Deirdre Moore | February 2016

Visual Thinking Strategies in the Classroom

I had heard about Visual Thinking Strategies over the years and even read a little about it but I had no first hand experience with it.  After attending a VTS workshop this past summer I started to get really excited about its use in one of my schools.

In reading more about it through the fall and learning about how effective it had been found to be with English Language Learners, I really started to believe it could be a great strategy for this school with a nearly 80% ELL population.  When the opportunity came for some members of the staff to attend a training, I was thrilled that two of my colleagues were willing to come and learn more about it to try it out in their classrooms.


If you are unfamiliar with this approach, here is how it is described in the Mission and Vision portion of the VTS website:

“Visual Thinking Strategies is an educational curriculum and teaching method which enables students to develop aesthetic and language literacy and critical thinking skills, while giving teachers a powerful new technique they can utilize throughout their career.”

Students are presented with a carefully selected image.  After having time to look at the image they are asked a series of 3 very specifically worded questions which have been vetted and researched and determined by the researchers to be the most effective way to elicit the most thoughtful and thorough responses:

1. What’s going on in this picture?

2. What do you see that makes you say that?

3. What more can you/we find?

Students are encouraged to make meaning from the image and to explain what evidence in the image informed that meaning.  And all this time, the teacher is merely a facilitator who never once tells the students anything.

The facilitator merely paraphrases each student’s response in the most neutral way possible, asks for evidence to support any response that requires further explanation and encourages all participants to keep looking at the image for anything else that might be there in the image to be discussed.


I believe the VTS strategy is a powerful resource for the teachers in this school for a number of reasons.  Not only do I think that it’s proven effectiveness with ELLs is a huge selling point but I think its accessibility is another.

Visual art is accessible to all students with vision regardless of their language or reading ability.  And regardless of background, each child can bring his/her life experience to the image to try to make sense and meaning out of the image.

VTS is also accessible to teachers.  Some teachers are uncomfortable with art of any kind but this set of questions allows the teacher to facilitate and does not require that they be an expert on art.

It affords the teacher the opportunity to learn more about how each student thinks and to develop critical thinking skills in a non-threatening and engaging way.  It is slow-paced, relaxed and yet it has a certain kind of intensity as it draws in the viewers and has them constantly looking for something else to notice.


The teacher as facilitator consistently repeats, “What more can we find?” even when there are hands in the air to remind all students there is always something more to see in a work of art and to constantly engage them in that search.

I’m a performing arts person.  I love to move around; to be active; to sing, dance and pretend.  However, there is something in the quiet intensity of this approach and that time to really stop and notice that intrigues me.

VTS also forces me to facilitate and guide the students to notice and think for themselves rather than having an agenda for what they notice.  It is freeing and challenging at the same time.  I, for one, am looking forward to my adventure with VTS.

About the Author

Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.