How Visual Thinking Strategies Can Help You Lead Great Class Discussions

Have you ever wondered how you might improve class discussions about art? As art teachers, we know the importance of taking the time to teach students to observe and talk about art. With hundreds of students and short classes, however, this can be a big challenge.

In the past, I felt my class discussions were falling short. I sometimes felt I was rushing my kids to get to the “right” answers so we could move on to the studio experience. I knew I could do better.

In my efforts to improve my practice, I came across Visual Thinking Strategies. It changed the way I worked with my young students to explore artworks.

Visual Thinking Strategies develop critical thinking skills and build confidence when analyzing artworks.


So…what is it, exactly?

Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS for short) is a discussion strategy used to explore artworks through prior knowledge. Students are encouraged to look carefully and use their knowledge of the world to explore imagery that is new to them. By tapping into prior knowledge, students are able to make sense of previously unknown and complex imagery. They ask questions and debate with peers, all while building important critical-thinking skills.

What does it look like?

The easiest way to get started is to ask one simple question. When you are exploring an artwork with your students, ask them, “What is going on here?” That’s it. Then wait, and see what they say. If you are working with young students, they will most likely start raising their hands and sharing right away.

Students should be asked to…

1. Look closely.

Ask them to take their time and just look. I sometimes ask students to observe for a solid minute before we begin our discussion.

2. Talk about what they see.

Allow students to describe the artwork, and build upon the observations of their peers. Really take your time here. Ask, “What else do you see?” several times. This will allow students who may process their thoughts more slowly a chance to participate.

3. Provide evidence for their statements.

I often find myself saying, “Can you tell us what you see that makes you think that?” or, “Can you show us what you see in the picture that tells you that?” Students should be able to back up their ideas.

4. Listen to their peers.

In order for this process to work, it is important that all students feel safe to share. Make sure all perspectives are accepted, and students are respectful when classmates are sharing.

5. Explore different perspectives and understandings.

Students are encouraged to explore the work from a variety of viewpoints. A diversity of interpretations should be the goal.


Start with a description of the work.

This will come naturally, as students share their perspectives. Encourage students to be specific. Allow them to point to areas of interest in order to clarify their ideas. For example, in the process of exploring the Mona Lisa, you might have a student state that the “lady looks sad.” Instead of assuming you understand why the student made the comment, ask them to clarify why they think she looks sad.

There are several key elements to this approach.

1. Remain neutral. Do not tell students their interpretation is right or wrong. Allow the exploration to be natural and allow students to share ideas without fear of judgment.

2. Paraphrase student ideas. When a student shares, repeat what they said in simple language. This ensures you understood the student correctly and that the other students understand as well.

3. Make sure to point to the area of the artwork being discussed. This will help all students understand what their classmates see.

4. Connect ideas. If a student comment creates a connection to prior knowledge, bring it into the discussion for students to understand as well. For example “That is a great connection to our study of landscapes from last week! Can anyone else see another connection?”


When exploring art in this way, it is important to take your time.

Time is always in short supply in the art room. Yet, in order to do this right, it is vital not to rush. Wait patiently for responses, and allow students to build upon the ideas of their peers.

As the class delves deeper into the work, their curiosity and confidence will grow. As the teacher, your job is to facilitate the discussion, but the students should be the ones really running the show. I find counting to ten and then asking, “What else do you see happening?” helps me to pause and ensure students have the time they need to process their thoughts and get ready to share.

VTS helped me to slow down and enjoy discussing art with my students.

All students love to paint and sculpt. Sometimes we forget the importance of building our students’ observation and communication skills. These skills are important and transfer to other areas of life beyond the art room. Once my students got used to this method, they looked forward to the time we spent talking about art as much as studio time!

Do you use VTS with your students?

What other discussion strategies do you use in your classroom?

Anne-Marie Slinkman


Anne-Marie teaches elementary art in Virginia. She is a life-long learner who is passionate about providing relevant and meaningful art experiences for all students.


  • mary kernan

    I recently attended a workshop all about VTS and love it. It is amazing how the way you ask a question allows the inquisitive discussion begin. I have been using this as a way to begin a unit of study. I use it like a “hook” to get them interested, then after I tell them the facts which leads to the – “what are we going to do” with this now…
    At the elementary level this is a nice way to gather and share.

  • Michelle

    I love to get all senses involved during discussions. For example we just discussed last week one of Homer’s oil paintings of a boat. I asked my students to close their eyes and imagine what they would hear and smell if they were one of the people on the boat. Using different strategies helps me to get the kids thinking about what they are observing.

  • Michelle Mathias

    I teach K-5. To open class, student come in and sit on the front rug and we discuss some art. I display a famous piece of art (old or new) using my projector and then write info about it on the white board (title, artist, date, size, material). I share some info with them about the art that can’t be written down easily (why, or how, or where, or a story about the artist). Then, I allow 5 students to share their thoughts. They can share a like, dislike, or comment. Often times, I pull more information about their thought process by asking questions. They love this time and nearly all students are engaged!

  • Leah M.

    I do an activity I call Noticings & Wonderings. Often a discussion of describing the work is brought up first by students. I put up an artwork and start with the simple questions: What do you notice? What do you wonder? Sometimes it even helps quieter kids to use a fill in the blank style format by having them respond with “I notice that…” “I wonder if…” other times we will focus on a certain area. What art elements do you notice? What ideas does this make you think of? I’m clear at the beginning of the activity that we are not casting voted of good art/bad art, I like it/I don’t like it and also that all ideas and opinions are okay and acceptable to share-this gets them more willing to share as well. Most often the conversation starts itself and if I’m patient always amazes me. Sometimes I’ll do this activity as an activator for a bigger lesson amd other times I just have a longer mini lesson where we look at several pieces before getting back to a work in progress.

  • Robin Gianis

    I think Visual Thinking Strategies make the process and the experience of looking at Art so engaging for all learners. I found it so for myself just as well as my students, grades K-12. After taking a VTS training two years ago, I am so glad to see art teachers talking more about this. The key thing I would like to add from my training is that in VTS discussions, teachers support student growth by facilitating discussions of carefully selected works of visual art using specific language. You can not paraphrase the VTS language without changing the outcome and thereby veering from what is actually VTS. In other words, if you want to say you are inspired by VTS, you may change the language. If you want to say you use VTS, keep the words as exactly as they are below. In training, we were taught we must strictly adhere to the language.

    Here are the basic guidelines for VTS Facilitation-

    Teachers are asked to use three open-ended questions (phrased exactly as follows):
    1. What’s going on in this picture?
    2. What do you see that makes you say that?
    3. What more can we find?

    There are three Facilitation Techniques:
    1. Paraphrase comments neutrally
    2. Point at the area being discussed
    3. Linking and framing student comments

    Students are asked 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 multiple possible interpretations

    • Melissa Kelley

      I agree with you Robin. I bought the book, “Visual Thinking Strategies,” by Philip Yenawine and have watched a couple of his videos on YouTube. He strictly says to use the wording you mentioned above. So thank you for correcting it.