There is a method of teaching that has changed the way individuals look at things, not only in the way one physically sees with their eyes, but also how one communicates their impressions of what they are experiencing.
Thanks to a teaching technique known as VTS — visual thinking strategies — that has been used by the Daum Museum of Contemporary Art Curator of Education Vicki Weaver, students in the Sedalia School District 200 and area schools now have the opportunity to look at subjects in a different manner.
In information provided to students at Heber Hunt Elementary, “VTS is a discovery process initiated by questions a teacher has phrased that will provoke thoughtful responses while viewing images of age appropriate artwork.
“Their ability to grow as thinkers is stimulated by three things: looking at art of increasing complexity, responding to developmentally-based questions, and participating in group discussions that are carefully facilitated by teachers.”
“What VTS really does is it provides students and adults an opportunity to become more mindful,” Weaver said. “It calls for moments of student engagement where because of the questions that are asked and the manner in which the discussion occurs that levels the field for all students and helps to make all feel worthy and validated.”
The Daum Experience takes students on guided tours by trained docents and allows them the opportunity to look at various pieces of art. Students are first asked to “take a quiet moment to look at the piece.”
After that opportunity, they are asked three questions: what is going on in this work, what do you see that makes you say that and what more can we find?
The docents or teachers paraphrase the responses to validate the importance of the individual’s thoughts.
“If we are truly teaching our students to think critically, then they must understand that all answers are valid if they can be explained or justified.” Weaver said. “Students feel free to share their thoughts and take a risk in expressing themselves if they know they won’t be made fun of for their responses.”
The program began at Horace Mann and Heber Hunt elementaries three years ago when Weaver made a presentation to teachers in the Sedalia School District.
The teachers in the Title One Reading Program and English Language Learner instructors presented the VTS concept to Heber Hunt Principal Dr. Todd Fraley.
“Some of my staff came to me with the concept and their thoughts were, ‘this is something that could really benefit our students,’” Fraley said. “Often it seems we know what something is when we see it, but we can’t convey what it is that we see.
“VTS prompts creativity in the students; it gives them the chance to banter with each other in a constructive way,” Fraley added. “It helps them debate with each other and learn how to make logical arguments. What it really does is it develops their minds.”
Weaver agrees wholeheartedly with Fraley’s assessment.
“We start using our eyes to make sense out of the world when a baby opens them as an infant,” Weaver said. “It’s natural and how we learn the most basics in life, like a mother’s love. VTS takes that concept of looking and it calls on people to think and realize that their opinions and thoughts do matter.”
Research supports the benefits of VTS strategies for both students and adults.
“There is an assumption that everyone sees, so everyone makes the same meaning out of it,” said Oren Sclozberg, executive director and developer of the nonprofit research group that created the VTS curriculum. “But that’s like expecting a 7-year-old to derive the same meaning from Shakespeare as a mature reader.”
In a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Internal Medicine, researchers compared 24 Harvard Medical and dental students who took a course offered with the Boston Museum of Fine arts and 34 who did not.
During a visual-skills exam, the VTS students on average made 18.3 accurate observations compared with an average of 13.3 in the other group.
Reaction to the program from Sedalia teachers has also been positive.
“I have seen all of my Title students enjoy and gain as writers and thinkers while being exposed to the VTS program,” Heber Hunt teacher Susan Couhig said. “They are excited and motivated to share their work when they have a VTS lesson, which doesn’t always happen in the third grade, as they are reluctant and embarrassed to share.
“My students have become more skilled at providing text support in their answers because of VTS. They infer more and make more predictions when they answer questions.”
The thinking strategy can be used across the curriculum.
“I believe that VTS has been very helpful in building my capabilities in using the questioning process in other areas of study, such as reading pieces, math questions, and so on,” Horace Mann teacher Claraisse Tackett said. “I hear myself daily adapting the three questions to fit in the different areas of curriculum.”
Fraley has plans to expand the program to try to incorporate it in the regular classrooms as well.
“I hope we can incorporate this across the school in all our classes,” he said. “We are already using it in our art classes.”
A team of teachers from Heber Hunt has been nominated to present their use of the VTS strategies at the Missouri School Board Association fall conference.
Helping to make more people aware of the program is important to Weaver as she strongly feels it can be used to start dialogues not only in a school setting but also in society as a whole.
“One of the strengths of the program is that it provides individuals a new way to join into the conversation,” Weaver said. “Once we learn to respect differences of opinion and we realize that we can agree to disagree we truly start to listen.”
The Daum Experience and Visual Thinking Strategies program is funded through a grant from the Missouri Arts Council.