At an auditorium at the Thailand Creative & Design Centre (TCDC), a painting of the smiling face of a man encircled by roses was shown to the audience. Philip Yenawine, the speaker of the day, asked his audience to take a moment to look at the picture, and then he posed the following question: "What is going on in this picture?"
Philip Yenawine conducted last week a Visual Thinking Strategies seminar at the Thailand Creative & Design Centre in Bangkok.
"A man in love," said a lady in the audience.
"A man in love," Mr Yenawine repeated, and then continued, "What did you see to make you say a man in love?"
The participant elaborated on her observation. Mr Yenawine paraphrased her explanation for the benefit of the class, and then he asked his listeners: "What more can you find?"
"I'd say he is crazy," another member of the audience responded, and the discussions continued.
Visual Thinking Strategies
The conversation above demonstrates how Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is put into practice. According to Mr Yenawine, VTS is a methodology that employs art to teach critical thinking, communication skills and visual literacy over time.
With the collaboration of the Embassy of the United States of America in Thailand, and its partners, last week and this week, Philip Yenawine appeared in Thailand to deliver seminars and workshops on VTS for students and education practitioners at various venues in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
Mr Yenawine is a museum educator and co-founder-director of Visual Understanding in Education, along with cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen, PhD. Their venture is a non-profit organisation based in the US that developed, and is promoting, the concept of visual literacy using art to teach thinking and communication skills.
Currently, around 300 schools in the US include VTS in their curriculum.
Nowadays, as Mr Yenawine stated, many people do not have a sufficient level of visual literacy, for example, they lack the ability to look beyond the surface of an image in order to seek another level of meaning that is hidden within images.
"We schedule ourselves in such a way that we are left with very little time to spend on thinking about what we see," said Mr Yenawine.
Over time, Mr Yenawine has been trying to communicate to people the serious role that art can play in education and its positive impact on academic achievements. VTS, which is derived from more than 15 years of research collaboration between Mr Yenawine and Mrs Housen, is one of the tangible manifestations of their efforts.
"By examining and discussing art, we can develop visual literacy skills, meaning the skills that enable us to process complex ideas and thoughts deeply, not just superficially," he believes.
If the methodology is employed over time, as it involves serious work to find meaning in a work of art, such as making observations, drawing conclusions from those observations and providing evidence to support those conclusions, Mr Yenawine believes that students can develop critical thinking.
The method can also advance students' language skills.
"We expect young people to know how to write and how to read, but we give them limited opportunities to talk. If you can't say it, you probably can't write it," said Mr Yenawine, adding that children need to be given ample opportunity to express themselves so that they can amass the vocabulary essential for carrying out intelligent discussions. The spoken language students use in discussing art will eventually foster better writing and reading skills in children.
The theory of VTS might sound complicated, but its application is not difficult to comprehend. According to the co-founder, the strategy can be applied to people of nearly all ages, starting with four-year-old children.
First, the teacher selects a topic and a "work of art that provokes discussion among the class members", suggested Mr Yenawine. The subject should be one that is of interest to the participants so that they can talk on it enthusiastically. This is to ensure that all the students are spurred into taking part in the discussion.
The process starts by having the students take a moment to look at the selected piece of art or any chosen material to make them stay focused. Mr Yenawine commented that from his recent experience, today's technology encourages people to view things superficially and allows people only a glance at what is really there.
After a moment with the picture, the teacher re-asks the first question and asks two additional open-ended questions: "What is going on in this picture", "What do you see that makes you say that?", and "What more can we find?"
"The questions are designed to generate active participation," said Mr Yenawine, adding that they are also constructed so that the students can learn how to interpret meaning, learn to argue on the basis of evidence, and learn to be rigorous in finding more details and coming up with more observations before drawing conclusions from all their observations.
According to Mr Yenawine, a question like "What do you see?" stimulates the audience into merely observing and making a list of things that appear in the picture, whereas a question like "What's going on?" pushes students beyond observation to search for meaning.
He added that a question like "What do you see?" is suitable for children aged 3 to 5 years as they are still building their spoken language and vocabulary. However, older children should be activated by bigger challenges.
The second question, "What do you see that makes you say that?", is used after the teacher has heard and interpreted the student's answer. This is to encourage and subconsciously teach students to argue their remarks based on observations and evidence, a crucial skill for nurturing critical thinking.
In the third question, instead of asking "What else can you find?", which suggests that students might have missed something, framing the question as "What more can you find?" suggests that students have already achieved significant headway.
This question is also employed to make the conversation more complete and to encourage students to thoroughly examine themselves.
One of the most important things is to make sure that everybody is heard. This can be achieved through such actions as pointing at the location that a student is talking about and paraphrasing what he or she has said.
By pointing at the area that the students is commenting on, the teacher can make sure that everybody can follow what is being discussed.
"This makes people focus on the image by drawing people's eyes to a part that they hadn't looked at before. It is the way of saying to you, I hear what you say. It is a visual paraphrase," said Mr Yenawine.
"By paraphrasing what people say, I am accepting what they say and I am letting them know that I understood it. If I repeat your exact words, you know I heard you. If I paraphrase you, you know I understood you. If I didn't understand you correctly, you can correct me," he said, explaining the benefits of verbal paraphrasing.
Paraphrase neutrally. All comments should be acknowledged and valued equally, and the comments should not be corrected or added to. In this way, students will ultimately have a sense of being valued. Skilled teachers can also improve on students' answers to make them clearer and more concise. This will assist the students to develop their language skills without making them feel that they are being corrected.
Teachers should also link students' ideas to show how ideas are built on each other and how one idea leads to another to generate meaning.
"The whole idea is to teach flexibility of mind, so that people will not stop at their first idea, and it opens up the possibility of getting them to think that 'if I listen to other people, I may learn something, and what I learn might, in fact, enrich me"' Mr Yenawine suggested.
VTS is not restricted to just the subject of art or to visiting a museum and an art gallery. Teachers might integrate this strategy into other subjects, such as science, social science, languages, etc.
During the seminar at the TCDC, Mr Yenawine showed how to use this method to discuss a weather map and photos capturing the motion of a locust's wings in a wind tunnel. The three questions were asked to activate discussions similar to those about art. Teachers may also ask students to read a poem or other writing, and follow the same strategy.
All in all, besides asking students to look at a piece of art and asking them to identify the style, techniques and period, teachers might want to try using VTS, which will provide students with something more than knowledge of aesthetics and art history: critical thinking, communication and visual literacy. Then, art may take on a more significant role in the school's curriculum.
The theory of and detailed information on VTS can be found at http://www.vue.org.