When I am talking about Visible Thinking people often assume that I mean Visual Thinking, otherwise know as Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). I thought here might be a good place to explain the differences and similarities between the two methods. So, deep breath, here we go…

Visual Thinking Strategies has been developed over 30 years by psychologist Abigail Housen and museum educator Philip Yenawine. It focuses on looking and discussing works of art mediated by a discussion facilitator. This method is based around three carefully constructed open-ended questions which are strictly and rigorously adhered to:

1. What’s going on in this picture?

2. What do you see that makes you say that?

3. What else can you find?

The first question (‘What’s going on in this picture?’) aims to open up the discussion and invites a variety of comments ranging from colours, information and shapes to feelings. This first questions probes directly for meaning, rather than prompting for a list of observations. Many other strategies – such as, for example, Edmund Feldman’s ‘Formal Analysis’, Terry Barrett’s ‘Critical Response’ Method, and many of the Visible Thinking routines – emphasise the importance of making observations before jumping into interpreting the object or art work. To my mind, time spent observing is valuable in order to avoid hasty judgements or interpretations.

As the discussion develops, the facilitator asks the  second VTS question ‘What do you see that makes you say that?’ which asks the students to provide evidence to back up their interpretations. The final question ‘What more can you/we find?’ has the goal of making the discussion more rounded.

The method was deemed controversial at the time as it focused more on developing reasoning and visual skills through the use of these open-ended questions rather than formal art analysis. It was also groundbreaking in the fact that it encouraged students to discover and voice their own personal meanings to works of art in a slow and careful way (sometimes 30 minutes at one art work).

VTS is a very specific and thorough method and spells out exactly what is to be shown, at what age and in what order. Facilitators are taught to point to what the students are talking about in the art and to paraphrase every comment made. Facilitators are also required to remain neutral throughout and not to add any contextual or factual information.

VTS was something of an inspiration for the team at Project Zero who spent a year evaluating VTS at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. This was their first exposure to a thinking routines and Shari Tishman and David Perkins have since named VTS as one of three projects that were formative in shaping and helping to develop Visible Thinking. ‘What makes you say that?’ is listed as one of the core thinking routines although its delivery differs somewhat from the structure imposed by the VTS method.

Therefore, when we talk about the difference between VTS and Visible Thinking, the basic point to remember is that VTS is the original thinking routine and only uses this one routine based on 3 simple questions. Visible Thinking, on the other hand, has developed more than 20 routines which can be used according to the type of thinking that you wish to elicit. There are routines for introducing and exploring, for synthesising and organising and for digger deeper into ideas. VTS was developed in a museum context whilst Visible Thinking became what it is today through classroom practice and development. However, Visible Thinking 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. I can choose a routine that will develop the skills of observation and interpretation with, say, an African rod puppet named Sigi. Similarly, I can choose a routine that asks students to step inside the character of the woman depicted in Khosrow Hassanzadeh’s silkscreen painting in front of them which helps them to explore different viewpoints and perspectives. I can use thinking routines individually, in a group discussion or as a written assignment. I can also modify and create thinking routines that are specific to a museum or museum programme. As a museum docent, I can choose where to add contextual information (in the Wonder part of See-Think-Wonder for example) and I know how to add just enough information to answer the questions driven by the student’s curiosity.

This in-built flexibility is one of the key reasons that I chose to work with Visible Thinking recently rather than VTS or any of the other wonderful strategies available to museum educators.