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.

  • Woman observing two pieces of art in a museum
    Visual thinking strategies start by using your own resources — exactly what any of us needs to do when we encounter art that strikes us as strange.
    Photo By Fotolia/shotsstudio
  • Visual Thinking Strategies book cover
    In “Visual Thinking Strategies,” author Philip Yenawine explains the strategies involved in teaching with art.
    Cover Courtesy Harvard Education Press

  • Woman observing two pieces of art in a museum
  • Visual Thinking Strategies book cover

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.

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I am a visual thinking strategies facilitator in grades 3-5 via the Honeywell Foundation in Wabash, Indiana. It's a joy bringing this to the classroom. With just one session a month during the school year, students improve their visual literacy, communication skills, and critical thinking. The concept can be applied to virtually any subject. Rather than the teacher talking all the time, you turn the discussion over to the students to let them tell you what they see and why. Not always easy when you are up front as the subject matter expert, but certainly worth exploring in any context.

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