THE POWER OF VTM: WHY I CREATED A NEW APPROACH TO ENGAGING WITH ART, OBJECTS AND AUDIENCES IN THE MUSEUM

Today I’m talking about why I created my method Visible Thinking in the Museum (or VTM for short) and who I created it for.

Why did I go and develop a new teaching method when there were plenty of methods already out there?

So, today I’m sharing exactly what prompted this 11 year mission into creating a method for engaging discussions in museums around art and objects. And some of the reasons may surprise you!

WHAT IS VISIBLE THINKING IN THE MUSEUM (VTM)?

In case you are new here, the Visible Thinking in the Museum or VTM method is an easy-to-follow framework that allows educators to confidently lead engaging discussion-based sessions. These sessions might be with art, objects and/or themes or ideas. VTM creates engaging discussions with any type of audience.

It takes elements of a framework from Harvard’s Project Zero called Visible Thinking and combines them with museum education practices, facilitation techniques, questioning strategies and coaching tools. 

If you want to hear the whole story behind how it started 11 years or so ago, read or listen to this post and you’ll hear the whole back story. 

TWO BASIC NEEDS

VTM first arose out of two basic needs:

  1. A need from teachers to get more out of museum programmes. They were looking for slow looking, discussion, engagement, collaborative learning and crucially, less telling.
  2. A need from museum educators, guides and docents themselves. They knew that they needed to make their programmes more interactive, but quite often, they didn’t know how, what questions they should be asking more of, how to formulate good questions, how to get the group to answer them. They didn’t know how to share their knowledge when the programme was based on discussion rather than telling and were worried about how to structure these types of discussions. 

I wanted to develop a method that engaged both the educator and the participants (aka the audience). The educators I had spoken to had tried lots of different methods but none seemed to hit the right note. 

So, for museum educators I wanted to simplify the process of leading engaging discussion-led programmes around art and objects for museum educators, guides and docents. And I wanted to get rid of the confusion surrounding inquiry-led programmes and develop a flexible process that made sense to educators.

And I wanted to create a method that engaged the participants and put them at the centre of the programme, rather than as passive-recipients of the guide or eduator’s monologue. 

When I was looking for a strategy for my first museum education programme, I was looking for something that could guide the exploration of an object or artwork, but would also capture the enthusiasm of the participants. 

I didn’t want to use a method that would seem artificial or too repetitive or unappealing to use. 

 

RESEARCH

Over the years, I have done a lot of research into other methods or strategies for discussing art and objects. So I know a lot about what other methods are out there for educators to use. 

I even wrote a chapter about them in my masters thesis. And I’ve taken quite a few courses – including a Visual Thinking Strategies course in 2013. 

For  my thesis research, I explored Edmund Feldman’s ‘Formal Analysis for viewing art, Terry Barrett’s Critical Response method, and the ODIP strategy from the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio. (ODIP refers to Observe Describe Interpret Prove)

I also reviewed a method that used philosophy for children too at the Kröller Müller museum too. I also analysed Visual Thinking Strategies too. 

Whilst I didn’t comprehensively review every method already out there, I did review enough methods to draw key conclusions in what worked well and what was lacking.

And these conclusions led me to designing my own method that contained all the elements I wanted in a teaching method. 

10 KEY REASONS

#1 Building a community of inquiry

I loved the idea of building a community of inquiry and fostering a spirit of collective  discovery. I loved the idea of a group discovering an artwork together, building on each other’s ideas and sparking off new ones too.

And these conclusions led me to designing my own method that contained all the elements I wanted in a teaching method. 

#2 Sustain the interest of the participants

I also wanted any method I developed to be capable of sustaining the interest of the participants. I could see from my research that short strategies with easy to follow steps and carefully formulated open-ended questions seemed to work best.

#3 Use a variety of routines

BUT It was important to add variety too – I didn’t want to use the same one strategy throughout. I was more interested in a selection of different frameworks that could be used throughout a programme to target different areas of thinking and to keep the programme lively and not too repetitive. I did wonder if participants would lose interest if the same routine or strategy was used continually throughout one programme, like the questions in the Visual Thinking Strategies routine. I wanted any method I developed to feel natural, unforced and above all, enjoyable to use. 

#4 Observation is always first!

I knew early on that I wanted observation to be the first step. Careful observation is always a good starting point for any discussion. This is the key to avoid hurried interpretations and hasty conclusions. It allows us to all be included in the discussion right from the start and it literally fosters curiosity in front of your eyes. This was a non-negotiable in my eyes. Observation is so important!

#5 Flexibility at its heart

I also wanted to develop a method that had flexibility at its heart. From speaking with museum guides and educators, I knew that they were always looking for a method that they could add to their existing way of working, that allowed them to still be themselves. I wanted to create something that would be an addition to their toolbox of techniques, tools and methods, all the experience and experiences that they were bringing with them to their museum work.

I didn’t want to create something that would feel too restrictive.

#6 Less Rules

I didn’t want to create anything that was too prescriptive. I wanted more freedom and flexibility. I had seen first hand how strict Visual Thinking Strategies method can be – I didn’t want to develop a method where you were only allowed to ask the questions in a certain way and you had to ask them in the order that the creator of the method had told you to ask them in.

This didn’t allow enough creativity and flexibility for educators and didn’t suit the experimental side of my personality either! 

The only one hard and fast rule in the VTM method is that observation starts every discussion. And that’s it.

#7 More choice

This is one of the joys of working with thinking routines and why I chose them – all 100+ of them.

It’s not just one routine, with three questions to ask.

I can use the right thinking routine for the right thinking I want to encourage, I can select the right one for the right group or the right artwork. Thinking routines are not rigid, inflexible structures.

Unlike some protocols, You don’t have to use them exactly as they are written, without any room for creativity. You can be extremely creative with thinking routines as I’ve shown in the past.

#8 Be yourself

I saw absolutely no point in developing a method that didn’t allow museum guides and docents to still be themselves.

Which is why with VTM everyone is encouraged to practice, practice, practice to embed the method in their way of working and to make it their own.

Which is why I’m also a fan of coaching – either with a coach like myself or with your peers, getting together and getting feedback on what you’re doing, how you’re doing it.

And for being reflective too – it’s an essential part of the VTM method as it’s how we develop and grow as educators and guides. 

#9 Flexible structure

I wanted to add a structure to inquiry-led discussions, but I wanted that structure to be flexible.

And for it to serve as the backbone for the discussion and helps educators (and visitors) to know what to expect next.

The new method I was creating had to help educators create discussions that were a rounded whole with a distinct beginning middle and end rather than a loose muddle of open-ended questions.

#10 Have the choice of adding information

Finally, and perhaps, most crucially, I wanted to be able to choose to add contextual information to the discussion. 

I believe that in any discussion there can be moments when museum educators can layer in information to extend the discussion further or to give birth to new lines of inquiry. 

I see the museum guide’s role as being able to add a nuanced layer of depth to the group discussion by sharing information in small amounts at appropriate times. Some of the methods I reviewed, such as Visual Thinking Strategies, didn’t allow for this. 

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

So, in summary, Visible Thinking in the Museum came out of a need from audiences who weren’t getting what they wanted out of a museum group visit and out of concerns from museum educators themselves about leading inquiry-based interactive programmes. 

From research it needed to be something that used questioning, in an easy to remember way, that was natural and appealing, rather than too monotonous or repetitive.

Variety was important, as was flexibility. I wanted to be able to add contextual information too. 

Over the past 11 years I’ve been actively developing the VTM method. 

It’s been constantly evolving and growing as I grow too. So, the VTM method that started around 11 years ago is a little bit different to the method I’m talking about today. 

But the key reasons behind why I developed the method stay the same. 

And I still see educators struggling with interaction, asking questions and connecting with groups and connecting groups with objects. There is still a need for a method that really does make visual inquiry simple. 

VTM is an easy-to-follow process that allows you to confidently design, lead and manage engaging inquiry-led sessions with art and artefacts with any audience.

It helps you to design and structure your programmes, facilitate and manage discussions and really engage any audience with the art, artefact or idea you’re discussing.

⁠And time and time again, I get feedback from people I’ve trained who say that this method has really transformed the way they work with art, objects and participants in the museum. S

o I really think VTM is a game changer in the field of art and visual inquiry. I hope you think so too!

If you’d like to learn the foundations of my VTM method and 10 thinking routines, learn how to work on your questioning technique and facilitate well with groups, join me my 3 week VTMO Beginners Course

SLOW LOOKING CLUB

And don’t forget my FREE new Facebook group The Slow Looking Club created especially for podcast listeners. It’s a place for conversation and discussion about engaging with art, objects and life slowly. I’ll share resources, ideas and tips for anyone interested in looking at art – whether it’s for your personal enjoyment or your practice as a cultural educator. And we’ll have regular slow looking moments together too!

THE SLOW LOOKING CLUB