with trained museum staff. If you would like to be able to perform VTS yourself in the classroom or the museum, we offer training opportunities as well. Facilitating VTS is challenging and may not have the desired outcome when done incorrectly.

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