Visual Thinking Strategies as a Means to Engaged Critique
Brad Hokanson, Ph.D. | University of Minnesota
Meghan Hendrickson, M.A. | University of Minnesota
Overview: Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is a program developed by the educational staff of the New York Museum of Modern Art as a way to more fully engage museum visitors with art. VTS has been extensively used in K-12 schools to encourage discussion, evidence-based reasoning, and critical thinking. VTS can provide a scaffold for learner discussion and evaluation of any visual materials. Introduced to learners through a series of weekly exercises, the process can be applied in group critiques and discussions of design work, encouraging an active learning process. Observations from our own teaching are included.
Level: This strategy should be implemented throughout design education; Visual Thinking Strategies has been used with students from Kindergarten to medical school.
Duration: About thirty minutes per week is needed for this exercise, although the applied skills will extend subsequent class discussions, which is certainly a net positive.
- Increased student discussion participation in critiques and discussions
- More significant impact of discussion on design work by learners
- Demonstrated greater responsibility for critique and discussion by students
Critique is a central aspect of design education (Dannels, 2005; Gray, 2013). The practice and process of critique improve design work and develop design skills in studio-based education. Its virtues argue for application to other fields. It is not a lecture, nor objectively based, but didactic. Critique includes the presentation of work by a designer, then discussion and criticism by peers and experts in a public environment.
Critique, for all its benefits, has some deficits. Rather than being rich discussions of studio participants’ work, most group critiques are instead dominated by instructors or invited guests. Critique may make sense to instructors, but is often not well understood by beginning designers, as most learners have little experience with critique as an educational format. In general, learners are hesitant to participate in critique unless their own work is being discussed. They hold back, afraid of speaking and well accustomed to a passive educational format in which they do not participate. Few students participate well in group design critiques; many do not know how to begin.
For new designers or learners to become skilled in critique, they must participate actively. This participation develops their skills of analysis, synthesis, and judgement, and they will be able to better reflect on their own work and clarify their understanding of design quality. Engagement of an entire class in critique and discussion can be accomplished by developing collaborative learning through Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). VTS can help class members bond and learn to understand each other’s opinions, so when it’s their work on the line, they understand what to expect from their classmates.
The Development of Visual Thinking Strategies
VTS is a well-established, art-based method of collaborative visual examination and discussion that engages learners. “Art is the hook that engages students” (Yenawine, 2013, p. 24). VTS was developed by Abigail Housen and Phillip Yenawine while working with the education department of the Museum of Modern Art. It is based on Housen’s research in cognitive psychology on how visitors view works of art, and uses a conversational structure to more deeply engage viewers with a visual work.
Housen developed a taxonomy of viewing habits through extensive interviews with museum visitors (1999; 2002; DeSantis & Housen, 2011). The stages range from simple, objective examination of visual work to a more nuanced, complex, and learned understanding of the subjective elements of the image. In general, more advanced viewers examine and notice more meaning in pieces of art, connect more with aspects of their own lives, and bring in their own subjective expertise.
Similar to museum visitors in the less developed viewing stages, beginning designers may seek objective answers or comments, without seeking deeper meaning in the works they examine. Their lack of expertise limits their development and engagement.
The developers of VTS recognize that there is “very little time” in the classroom or studio to try new things (Yenawine, 2013). The goal of VTS is to develop learners’ observation skills, helping them construct their own understanding and make their own meanings from visual artifacts, and helping them compare their ideas with those of their collaborators. Learners are “learning to read” visual images, put forward hypotheses, and test those hypotheses in discussion. Through VTS, everyone participates—making observations and comments, cross-fertilizing ideas, and reviewing developments. It is effective, flexible, and collaborative learning.
The Visual Thinking Strategies
Visual Thinking Strategies are embodied in a set of structured questions that are easily applied and utilized in the classroom. VTS enables the beginning of participant discussion and engagement, and can scaffold the collaborative engagement of a critique.
Important to a VTS session is the role of the facilitator, who organizes and oversees the session. The facilitator selects the session’s visual artifact, poses the questions, paces the discussions (while paraphrasing student comments), diversifies participant input, and concludes the discussion. The focus for discussion—the initial visual example—is an important choice. Images need to be appropriate for the participants, with a reasonable level of both complexity and accessibility. More abstract and complex images can be addressed with more skilled viewers.
Facilitators begin a VTS session by focusing the attention of participants on the visual example for an extended period of time, allowing them to see beyond cursory visual information. This leads to an understanding of the full image or artifact and helps viewers find meaning in the work.
Following that extended examination, the facilitator poses three basic questions, providing a structure for discussion. Each question has been developed with specific intent in mind and helps to advance the visual investigation:
What is going on in this picture?
This specific wording is used to encourage participants to look at larger issues within the image and not focus on specific elements that may catch their attention. The nature of the terms used calls for analysis and synthesis, and encourages viewers to make their own hypotheses. The nature of this question, fact-based and yet still subjective, helps eliminate comments such as “I like it” or “It’s good.”
What makes you say that?
Using elements within the image to support observations and conclusions builds a habit of evidence-based reasoning. The facilitator paraphrases the observation, physically pointing out the areas of the image that support the idea. This action has three results: it recognizes the speaker’s comments as valid, helps other participants comprehend those comments, and assists in the development of the language of analysis, valuable for beginning professional students as well as for new speakers.
What more can we find?
This question opens the discussion up to other participants who may have conflicting or supporting views, and encourages a diversity of opinions within the group, deepening the examination process and reinforcing “the notion that no matter how quickly we see and grasp something, further observing and reflecting often changes first thoughts” (Yenawine, 2013, p. 26).
With VTS there is no need to reach an exact or correct answer. As most work does not present objective data or truth, such answers may not be present. A subjective understanding of the representation is most important. The facilitator thanks the participants, recognizing their participation.
After developing an understanding of this process, participants can apply a comparable process in small groups, encouraging more verbal involvement by group members.
VTS can be adapted for design critiques as a means to train new designers to look and observe, and get them to begin talking. Modeling of this behavior can be extended to help maintain a constructive environment in critique sessions.
Applying VTS to critique
The goals of critique include improving the design work, and building design students’ skills of analysis and synthesis. Group critiques are often used as “teachable moments” when the presence and involvement of other students is valued in presenting ideas, skills, and larger issues. Sessions conducted using Visual Thinking Strategies are constructivist, with learners “constructing” their own meaning, and could be described as “learning moments.”
Formative critique seeks to comment on work in a constructive manner. In a VTS session, the facilitator seeks to avoid judgement during the participant comments. This type of environment is essential when trying to convince students to provide constructive feedback to their peers in a critique.
In practice, many critiques focus on small, objective issues, e.g., the size of bathrooms or typefaces. VTS encourages the examination of larger, more conceptual issues of how the design process has led to better results. Critiques also need to be more formative and develop skills of logic, critical thinking, and synthesis among participants.
The use of VTS can start with brief introductory sessions at the beginning of a term, with images selected to match student abilities. After this introduction, the subjects of the analysis can change from works of art to design artifacts or even existing buildings.
The instructor selects and leads the investigation of the work in a critique or review, developing the skills of the learners, with students fully engaged and in active discussion. Students are engaged and are not merely passive observers, but active participants. They are internalizing the comments, focusing on the work, and building their own ability to critique.
In a world where interpersonal conversations are limited, and are often supplanted by text or phone interactions, the development of speaking and conversational skills is extremely valuable. The ability to personally communicate ideas is essential for professionals in all fields.
Greater use of the VTS process provides substantial progress in the quantity and quality of comments by learners. Participants in VTS discussions quickly develop skills with the approach and can apply the structure to other situations. Later sessions can use more complex works of art, and the process can be applied to design artifacts as well.
Visual Thinking Strategies does more than affect individual students. It changes the tone of the room, moving toward a focus on learners and their ideas.
Dannels, D. P. (2005). Performing tribal rituals: A genre analysis of “crits” in design studios. Communication Education, 54(2), 136-160.
DeSantis, K., & Housen, A. (2011). A brief guide to developmental theory and aesthetic development, 0242(32), 299–312. Retrieved from http://www.vtshome.org/research/articles-other-readings
Gray, C. M. (2013). Informal peer critique and the negotiation of habitus in a design studio. Art, Design & Communication in Higher Education, 12(2), 195-209.
Housen, A. (1999). Eye of the Beholder: Research, Theory, and Practice. Retrieved from https://vtshome.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/5Eye-of-the-Beholder.pdf
Housen, A. (2002). Aesthetic thought, critical thinking and transfer. Arts Learning Journal, 18, 99-132.
Yenawine, P. (2013). Visual thinking strategies: Using art to deepen learning across school disciplines. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.