Working With Visual Thinking Strategies
Guest author: Marcos Stafne
In 2012 the Rubin Museum of art was part of an initiative conducted by Queensborough Community College called Culture and Literacies through Art for the 21st Century or CALTA21. One of the goals of the CALTA21 program was to use the arts as a catalyst for conversation utilizing the Visual Thinking Strategies methodology.
Now I know what you’re probably thinking: wait—Marcos—isn’t the Rubin Museum of Art a museum filled with hundreds of Himalayan Art objects that all have specific, cultural meanings, and therefore open-ended inquiry could cause misconceptions about what the art represents?
Well . . . it is true that the art found in the museum does have all of those things, but it is also true that if used correctly, Visual Thinking Strategies can be a perfectly acceptable methodology for building capacities for understanding culturally-specific art and galvanizing curiosity in museum visitors.
People have very divided feelings about Visual Thinking Strategies. I believe that this debate is generated through certain misunderstandings about the process. Most art museum educators know and sometimes use variations of the three main conversation generators associated with his method:
What is going on in this picture?
What did you see that makes you say that?
What more can we find?
To ask educators to parrot these sentences without sensitivity and insight would be a trivialization of the VTS method. The process of unveiling these three questions is much more nuanced than just repeating these sentences. I’d wager that the folks who think negatively about the VTS methodology may have just witnessed poor VTS. Remember, people facilitate tours, and people can misinterpret how methods or theories are enacted.
When I work with a group that is new to art, I begin the gallery experience by finding or using an instructive diagram. I find that a diagram such as a map bridges the gap between a familiar convention of displaying location and a wonderful opportunity to discuss signs and symbols.
My next stop is usually an image of a solitary figure. This is where I use VTS in its pure form. When working with students, teachers, or adults I make sure to set the tone of what we are about to do. I say: We’re going to take some time looking at and discussing your ideas about this painting. We’re going to start by taking a deep breath and looking at the painting for 30 seconds.
After the 30 seconds are over I’ll begin the conversation using only the VTS. One of the most important parts of facilitating this type of experience is NOT to use approving language in response to a student’s comments, but to paraphrase back what a student has said. Paraphrasing isn’t challenging for me, but not using approving language is incredibly difficult. I tend to say interesting, or great observation, after a student has made an interesting or great comment. What this affirmation does is place value on some student comments and less value on others. It also gives the false assumption that what the student is saying is actually correct. This is one of the biggest fears of museum educators who use this methodology with culturally specific objects. A student may identify figures in a painting incorrectly for the museum—but it is correct and genuine to the student’s observation. As long as you state that the observation is coming from the student, and is not universally correct but solely an observation, the group is reminded that this comment is generated by what the student is seeing and personally interpreting.
From this experience I switch gears and discuss practical aspects of art such as materials and techniques. Here, I will actually talk about why and how objects are made with regard to how they are culturally relevant. None of my statements undermine the conversations we have previously had; they just scaffold the students’ understanding of why particular objects look the way they do. I will speak about one or two of these using labels and diagrams on the walls as a guide, and then encourage students to examine others in the room on their own.
This introductory experience usually lasts 20 minutes, and from there we’ll explore particular curricular connections in other works. The VTS methodology warms up eyes and minds to help them make observations and think critically. I’ve used this method with different types of visitors and have found that if we engage with this method, we have richer conversations later in our gallery explorations. If someone asks me a direct question about a figure, I answer quickly, and indicate how I personally learned that answer through research.