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Volume 29, Number 5
September/October 2013

“What’s Going on Here?”

Using art to deepen learning


Visual Thinking StrategiesIn 1987, roughly halfway through my 10-year tenure as education director at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, several trustees challenged my staff and me to find out if anyone learned from our many educational options. We were asked to be accountable for our teaching: Were we effective? Did people learn what we taught? Sound familiar?

Surveys revealed that many visitors wanted help understanding why modern artists do the often-confusing things they do. We therefore offered standard tools of visitor education: lectures, gallery talks, school group visits, teacher workshops, short courses, and an array of materials.

To all appearances, we did it well. Audiences were consistently responsive and enthusiastic. We could see their engagement. Evaluations were positive. Programs were full.

That said, visitor evaluations didn’t quite satisfy the MOMA trustees asked to help pick up the tab for our efforts. They prodded us to assess more deeply: “Do visitors leave knowing more than when they came in?”

Given that testing visitors wasn’t really an option, we turned to Abigail Housen, a cognitive psychologist who studies how people think when they look at art, and asked her to help us see if people retained what we taught them. She went to work gathering data about our teaching programs in particular. To our surprise and great dismay, she found they did not retain what we taught. When visitors attending gallery talks, for example, were asked moments later to retrace their steps and relate what they remembered from the talk they’d just attended, they didn’t even recall all the images examined, much less provide an accurate recounting of what they’d been told. Our teaching seemed to engage audiences but not to enable them.

The Open Nature of Art
One thing that was easy for us at MOMA was capturing the attention of students. While that might be expected of adults—our grown-up visitors came already interested (unless, of course, dragged by a date or mate)—it can’t be said of the kids who were put on buses at school and ended up in our galleries. Nonetheless, we had no problem getting or keeping their attention. Why?

First, we have the natural visual abilities of all sighted children and their innate habit of looking at what’s around them. Beginning as toddlers, they examine things, faces, bugs, and the moon: a good reminder of the natural capacity of our eyes and minds.

Second, we have the nature of art. Despite its ambiguity, lots of what we see in art is common to daily experience. Most art images depict people, places, things, expressions, interactions, moods, costumes, weather, spaces, light, colors—virtually all that we experience or imagine finds its way into art of various times and cultures. An important aspect of art is that feelings are embedded in it along with information, triggering a full range of responses from those who look at it thoughtfully.

With Housen, a team of MOMA staff set out to see if we could effectively teach what we came to call “viewing skills”—observing, interpreting what one sees, probing and reflecting on first and second thoughts, considering alternative meanings, and so on. Housen had been able to identify for each viewing stage what might be termed “their questions.” For example, beginner viewers often try to create a narrative out of a picture. Their mode of processing can be phrased as “What’s going on here?” When beginner viewers are asked this question, they easily respond, because the question has a deep correspondence to the way they are predisposed to think. What didn’t help our beginners—a majority of our visitors—were approaches like lectures and labels. While they would do fine making sense of images in their own ways, once the specter of specialized knowledge was revealed, they thought, “Oops. I guess I need to know something to have the right experience. Please help.”

Visual Thinking Strategies
In 1991, we began to test and research a protocol for viewing art with the help of elementary school teachers willing to work with us over an extended period of time. The method (and curriculum) we developed is called Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). It’s been adopted by many museums and schools, where it is used not simply to integrate art into the curriculum, but also to teach young people how to dig into all sorts of unfamiliar material—from historical artifacts to scientific phenomena to poetry. Research done by our organization and others (available at has shown that with a minimal investment of time (10 one-hour discussions per academic year), VTS improves not only visual literacy but also problem solving, evidence gathering, communication, and other academic skills now explicitly called for by the Common Core State Standards. It also promotes cooperation, respect, and tolerance. In addition, teachers have documented its power to develop language skills among English-language learners and others; to engage all students, including those who normally hold back or whose attention wanders; and to erase distinctions applied to students, like “gifted” or “challenged.”

In VTS, the teacher facilitates a student-centered discovery process focused on images carefully selected to address age and developmental readiness. The teacher is central to the process but not the authoritative source; instead, the students drive the discussions, aided by the teacher. As facilitator, a VTS teacher helps students to:

  • look carefully at works of art;
  • talk about what they observe;
  • back up their ideas with evidence;
  • listen to and consider the views of others;
  • discuss and hold as possible a variety of interpretations.
Here is just a quick snapshot of a VTS image discussion as fourth-graders consider the Depression-era photo “Cheevers Meadows and His Daughters” by Doris Ulmann. In this black-and-white photo, a grim-faced man in overalls sits, hands in lap, as a girl stands staring at him and a younger girl buries her face into his sleeve.
Teacher: All right, everyone. Take a minute to look at this picture. (After a pause) What’s going on in this picture?

Student 1: I think a poor family, and there’s a little daughter and a dad, and maybe the mom left and they’re just living in this little tiny place. And that’s why—I don’t know if that’s a little girl or boy—is crying. (As the student speaks, the teacher points to all that is mentioned: the family, the dad, the child, the place.)

Teacher: Okay, so you’re looking at these figures and thinking they’re a family. And that they’re poor. Maybe the mother left them. What did you see that made you say they were poor?

Student 1: Because they don’t have, like, a very good house really. I think they’re in that house. They don’t have very good clothes either. Like their clothes are all wrecked up and ripped, and the children’s clothes are really dirty.

Teacher: Okay, so you have several pieces of evidence that suggest they’re poor to you. You’re looking behind them, thinking they might live in a very plain house. And you’re looking at their clothing and notice that it’s torn and soiled. All right, what more can we find?

Student 2: Um, I think that they’re a poor family, and maybe their mom died, and maybe, like, something happened, so they’re . . . And I also agree. I think that they live in a little place and maybe, like, a horrible storm happened.

Teacher: Okay, you have a few ideas. You are also wondering about the mother. What did you see that made you say that something happened to her?

Student 2: ’Cause they’re really upset and there’s no mother in the picture.

Teacher: Okay, so we’re missing a mother figure, and you see the others as upset about it. And what did you see that made you say they looked upset?

Student 2: Because they’re not, like, smiling, and the little kid is, like, crying.

Teacher: Okay, so you’re looking at their facial expressions and sort of seeing that no one’s smiling, and this figure actually might even be crying. All right, what more can we find?

Student 3: Well, I was thinking they are not poor, ’cause it doesn’t matter what they look like. ’Cause they could have just finished, like, gardening, and they are all just dirty from all the dirt. And the house, I just think it is a regular house, like all of our houses, because it is just showing part of the house.

Teacher: Okay, so you’re offering another interpretation, saying that people could be wearing clothes like this—sort of ripped and dirty—if they’ve been out gardening. Maybe we don’t know everything about their situation.

Student 3: Just because their clothes aren’t good doesn’t mean they are poor.

Teacher: So wearing worn clothes doesn’t necessarily mean you’re poor. Maybe they’ve been out working. And you were saying that we don’t have a lot of information about where they are. It’s just a little piece of the background, and you are saying it could be any house. Okay, so it’s another way to look at that. What more can we find?

A Chance to Explore
It’s important to stress that in the example the teacher facilitated the discussion about the photograph but did not direct it. Instead, she echoed what the students observed, paraphrased their interpretations, and cited the evidence they supplied to back up their ideas. She allowed divergent observations and opinions, letting students sort out among themselves what they thought was plausible. In so doing, she might have felt as if she missed “teachable moments” when she might ordinarily have directed the conversation.

Why didn’t she? Why not intervene? What if she had introduced a vocabulary word like photography or added some historical information—mentioned the Great Depression, for example? What would be wrong with that?

Here are three quick answers. First, think of this as the start of a process, not the finish. We chose this image for the VTS curriculum because it is an emotionally charged family portrait with kids as a central focus; it plays to students’ interest in families and family dynamics. In this context, it is secondarily a historical document. Once kids are interested in it because of the characters and the story, a teacher can always return to it as a way of illustrating life at a particular time.

Second, while teachers are required to do a lot of direct instruction nowadays, this is a chance to let students explore a complex subject without direction.

And, third, we might assess this kind of experience in terms of what we learned at MOMA: We supplied information routinely and it didn’t stick.

The most important reason for this teacher’s restraint is that, for this hour, her priority is to teach thinking. By remaining the neutral facilitator, she teaches students how to learn.

The exchange among the kids is not unlike scientists who collaborate to solve a problem: They bounce ideas off each other and use these interactions as the basis for sorting out what they know and what more they need to learn. Students gain experience in a very similar process, and, usually, it’s free of the anxiety about right and wrong that often keeps many from participating.

What and how children learn from life and art constitutes real and substantial skill and knowledge. We should acknowledge this and continuously give kids the chance to use and widen their capacity to learn on their own. If we don’t, we end up with adults who feel as if they need help understanding something well within their reach—as with our visitors at MOMA.

Philip Yenawine was director of education at the Museum of Modern Art from 1983 to 1993. He is the author of Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines (Harvard Education Press, 2013), from which this article is adapted.


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