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What are the 8 Key Differences Between Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) and Visible Thinking in the Museum (VTM)?

What are the 8 Key Differences between Visual Thinking Strategies and Visible Thinking in the Museum?
The idea for today’s post came out of a Facebook post and an ensuing discussion in the Visible Thinking Membership. I asked members for thoughts and ideas on the differences and similarities between Visible Thinking and Visual Thinking strategies, VT and VTS. My ‘Visual Thinking Strategies and Visible Thinking’ post, that I wrote in 2013, is still one of my top blog posts ever and this is intended as a follow-up post.

Educators often use questioning strategies, routines or procedures to guide participants through the exploration of artworks and objects. These strategies work well if they are easy to remember (and use) and produce great engagement.

Visual Thinking Strategies and Visible Thinking in the Museum are two such methods that focus on looking and discussing works or art mediated (usually) by a discussion facilitator. The two often get confused, so I thought I would lay out the key differences between VTS and VT in this week’s post!

#1 How they were developed

The first obvious difference between the two methods is how they were developed – Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) developed in museums before being introduced into schools whilst Visible Thinking was developed in classrooms and has in recent years been implemented into museum education too.

Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS)

Psychologist Abigail Housen and museum educator Philip Yenawine have developed VTS over the past 30 years. It was first started at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in 1991 with the intention of building visual literacy.
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 participants to discover and voice their own personal meanings to works of art in a slow and careful way (sometimes 30 minutes at one artwork).
Later in 1995 a curriculum was developed for school children and thousands of teachers have implemented the VTS image lessons in their classrooms to explore a variety of subjects including maths, science, social studies and, of course, art.

Visible Thinking & Visible Thinking in the Museum

Visible Thinking has been developed over a number of years (starting in 2000) by researchers from Harvard’s Project Zero with teachers and students in schools. Visible Thinking is essentially a broad and flexible framework for enriching learning by fostering deep thinking and a better understanding of content. The central idea of Visible Thinking is simple: making thinking visible
At the heart of Visible Thinking are several practices and resources that help achieve the goals of the approach – such as thinking routines, documentation and using the language of thinking.  In recent years, museum educators and heritage professionals (including myself!) have started to adapt elements of Visible Thinking for use in the museum with groups of all ages.
Back in 2011, I started developing Visible Thinking in the Museum – an approach for educators that uses thinking routines to help guide discussions around art and objects. 

#2 3 questions and 100+ thinking routines

Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is based around one ‘thinking routine’ of 3 carefully constructed open-ended questions:
What’s going on in this picture?
What do you see that makes you say that?
What more 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. As the discussion develops, the educator asks the second question ‘What do you see that makes you say that?’ which prompts participants for evidence for the points they have made. ‘What more can you find’ is the final question in the sequence and has the goal of making the discussion more rounded. 
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.

Therefore, when we talk about the differences between VTS and Visible Thinking, the first point to remember is that VTS can be called 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 (NB: there are more than 100 thinking routines in total, if you add other thinking routines from other Project Zero projects. You can get a list of the full 100+ here) 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 digging 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:
What do you see?
What do you think is going on?
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. 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 educator. The final question ‘What does it make you wonder?’ allows participants time to take in new information before asking any additional questions or thoughts. For a full list of 100+ thinking routines, see my Ultimate Thinking Routine List.

#3 Silent Looking and Observation and Description 

The first question in the VTS method ‘What’s going on in this picture?’ aims to open up the discussion and encourages the finding of stories in the artwork. It also invites a variety of comments ranging from colours, information and shapes to feelings.
It asks directly for meaning rather than the construction of a list of observations. Instead of discussing observations, VTS relies on a silent moment of looking at the artwork (30 secs) before diving into the interpretation. This silent looking moment before the first question is asked allows participants to begin the process of observing, inferring, and meaning-making’ (
In the Visible Thinking in the Museum (VTM) method, we start every discussion with observation and description. Careful observation is a key starting point so this is a step that should not be skipped. Although it is quite usual for participants to want to jump in with their interpretations straightaway, a moment of shared or individual looking is important to avoid hurried interpretations and hasty conclusions. 

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. And furthermore, this is a skill that, once taught and regularly used, is never forgotten and easily transferable to other environment.

For example, the first question in See Think Wonder is  ‘What do you see?’ and gives participants the chance to fully observe and describe an artwork before interpretations are offered, thereby reducing the chance of hasty reactions.  Note: If the thinking routine you are using doesn’t include a step for observation either combine with a thinking routine that does or start with an observation activity. 

#4 Fidelity and Flexibility

VTS is a rigorous and thorough method with a curriculum that spells out what images are to be shown, at what age and in what order. The order and phrasing of the questions is also strictly adhered to:

Fidelity to these questions and the wording is critical to developing the habits of mind necessary for independent critical thinking, and skilled communication.’ (

The questions cannot be modified and must be said in exactly the same way as they are written. This is because the questions have been written in the most open, non-judgemental way with the intention of inviting participants to explore the artwork. 
Interestingly too, the second follow-up question (‘What do you see that makes you say that?’) is also only asked once per participant interaction – this maintains neutrality and allows for everyone to be included in the discussion. 
VTS educators have shared with me that adhering to the wording of the questions, makes them think carefully about the words they choose when asking questions and in turn how words have an effect on the group. 
With the VTM method, thinking routines provide a loose, flexible structure around which to base the discussion of an artwork or object. 
There are a huge number of thinking routines (I’ve collected 100+ thinking routines in my Ultimate List). They can also be adapted or modified to suit the needs of the group or educators can even create their own routines based on the Visible Thinking ones. A selection of different thinking routines can be used throughout a programme to target different areas of thinking and keep the programme lively – unlike with Visual Thinking Strategies, you are not repeating the same routine at every stop. Educators often combine thinking routines together for a well-rounded discussion (Looking Ten Times Two + Step Inside is a classic example) and can change the order of the questions around too depending on the needs of the group. See Think Wonder, for example, has many variations: See Think Wonder, Wonder See Think, See Wonder Think, See Think Wonder Feel, See Think Wonder Write, See Wonder Connect and new addition See Think We Me. 

All thinking routines – whether the VTS or the VT ones – help the discussion become a rounded whole rather than a loose muddle of open-ended questions. Having a routine ‘internalised’ frees up time and headspace to be more creative with your groups and gives you more mental energy to really focus on what the participants are saying.

#5 Information

The flexible nature of the VTM method allows the educator to add factual or supplemental information as, when and if required by the group to deepen learning. Although it’s not always necessary to add information, in some situations, it can give a discussion new life and vitality. 
Crucially, pure VTS focuses solely on the participants’ interpretations without the addition of any information from the educator. However, recently, VTS has been evolving to consider ways to share information to address works of art that deal with sensitive/difficult topics, themes or issues, through the use of sharing information about the artist in advance, adding an “FYI” during the discussion or layering a quote from the artist during the discussion. 

With both methods, it’s important to note that the art discussion never revolves entirely around any information that is shared. With VTM in particular, we pay attention to sharing information productively and strategically and invite participants to think about and reflect upon the information that has been shared rather than sharing it ‘for information’s sake’.

The debate concerning adding contextual information continues to be controversial. On the one hand, it’s important to allow observations and interpretations to come from the participants themselves based on their own understandings AND to let them make their own connections without an educator providing a list of facts. Indeed, people are likely to forget about information when they are not challenged to think about it or when it doesn’t come from their own curiosity or wonderings. 
However, there are appropriate and important moments when educators can offer layers of content to extend the discussion further or to add a layer of depth to the discussions. In the past I’ve shared best practices for how to share information in a productive and strategic way and debated the differences between open and thematic discussions too. I believe both types of discussions have a role to play and can be useful for educators to draw on when appropriate. 

#6 Open and Thematic Dialogues

Broadly speaking, there are two types of dialogue: open and thematic
In open dialogues, participants construct their own meanings in response to an artwork. In these types of dialogues, meanings are not fixed and are different for each group discussion. All lines of inquiry stem from the participants’ responses and the facilitator’s role is to bring cohesion to the programme and connect the dots between the strands of insights. No information is added and the educator doesn’t really establish in advance what the participants are going to explore or discover. 
In thematic dialogues, the conversation is organised around a theme in advance – identity, the natural world for example. In thematic discussions, participants also construct their own meanings but there are more ‘limits’ on the investigation. 
I see VTS as following the open dialogue model. VTS dialogues can be imaginative, creative and a very rich and rewarding experience. There is no set agenda so the discussion will appeal to more of the group. It takes a certain amount of skills to facilitate a VTS discussion as they can be unpredictable and you will need to be good at making connections between disparate ideas. 
What I love about VTM is that I can embrace both open and thematic dialogues depending on the session I’m leading. I love leading open, imaginative, free discussions that encourage language development through the use of descriptive language or use the discussion as the basis of a writing or poetry exercise. Or ones that focus on slow, mindful looking at objects and artworks. 
But I also love developing thematic discussions using a variety of thinking routines to unify a session and to create deeper experiences with artworks based on aspects that are central to the work. 

In essence, all good VTM educators might embrace a variety of methodologies and approaches to teaching and facilitating a discussion around an artwork or object and they may even use both types in a single programme. 

#7 Repetition and Variety

Any strategy or thinking routine needs to be able to sustain the interest of the participants throughout the discussion. This appears to be best achieved with short strategies, with easy to remember steps and carefully formulated questions – like the 3 VTS questions or any of the Visible Thinking routines. 
One of the key differences between these two methods is that for VTS, the same 3 questions are repeated throughout the programme. I think it is important to add variety to any programme or session – whether offline or online and I do wonder how VTS facilitators keep their programmes lively and not too repetitive. I love the idea of repeating a thinking routine on a regular basis so that participants get used to it and feel at ease, but I’m curious if participants lose interest and engagement if the same routine is repeated with every artwork or object in a tour or educational programme. 
The long list of thinking routines that I use regularly with groups focus on and encourage certain types of thinking – for example observing closely and describing, reasoning with evidence, perspective-taking, and making connections. In order to be effective, it is important to first establish the type of thinking that you would like to elicit from your participants and then choose the correct thinking routine for that task. This allows different types of thinking routines to be used easily around the museum or throughout the course of a programme.
If it’s important for the programme, I’ll choose a small selection of thinking routines and repeat a few of them throughout the session. This helps participants to get used to them and aid transfer to other environments. In other programmes I will choose a selection of entirely different thinking routines that are placed throughout the programme according to the theme or the type of thinking they encourage. For example, I may start with See Think Wonder or Think-Puzzle-Explore, but I would hesitate to begin a programme with Step Inside or the 3 Y’s. I would wait until further into the programme – when the group were fully comfortable in their surroundings and ‘warmed-up’. 

#8 Differences in facilitation techniques

With both approaches, educators act as facilitators or orchestrators rather than experts. They point to what participants are talking about in the artwork and paraphrase every comment made. Paraphrasing is a well-known facilitation technique that allows participants to feel that their comments have not only been heard but that they have been understood and valued. Done well, paraphrasing can help to expand vocabulary too. 
VTS places special emphasis on listening carefully to participants, pointing and paraphrasing, accepting each comment neutrally, using encouraging body language and facial expressions to nurture participation and using conditional language to paraphrase comments. VTS facilitators are taught to link answers that related to each (both agreements and disagreements), demonstrate how thinking evolves and how opinions change and build. 
In a similar vein, facilitation techniques for the VTM method focus on basic and advance facilitation techniques alongside building confidence in question formulation and fostering collaborative learning. In addition to guiding the looking, pointing and paraphrasing, VTM focuses on verbal facilitation toolsre-directing, bridging, summarising – alongside being mindful of language – being mindful of the language you are utilising (non-judgmental, open, language of thinking) and listening actively. When we progress to more advanced facilitation techniques, we learn about how to facilitate conversations around difficult or sensitive topics, knowing yourself, setting guidelines troubleshooting, gatekeeping and keeping the discussion going. 

The Ultimate Thinking Routine List

I’ve been working on an ultimate list of all 100+ thinking routines as a handy instant reference guide for educators, guides and creatives. Get inspired!

If you’d like to receive a free copy, click here