As they sit in silence on the floor, the children ponder the image before them – a 15th-century painting of a human figure in the woods, a few dogs and a deer. When teacher Heather Sutherland asks them what’s going on in the picture, nearly all the students raise their hands.
“I see there’s a hunter and lots of grass,” says a 7-year-old in Sutherland’s class of first- and second-graders at Garfield Elementary. “I see a deer. It looks like a dad deer.”
“What do you see that makes you say this is a dad deer?” asks his teacher, directing a pointer toward the center of the picture.
The boy then describes the deer’s antlers. For the next 20 minutes, the students share their own perceptions about what they find in the picture. They notice details such as the expressions on the dogs’ faces, the horn in the hunter’s hand, the leaves and trees in the background.
As their teacher asks questions – “What’s going on in this picture?” “What more can you find?” – the children wonder out loud about the story behind the picture. They also share their observations and support their ideas by using evidence from the painting as well as experiences from their own lives.
“They’re paying attention and digging deeper,” says Sutherland, describing Visual Thinking Strategies, a child-centered teaching method and curriculum that she and others at Garfield Elementary have adopted this past year.
“They’re developing higher-level thinking that transfers to other subject areas in school.”
Interaction with art not only promotes creativity and critical thinking skills, according to studies, it also can improve language and writing as well as boost academic achievement.
That’s why some parents continue to seek ways to keep their children involved in the arts, and why educators like Sutherland use VTS – a method that’s also being used by Harvard Medical School, the University of Washington and others to help improve students’ observation and diagnostic skills.
“By using VTS, students learn to make meaning from the world around them, to gain confidence in their own ideas while respecting those of others and to contribute to a thoughtful debate amongst a group of peers,” according to the VTS Web site.
VTS is relatively new to the Inland Northwest, despite its use in more than 200 schools throughout the country.
Locally, it was introduced to students last fall through a three-year professional development program between Garfield Elementary and the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. Several preschool teachers at the Community Building Children’s Center in Spokane also have received some training in the method.
“It’s student-centered and research-based,” says Heidi Arbogast, the MAC’s art educator who first learned about VTS several years ago through the Frye Art Museum in Seattle.
“What’s beautiful about this program is that it uses art’s ability to be open-ended. It asks students to put into words what their eyes see. … The teacher isn’t looking for one right answer.”
Instead of telling children the name of the painting, the period or the artist, the teacher allows the artwork to speak for itself, which then enables the children to discover facts for themselves, she says. It also encourages them to embrace multiple points of view.
During their recent VTS lesson, Sutherland never told her first- and second-grade students that the painting was “Hunter and Dogs Pursuing Fallow Deer,” a work by Gaston Phoebus that’s part of the permanent collection at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Instead, she was more interested in the details, relationships and conclusions that the 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds come up with on their own and as a group.
“It’s teaching our kids to express themselves,” says Sutherland, who has been teaching at Garfield for the last 11 years. “I love that it provides the opportunity for all our children to be successful.”
VTS is based on research conducted by cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen, who has spent more than 30 years studying people’s experiences when they look at art and the world around them.
The founder and co-director of New York’s Visual Understanding in Education, Housen came up with a theory of aesthetic development, which identifies patterns of thinking that are connected to how much art a person has seen or experienced. She concluded that this deliberate exposure to art can build critical thinking skills that can be transferred to other subjects including writing, math, social studies and science.
Collaborating with Philip Yenawine, former director of education at the Museum of Modern Art, Housen developed this method, which teachers say is appropriate for all students – regardless of age, culture, ethnicity, socioeconomic background and their ability to speak English.
“Art is just a wonderful way to level the playing field,” says Arbogast, who has been the MAC’s art educator since 2002.
When Sutherland and others at Garfield first learned about VTS, they were intrigued with the way the method not only encouraged a personal connection to art, but also instilled confidence in the students while fostering a sense of community. It also ties in with many of the school district’s academic goals, says Sutherland.
Garfield’s principal, teachers and staff voted unanimously to create a partnership with the MAC. Their decision also was approved by the students’ parents through the Neighborhood Education Team. Garfield and the museum share the $5,000 cost to provide the program for children in pre-kindergarten all the way to sixth grade.
As a result of this partnership, Arbogast and Yoon Kang-O’Higgins, the northwest regional director at Visual Understanding in Education, have been providing training sessions to the teachers and staff on a regular basis. Students now have a VTS lesson once a month and take a field trip to the museum – an experience that many of them have never had.
“It has really opened up our world,” says Sutherland. “It has built community here. Every answer is valued. Everyone feels safe to contribute.”
Their experiences with VTS have influenced the way they read books, conduct science experiments and solve math problems, she says. The students spend more time observing and they’re no longer hesitant to ask questions and share their sense of wonder about the world.
In the Seattle area and other parts of the country, VTS training has been offered to parents as well as educators.
As the mother of two young children, Arbogast says the method has taught her to be a better listener. When she’s in conversation with someone else, she tries to reserve judgment and to be in the moment so that she can listen with understanding and empathy.
“Human beings need to put into words what they see, think and feel,” says Arbogast. “Art can be a great tool to do that. It opens up so many possibilities.”