On Using Museum Methods in the Classroom: A Case Study With VTS

As a teacher and museum educator, one of my most difficult tasks is helping students move from a mode of passive knowledge consumption to one of critical engagement with information. Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is a method traditionally used in museums, and I have found that it gives discussion leaders a way to generate critical thinking. This technique for viewing art was developed by Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine. It was first tested in museums in the early 1990s. Since then, it has been implemented in museums, schools, and universities around the world. The VTS Institute leads periodic seminars and training sessions throughout the country. I first learned about this technique in a museum studies seminar and have since experienced it as a participant in museum tours. I now use VTS as a tour guide in a university museum and was recently challenged to perform the method in a classroom with a slideshow of digital images. This post offers a meditation on the challenges and rewards of using VTS, and especially on adapting the method for classroom use.

VTS is quite simple on the surface, and I have to admit that I was skeptical upon introduction to the method. Facilitators are charged with asking three questions: What’s going on in this picture; what do you see that makes you say that; what more can we find? I worried that the questions would lead to a circular and surface discussion. To my surprise, I have used it effectively with audiences ranging from kindergarteners to grad students. I have learned, however the importance of transparency when using VTS. I always explain to my groups that this is a discussion based method that will only work with their uninhibited participation. VTS is useful because it evens the playing field. There is no silly answer to the question “What’s going on in this picture.”

American Gothic - 28/52
American Gothic – 28/52, Phil Roeder

Typically I spend up to 15 minutes discussing one work of art using only these three questions. As part of the method, I offer neutral paraphrases of student’s comments and attempt to link observations to cohere the conversation. I appreciate the tone of the three questions; the simple language and open-ended structure encourage participation, even from viewers with little previous knowledge of art. The first question gets people talking and the third question keeps the conversation going, but the second question is the one that I find truly extraordinary. This nine word question helps participants challenge the basis of their assumptions. For example, if a participant says, I see a happy girl, I can use the second question to help him or her explain the visual cues that signified the emotion (happy) and gender (girl) of the figure. The participant’s response often incites conversation. While a smile may signify happiness to one participant, another might read ambivalence in the face of the figure.

I have used aspects of VTS while teaching in an art history classroom, but I imagine that it could also be useful in helping students craft analyses of texts. In a history class, for example, a teacher might provide students with a primary source text and use an adapted form of the VTS questions to ask students what they take away from the text and which specific passages allow them to form critical analyses. It might even be used in math classes to help students interpret graphs and charts.

One of the most high-profile uses of VTS in an academic setting made headlines in 2008 when students at Harvard Medical School began working with the education department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The collaboration was aimed to help medical students sharpen their observation skills in order to become more acute observers of the body and of visual diagnostic tests.

I recently performed a full 45 minute VTS session in a university classroom as a representative from the on campus museum. I was invited by a faculty member in the French department to conduct the session in her classroom. Her class focused on art during a period in French history, and the faculty member wanted her students to practice looking at material that was relevant to the theme of the class. Since the current exhibitions at the museum did not correspond with her material, she worked with the museum to devise a plan for an in-class visit.

The classroom setting effected three major changes from the outset: the number of participants, the mobility of the participants, and the engagement with the art objects. At the museum we try to offer one guide for every fifteen participants. In contrast, the students in this classroom numbered about 30 and they were seated at desks so they could not move around the art objects, as I usually suggest. Still, I wanted the students to enjoy a dynamic experience with the art, so I used a slide show generated from Artstor, which allowed me to zoom in on images. When a student made a comment about the facial expression of a figure, I was able to zoom in on the expression so that everyone could see. In fact, some of the conclusions the students drew upon initial observation were amended when we zoomed in on the images. While I always find working with original works of art to be preferable to working with reproductions, I was excited that digital technology was able to help me bridge the gap between the classroom and the museum, as well as to produce more accurate analyses. At the end of the session, I found that we had reached the same level of dynamic discussion and critical thinking as produced by VTS in the museum.

Having representatives from campus museums perform VTS in classrooms may be a useful way to strengthen the often tenuous connections between academic departments and on campus museums. Some academic museums have dedicated positions devoted to fostering the connection between the museum and classrooms. These programs often target departments that are less obvious users of the museum, like the sciences and social sciences. For on campus museums that already use VTS, sending liaisons into classrooms may be another viable option.

Have you tried techniques traditionally used in museums in the classroom, or vice versa? What kinds of digital tools have you used to bridge the gap between the museum and the classroom?

Photo: American Gothic – 28/52 by Phil Roeder / Foter.com / CC BY http://www.flickr.com/photos/tabor-roeder/5952870904/