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Visual thinking

strategies =
creative and
critical thinking

The synergy that occurs between creativity and critical thinking allows
powerful learning to occur.

By Mary Moeller, kay Cutler, Dave Fiedler, and Lisa Weier

As the classroom lights dim, 5th graders jockey for going on in this picture? Most arms are raised at this
better viewing positions. The facilitator introduces a pro- point. Cassie?
jected image of Rembrandts Sketch at Jacks House by They all look the same to me so I think theyre the
saying, Take a minute and look at this picture. After same person, but like different ages, and everything like
students have silently studied the black and white im- the middle one it looks like the youngest and like the one
age for about a minute, the facilitator asks, So whats in the corner up on top yeah, the other one it would

MARY MOELLER (mary.moeller@sdstate.edu) is an associate professor of teaching, learning, and leadership at South Dakota
State University, Brookings, S.D., where KAY CUTLER is a professor of early childhood education and director of the Fishback
Center. DAVE FIEDLER is principal of Camelot Intermediate School, Brookings, S.D., where LISA WEIER is a 5th-grade sci-
ence and language arts teacher.

56 Kappan November 2013

be old, Cassie says. the creative and critical thinking skills used when 4th
Pointing to the figure in the corner of the image, and 5th graders discuss art.
the facilitator replies, So Cassies looking at this and Making meaning together by observing care-
thinking that maybe its just really one person but at fully, deciphering patterns, speculating, clarifying,
different stages of their life. Something about this face supporting opinions, and generating more ideas
makes Cassie think of a younger person. What more can these skills are learned patterns of thinking. Camelot
we find? Jeff? teachers nurture these student behaviors by facili-
I disagree with Cassie because you can see that that tating monthly art discussions. The staff originally
person in the middle, you can see that he or she has like chose Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) to improve
curly hair, and I think its like a statue because of all student writing. Now they recognize that, in ad-
the lines and the noncolor, and then the person up in the dition to strengthening students communication
corner . . . he kind of has glasses, Jeff says. skills, VTS generates critical-thinking skills, includ-
OK, so Jeff is noticing some differences in these ing creativity.
people, wondering if this person up here doesnt have The intersection of creativity and critical thinking
glasses and noticing the curly hair around this person lies at the heart of VTS. Creativity involves explor-
and agreeing that this is probably some kind of a sketch. ing patterns, shapes, textures, and colors through
What more can we find? Kylie? visual means. Critical thinking involves examining
I kind of agree with Jeff that its like someone clues, considering alternatives while holding oppos-
sketched it because of all the lines and how like some ing ideas and exploring possibilities. These two pro-
areas are shaded, says Kylie. cesses are closely related. When they come together
So what do you see that makes you say shaded? through VTS, the synergy produces a sweet spot for
Because it seems like darker than all the others, like powerful learning to occur.
darker than all the other spots, says Kylie.
So noticing the darker and thinking that perhaps
someone has shaded that. What more can we find? Visual Thinking
I agree with Jeff, or whoever said it was a drawing Camelot teachers describe a VTS session as pro- Strategies
and I notice that like in the top my right upper side viding time and space where students learn to create
that person could be a girl because it looks like that face, meaning from art. VTS uses three deceptively simple
on the top, yeah, that guy looks like he could be in his 80s questions that invite students to freely share their students
or something because he looks kind of older, Kacey says. multiple perspectives about art images: communication
What do you see that makes you say older?
and critical-
Because he has like glasses. And he has kind of like Whats going on in this picture?
his chin, he has a beard, Kacey replies. What do you see that makes you say that? thinking skills,
OK, so noticing some features about this persons What more can you find? including
face and thinking yes, I agree that that one seems to be
older and perhaps that one could be a female face. What The first question prods viewers to consider the
more can we find? Connor? art in an open-ended way. The second question
I think its some sketches that Leonardo DaVinci challenges students to support their views using
made, Connor says. evidence in the image. For example, in the open-
So Connors agreeing here that weve got some ing dialogue, Cassie and Jeff gave reasons for their
sketches. What more can we find? Ashley? speculations about the characters ages. The third
I disagree with Connor because it says down there question implies that there is more in the image to
like the artist signed it, Rembrandt 1636. It could be 10 be uncovered, contemplated, and discussed (Hou-
or 16 because just the way it looks, the writings kind of sen & Yenawine, 2009). Throughout the cyclical
faded. I dont know. Ive heard of Rembrandt before, process, the teachers nonjudgmental facilitation
Ashley says. style accepts all student responses and thus devel-
I agree that its Rembrandt, and I think the year is ops a safe, collaborative environment. In the dia-
1636 just because of like very few people say 1036 because logue, Ashley and Jeff felt comfortable in politely
. . . if you look at the little circle because if you compare disagreeing with their peers. During an academic
the two sixes . . . the little top part goes higher than the year, teachers facilitate nine monthly discussions
number to make it a six, Allison says. of three images each, concluding with a museum
visit as the tenth discussion. Each discussion lasts
about 45 minutes.
During three years of implementing VTS cur-
This Visual Thinking Strategy session at Camelot riculum, Camelot staff has reflected on its effect
Intermediate School in Brookings, S.D., illustrates on student behavior, thinking, and writing. Teach-
V95 N3 kappanmagazine.org 57
ers identify key elements of critical thinking and VTS teaches students to do all of these in a collab-
creativity in the way students respond during VTS orative process. French artist Marcel Duchamp said,
sessions. Principal Dave Fiedler also said these skills All in all, the creative act is not performed by the
transfer to other areas of the curriculum and even artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact
school life. I would say without any doubt that with the external world by deciphering . . . its inner
the Visual Thinking Strategies has been a posi- qualification and thus adds his contribution to the
tively worthwhile endeavor for our students and creative act (Lebel, 1959, p. 77-78). The Camelot
our teachers. The VTS process has helped them staff reflections, referenced below, demonstrate the
[teachers] become better facilitators and allow stu- creative process at work within VTS discussions.
dents a little more control of the learning environ-
ment, he said. Creativity
South Dakota State University researchers and Creativity: developing, implementing and commu-
South Dakota Art Museum staff have tracked this nicating new ideas. Camelot teachers noticed that
development and supported its growth from the VTS encourages storytelling as students attach ac-
beginning through regular staff debriefings and tions or experiences to the characters in the im-
individual coaching sessions. This collaboration, ages, thus animating the art. Sometimes students
as a community of practice, started a journey to storytelling explored the image on a deeper level
explore creativity and critical thinking through the by considering character, plot, and setting. The
use of art. first reply I received was from a student who is
usually in her own little world and not paying at-
tention. She said, This is set in the summertime
because there is grass, and the people arent wear-
Creativity involves exploring ing coats. I was impressed because she was focus-
ing on the setting, which I had introduced several
patterns, shapes, textures, and weeks ago.
Creativity: being open and responsive to new per-
colors through visual means. spectives. In a VTS discussion, the facilitator ac-
cepts each students observation in a neutral man-
Critical thinking involves examining ner, modeling receptivity to new ideas that the
students soon imitate. They develop an openness
clues, considering alternatives to each others ideas. When asked what the best
while holding opposing ideas and thing was about VTS, my students agreed that it
was that all students could share an opinion, and
exploring possibilities. nobodys opinion was wrong. The facilitators
summary and paraphrasing set the tone for civility.
Because teachers paraphrase each discussion,
students feel appreciated. Their thoughts are im-
portant and heard. Teachers incorporate condi-
tional language, such as looks like, might be,
Creativity & critical thinking or so maybe in the paraphrase, which also helps
Thinking creatively includes brainstorming, cre- students learn to value multiple perspectives.
ating new and worthwhile ideas, elaborating, refin- Creativity: incorporating group input into the work.
ing, analyzing, and evaluating. In addition, creativity Teachers observe students putting their minds
includes working with others in: together . . . building on each others observations,
ideas, and knowledge. As soon as someone men-
Developing, implementing, and communi- tioned the sick woman, other students looked for
cating new ideas; more evidence to show that there was sickness in
Being open to new perspectives; the house. Someone noticed the medicine and the
Incorporating group input into the work; steamer. Student observations often evolve into
Demonstrating originality and inventiveness; respectful debates.
Understanding the real-world limits to As they considered each others opinions of
adopting new ideas; and the same image, students demonstrated flexible
Viewing failure as an opportunity to learn thinking, another hallmark of creativity. One stu-
within a long-term cycle of small successes and dent originally felt this picture was set in mod-
frequent mistakes (Partnership for 21st-century ern times but changed his opinion when another
skills, 2011). student pointed out the old-fashioned radio. This
58 Kappan November 2013
comment started a small debate when still another Critical thinking
student said his relatives collect antiques and live Through VTS students also engage in critical
in an older home, and therefore it could be in the thinking, defined as:
present and not the past. Several thought it could
go either way. This discussion assured me that my Reasoning effectively both inductively and
students are listening to each other during VTS. deductively;
Creativity: demonstrating originality and inventiveness Using systems thinking to analyze the interac-
in work. Being creative requires generating as many tions of parts in a whole;
ideas as possible (Mackay, 2012), a process that oc- Making decisions that include examining
curs naturally in VTS. I finally had one student no- evidence, analyzing it from different perspec-
tice that it was a fur hanging over the mans arm, and tives, synthesizing and making connections
this observation was such a revelation to the class. It between information, drawing conclusions, and
was met with lots of oohs and ahhhs! Since art im- reflecting critically on experiences; and
ages lend themselves to interpretation, students feel Problem solving by looking at issues in both
free to explore. A few were seeing a story, but more familiar and innovative ways, and developing
were very fascinated in the structure. This aspect led significant questions to find better solutions
to some interesting suggestions on how the art was (Partnership for 21st-century skills, 2011).

made and its purpose. In the opening dialogue, Ky- Reasoning using inductive and deductive means.
lie noticed the details of shading in the sketches, and Camelot teachers most frequently noted their stu-
Allison compared the two 6s, to add depth to the dents using critical thinking and reasoning by mak-
observations. After two years of VTS, teachers com- ing connections to previously learned materials and
mented that they and their students were looking at personal experiences. Students related observations
art differently beyond the first glance. to Martin Luther King, Jr., indentured servants, and
Creativity: understanding the real-world limits to Chinese-style slippers.
adopting new ideas. Teachers occasionally encoun-
Using systems thinking to analyze the interactions of
ter students who test the real-world limits of ideas.
parts in a whole. Students analyzed the pieces of an
Every once in a while, students propose ideas that
image and used their ideas to interpret. One student
dont seem to be likely. If this does happen, I sim-
noticed a gray sky and determined a storm was com-
ply ask them to tell me what they see in the pic-
ing. After studying the painting further, he changed
ture that makes them say that. Usually they respond
his mind, deciding that the dark sky came from a
with never mind. Then we move on. This strat-
smoking factory chimney. He dissected the image,
egy doesnt seem to keep that person from sharing
explored possible causes and effects, and generated
again. Sometimes, he even shares another idea or
reasons for the gray sky.
two about the same image. One teacher said, [In
lesson one,] there was one off the wall answer that
was given partly to see my reaction. When I didnt
react, but asked the student what he saw to say that,
he paused for a time and then came up with a rea- In VTS, teachers shape new ways of
sonable answer. teaching, while their students shape
Creativity: a long-term cycle of small successes and new ways of thinking.
frequent mistakes. Cyclical thinking happens when
students return to an idea to discuss it more. Teach-
ers also noted improvement in students who may
struggle speaking with the group. I have been very
surprised by one particular student. His learning Making decisions and judgments through evidence and
and social disabilities keep him from participating alternative perspectives. The student above evaluated
in most general education classes. This student loves the evidence and reached a different conclusion. Stu-
VTS. He says he agrees with others and has really dents familiar with VTS also began holding different
improved. He does not like others to disagree with perspectives simultaneously. Several students pro-
him, but at least he acknowledges varied opinions. vided multiple theories for a single picture. I did not
Another teacher shared ways to encourage the small ever feel as though any of the students were looking
successes. Sometimes my students with disabilities for just one right answer. They seemed to embrace
will simply repeat an idea that has already been sug- that there could be various scenarios to describe the
gested. Therefore, I often try to get them to share picture.
first so that they are informally credited with coming Making judgments by synthesizing and making con-
up with an idea that most of the class agrees with. nections. Some students connected to prior knowl-
V95 N3 kappanmagazine.org 59
edge, while others found connections to self, then nity member pitching a service idea. The presenter
to others, and finally to content. Students who had expected to hear, Yes, lets do this! Instead, he heard
struggled to contribute started making self-connec- the Knights agreeing and disagreeing politely as they
tions. One said, It looks like a rotary lawnmower; my debated the proposal. The groups advisers found
grandpa has one. Others connected to culture, for themselves explaining VTS to the surprised guest.
example, inferring that the family must be Christian Making decisions by pausing to think to build on reflec-
because of the cross and holy picture on the dresser. tive processes. Teachers reported VTS also affects the
When an African landscape appeared in an image, a writing process because students spend time think-
recent immigrant described her hometown and the ing about their ideas first. [During the postwriting
cultural aspects in the picture, making both self and activity, students] are adding more details. I see more
cultural connections. thinking going on before they write something too.
Often, ambiguous objects in images sparked the They dont just start in writing. Most will use a little
most inferences as students attempt to comprehend think time.
the image. Teachers were continually surprised at Problem solving. Students solve problems by devel-
how much they can get from these images. Ambi- oping a mind-set that uses critical thinking in many
guity encouraged students to dig deeper into what different settings (Housen, 2001; Karakas, 2010). In
they know. the opening dialogue, Allison analyzes the numbers
in the date by examining their shape. Since VTS
provides these ongoing opportunities in a cyclical,
predictable fashion, it has become a set of tools for
Teachers were continually surprised helping students become citizens of their learning
at how much students got from communities outside of VTS sessions. Teachers in-
corporated VTS-style discussions into their project-
analyzing these images.
based learning units by posing the question, Which
books are high quality? Then students developed
criteria for a Camelot Literary Award, selected
books, presented their nominations, and voted to
Making decisions and drawing conclusions. VTS en- bestow their awards to the winning books. Students
courages students to re-evaluate their thinking after studied the Caldecott Medal image as a model before
hearing others. Students dont dismiss an idea, but creating their own; within this authentic, democratic
rather carefully consider and weigh options before process, all students participated.
drawing conclusions. Teachers found VTS skills If we want students to unlock their creativity, to
transferring to other areas of school life, such as take intellectual risks, and to think outside the box,
when the Camelot Knights of the Round Table, which teachers must create a space where that can happen.
serves as the student council, listened to a commu- In VTS, teachers shape new ways of teaching, while
their students shape new ways of thinking.K


Housen, A. (2001). Aesthetic thought, critical thinking and

transfer. Arts and Learning Research Journal, 18 (1), 99-132.

Housen, A. & Yenawine, P. (2009). Basic VTS at a glance.


Karakas, S. (2010, September). Creating and critical thinking in

the arts and sciences: Some examples of congruence. Forum
on Public Policy, 2010 (2), 1-9.

Lebel, R. (1959). Marcel Duchamp. New York, NY: Grove


Mackay, H. (2012, July 16). Outswimming the sharks.

Minneapolis Star-Tribune. www.startribune.com/

Partnership for 21st-century skills. (2011). 21st-century

framework-creativity. www.p21.org/overview/skills-
Hmm, lets see. Ill have the book report for an appetizer . . . framework/262

60 Kappan November 2013

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