Getting students to think while looking at art (Originally Published: August 15, 2008)
Until last year, Jesse Gomez, 8, soon to be a fourth-grader at El Verano Elementary School, had never really looked at a piece of fine art before. A newly launched program at his school has Gomez not only studying famous pieces of artwork, but also training his brain to draw inferences and think critically, which helps students excel in other subjects. Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) has been implemented at schools in the United States and abroad since 1995. The program was created by developmental psychologist Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine, director of education at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The initial goal was to make museum education more effective, but the results were undeniable in transforming a child's way of thinking. The pair eventually created the nonprofit organization Visual Understanding in Education dedicated to promoting VTS in elementary schools.
The concept behind VTS is simple, but direct.
Students are shown a piece of artwork, which could range from ancient Egyptian sculptures to depression-era photographs. The teacher simply asks the students, "What do you think is going on in this image?" When a student responds, the teacher prompts the kid to support his or her observations with evidence. The process teaches the students to draw inferences and come to their own conclusions, actively engaging their brains without being told what to look for.
"My job is just to facilitate a conversation with the students," said Craig Madison, a third grade teacher at El Verano. "Other than that I really stay out of it. It's up to (the students) to interpret the art." Madison and Gomez demonstrated how the process works. Madison put up a painting of a street scene where many people were gathered.
"What do you see," Madison asked Gomez.
"I see a bunch of people. I think some of the people are getting out of church," Gomez said.
"Why do you think the people are getting out of church?" Madison asked.
"Because that girl, she looks like she's carrying a book and it looks like a bible," Gomez said.
As the facilitator, Madison said the trick is not to ask leading questions, and allow the students time to work off each other's ideas to find an answer.
"This is a return to actual learning. There's something more important than curriculum and it's how to think, how to talk to people and disagree without thinking the other person is stupid," Madison said.
Building critical and analytical thinking skills benefits the students in their other subjects as well. Studies show students show the most improvement in science and language arts because they have the skills to make inferences based on evidence and are able to draw their own conclusions. Instead of reading a book and having the teacher explain the meaning behind the story, students learn to make their own inferences. The program was so successful in its first year that other elementary schools in the Valley are also eager to implement VTS.
"They make huge gains," Madison said. "It really carries over, especially in language arts and science." Former Superintendent Barbara Young first heard about the program and decided to pilot it at El Verano because the program is particularly effective with English as a second language students. Last summer the majority of the El Verano teaching staff did some type of training for the program and began to implement the activities in their classes. Students spend 45 minutes once a month doing VTS, where they review three images, spending 15 minutes discussing each image.
"They build a whole story in that time, it's just amazing," Madison said.
Ideally, students will participate in VTS programs from kindergarten through fifth-grade, because studies show repeated exposure to the program garners the best results. However, El Verano is in need of more funding to continue the program on campus.
It costs $15, 000 for the training and materials needed to implement the program. The Sonoma Valley Education Foundation donated $5, 000 to launch the program, but another $10, 000 is needed to continue the program.
"We do need to relay on people's generosity to keep programs like this going," Madison said.
Anyone interested in supporting VTS can contact the foundation at 935-9566.