Teaching artists Renee Robinson (L) and Betsy Zecsek (R) facilitate a VTS discussion with participants and volunteers from The Arts of Life, a partner organization for 20 Neighborhoods, an outreach program of Woman Made Gallery, Chicago, in 2015.

Visual Thinking Strategies, or VTS, is a style of art museum tour that can also be used in any classroom, or even at home.

You know the standard type of museum tour, where the docent tells you about the artist’s life and what the painting means? VTS flips that on its head and the docent asks the group questions about what they see and the group creates the meaning together.

The group leader, or art teacher asks just three questions:

What’s going on in this picture?

What do you see that makes you say that?

What more can we find?

I was introduced to VTS while working with the 20 Neighborhoods outreach program of Woman Made Gallery in Chicago, which brought together groups from all over the city to make art together and look at and discuss the art in the gallery.

One of the gallery’s college interns had led VTS tours at her college’s art museum and convinced us that this was the way to go.

We practiced as a group of art teachers and interns, taking turns leading the discussion. The hardest part was holding our tongues and not teaching, but simply facilitating and asking questions. (You can also restate/paraphrase what the person says and gesture toward the area being discussed.)

Here’s what amazed me: we got to some really deep meanings of pieces of art, even one that consisted of a large surface area of ceramic tiles and grout, all completely white. (I apologize that I don’t recall the artist’s name.) I would not have thought that we could have a decent discussion of such an apparently simple work, but we did.

Here’s one of the really cool things about using VTS in schools: they’ve studied it, and when students are doing VTS, even something like once a week, in art class, that habit of backing up what they are saying with evidence (what do you see that makes you say that?) carries over into other classes! Without ever being told to, students began backing up their statements with facts.

One of the goals of the 20 Neighborhoods program was to empower people who had maybe never been in a gallery or museum before, to have them feel that they belonged there (because of course they did). I think VTS was a powerful tool in that transformation.

Because I want to present VTS completely accurately, below are some of my notes about VTS, with quotes from vtshome.org.

First, an overview.

Basic information about Visual Thinking Strategies

“VTS is an art-viewing program originally designed to develop
aesthetic understanding: the range of thoughts and feelings that
occur when looking at art.”

VTS Facilitation 101

“In VTS discussions teachers support student growth by facilitating discussions of carefully selected works of visual art.

Teachers are asked to use three open-ended questions:

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

3 Facilitation Techniques:

Paraphrase comments neutrally
Point at the area being discussed
Linking and framing student comments

Students are asked to:

Look carefully at works of art
Talk about what they observe
Back up their ideas with evidence
Listen to and consider the views of others
Discuss multiple possible interpretation”

There are also videotaped sample discussions, on the VTS Home website.

Links to research and readings on VTShome.org:

Books, additional readings

Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines
by Philip Yenawine $25.00

Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience
Rika Burnham, Elliott Kai-Kee $27.00

Clip from the Book Description (from amazon)

“At the heart of all good art museum teaching is an effort to bring people and artworks together in meaningful ways. But what constitutes an experience of a work of art? What should be taught and why? …Every critical issue that has preoccupied the profession throughout its hundred-year history is considered, including lecture- versus conversation-based formats; the place of information in gallery teaching; the relation of art museum teaching to the disciplines of art history, curation, and conservation; the use of questions to stimulate discussion; and the role of playfulness, self-awareness, and institutional context in constructing the visitor’s experience.”

This book describes a philosophy similar to VTS that the authors came upon independently. They describe tours and interactions at length, as well as go into great depths about how they came to this point and why they do what they do.

Anyone who is anxious about doing this kind of tour would likely appreciate reading about their tours and the stories about what happens and who says what. Or even if you’re not anxious.

Another terrific book is The Participatory Museum.

That is the link for buying the book as a bound book, you can also read it online for free, and the author’s blog is terrific. Here’s where to read it online for free:

I recommend Chapter 4 if you only have time to read one chapter.

While I realize that an art classroom is not a museum, the most useful literature on this subject has been written for museum staff.

Please feel free to post your questions in the comments and share your thoughts on facilitating discussions about art!

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