Visual Thinking Strategies and Visible Thinking

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

Visual Thinking Strategies has been developed over the past 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 one thinking routine of 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 question 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 developed as an alternative to formal art analysis in which art historical concepts are often beyond the young or inexperienced observer’s understanding. 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 routine 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.

Visible Thinking

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 the method uses only this one routine based on 3 simple questions. Visible Thinking, on the other hand, has developed more than 41 thinking routines (there are more than 90 thinking routines in total if you add other thinking routines from other Project Zero projects. You can get a list of the full 90+ below) 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. For those getting started with Visible Thinking, See-Think-Wonder is a wonderful routine that focuses on careful observations, thoughtful interpretations and stimulates curiosity:

  1. What do you see?
  2. What do you think is going on?
  3. What does it make you wonder?

The first question ‘What do you see?’ gives participants the chance to fully observe and describe an artwork before interpretations are offered, thereby reducing the chance of hasty reactions. Focusing on close looking followed up by careful describing allows participants to see the “whole picture” and to notice parts they would ordinarily have missed. As a group, they can build on one another’s observations.

The second question ‘What do you think is going on?’ usually follows on naturally once the artwork has been fully described. The group offer multiple interpretations, which may or may not lead to a final outcome at the end of the session depending on the motives of the programme and the museum teacher. The final question ‘What does it make you wonder?’ allows participants time to take in new information before asking any additional questions or thoughts. These “wonderings” can also open up new lines of inquiry and allow the museum teacher time to share some specialised knowledge in response to the group’s questions.

Information

Contextual information can be interjected as and when needed by the museum docent at either the “thinking” or “wondering” stages to allow for deeper meaning and understanding or for triggering new lines of inquiry. Visible Thinking routines allow information to be offered to the groups in small amounts and at appropriate times so that participants are challenged to think about it or can make associations with prior knowledge. Rather than providing a platform for the docent to provide information, thinking routines like See-Think-Wonder allow an in-depth exchange between the participants and the museum docent, in which no two groups will pursue the same lines of inquiry.

Flexibility

Thinking routines can be used flexibly within their format once the museum teacher feels comfortable using them – steps can be omitted, the order of questions can be changed, or educators can develop their own routines based on the Visible Thinking ones. Variations of See-Think-Wonder include: Feel-Think-Wonder, See-Wonder-Think, See-Wonder-Connect and Wonder-See-Think. Thinking routines from VT can also be combined to great effect too (Looking Ten Times Two + Step Inside for example).

Whilst VTS was developed in a museum context, Visible Thinking became what it is today through classroom practice and development. Both have crossed over into other environments, VTS has developed the VTS School Program and Visible Thinking has been used in many museum educational programmes.

On a personal level, 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. Importantly, 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 working with Visible Thinking is so rewarding.

Using both of these methods is not just a strategy; it is about embracing a new way of thinking and learning. It leads to fundamental changes in the way educators behave and the way programmes work in the museum and the way audiences engage with artworks and objects. 

The Ultimate Thinking Routine List

I’ve been working on an ultimate list of ALL 90+ thinking routines as a handy instant reference guide for educators, guides and creatives working with Visible Thinking. Get inspired!
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