Visual Thinking Strategies: Learning How to Teach With Art

By learning how to teach with art, the Visual Thinking Strategies curriculum, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, began.


| November 2013


Philip Yenawine, former education director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and co-creator of the curriculum outlined in Visual Thinking Strategies (Harvard Education Press, 2013), writes engagingly about his years of experience with young students in the classroom. He reveals how the VTS curriculum was developed, and demonstrates how teachers are using art to increase a variety of skills. This excerpt, from chapter 1, “Permission to Wonder,” explains how he began learning how to teach.

Permission to Wonder

Like most kids at four and five, my granddaughter, Wyla, made full use of “why”—from “Why is that car stopped?” to “Why is it raining?” One evening a year or so ago, it was “Why does that guy on the billboard look so weird?” She definitely expected her father and me to respond, and we did, but she didn’t seem to pay a whole lot of attention to the answers we made up. She just kept repeating “why?”

Sound familiar?

If our answers didn’t satisfy her, why did she keep asking? Why do so many children?

Maybe posing the question is the point. A child looks around her, and when she notices something she can’t fathom, she asks about it. Our explanations don’t suffice because, I believe, what she really wants from us is to know if it’s okay to be puzzled and curious. She wants permission to wonder.

A Little History

When I was running education programs at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), visitors also asked a lot of “why” questions about the complex, challenging, and often strange- looking art of the past hundred years or so. They wanted our team to explain what was unfamiliar to them, and we duly organized and crafted many explanations. But research showed that the ideas, facts, anecdotes, and analogies conveyed stuck with visitors about as well as our responses to Wyla.