Visual Thinking Strategies

Visual Thinking Strategies is a well-known program developed by Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine more than twenty years ago which is, used in museums both locally and internationally, as well as in schools, colleges, and universities.  The founders of VTS incorporated Visual Understanding in Education as a non-profit organization in 1995 with a mission to broaden the use of VTS, deepen our research, and increase the understanding of Aesthetic Development.

Today, VTS is one of the most significant art education and critical thinking programs with a national presence. We are a small staff with an active national volunteer board, along with regional VTS boards which support teams of trainers and consultants throughout the country and the world.

The work of VTS could not have been accomplished without our philanthropic partners who have generously supported the work of VTS over the last 16 years. Their gifts have sustained the program in their immediate local communities or through the work of the national office.

What is VTS?

Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is a method initiated by teacher-facilitated discussions of art images and documented to have a cascading positive effect on both teachers and students. It is perhaps the simplest way in which teachers and schools can provide students with key behaviors sought by Common Core Standards: thinking skills that become habitual and transfer from lesson to lesson, oral and written language literacy, visual literacy, and collaborative interactions among peers.

VTS provides a way to jumpstart a process of learning to think deeply applicable in most subjects from poetry to math, science, and social studies. Art is the essential first discussion topic because it enables students to use existing visual and cognitive skills to develop confidence and experience, learning to use what they already know to figure out what they do not; they are then prepared to explore other complex subject matter alone and with peers.

Through VTS’ rigorous group ‘problem-solving’ process, students cultivate a willingness and ability to present their own ideas, while respecting and learning from the perspectives of their peers. Engaged by contributing observations and ideas, the students participate in VTS-based lessons in ways they often do not in others. VTS is a curriculum for schools; as a method of discussion, it is used in many art museums.

Experience with VTS produces growth in all students, from challenged and non-English language learners to high achievers. In addition, teachers enjoy the process and benefit from a new approach that reaches all students and is useful across their practice.

Click here for a visual demonstration of a VTS discussion with fourth-grade students.

Method & Curriculum

In VTS discussions, teachers support student growth by facilitating discussions of carefully selected works of visual art.

Teachers are asked to use three open-ended questions:

  • What is going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can we find?

3 Facilitation Techniques:

  • Paraphrase comments neutrally
  • Point at the area being discussed
  • 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 many possible interpretations


Visual Thinking Strategies website

Visual Thinking Strategies for Improved Comprehension by Krista Robinson

Art Museum Teaching website

Visual Thinking Strategies: Learning How to Teach with Art by Philip Yenawine

VTS Video Demonstration at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA

VTS Museum of Fine Art, Boston YouTube Video