Archive | February, 2016

Visual Thinking Strategies

28 Feb

by Brad Hokanson, a College of Design professor whose specialities
include critical thinking, and creativity & innovation


One of the more consistent tenants of the Center for Educational Innovation has been a focus on active learning and a shifting of the cognitive effort to the learner. We know that increased cognitive effort leads to increased learning. Seeking this active, cognitive effort and a visually engaging method, I have incorporated Visual Thinking Strategies into my courses.

There are three simple starting questions that begin a Visual Thinking session, each designed to elicit responses from the participants: The first asks for observations; then for visual reasoning from the image, and then for subsequent observations.

Between each, the discussion leader paraphrases the comments while indicating areas of the image that generated the comment. The discussion is open and not devoted to a specific observation or idea, but reacts to the emergent conversation, and to developing the skills of the discussion

Below is an image [1] often used in VTS exercises. To help understand the process, questions can be raised to illustrate a VTS session: What can be observed in this painting? Why could this be said? What else could be seen in this image? The learning experience is enriched by others’ comments; while this can be a valuable experience for the individual online, value also derives from in-person engagement with other learners.

Example 1

Example Image [1]

As my focus in teaching design and creativity centers on developing skills, and not on declarative knowledge Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) has been a valuable addition to my teaching methodology.


I first encountered VTS while involved in planning for the opening of Northrop Auditorium in the summer of 2014. At a planning retreat, VTS was presented and it was clear it would make an exceptional component of my critical thinking course . Visual Thinking Strategies provided a visual analog for some of the methods of critical thinking such as close-reading, the analysis of ideas, and the structuring of arguments.

Visual Thinking Strategies was developed by Alice Housman and Phillip Yenawine based on research and their work with museums in Boston and New York. One challenge for art museums is the cursory nature of most visits which often focus more on simple aesthetics and minor facts such as artists names and dates. Together they founded an organization to develop and spread the educational method and it can be reached at

Visual Thinking Strategies is a method initiated by teacher-facilitators using images of art to spur discussion. It’s shown to have positive effects, developing skills of observation and evidence based reasoning. While widely used in K-8 programs, it is effective in higher education and professional environments. And, while centered in visual art, the structuring of information and learning can be applied in many disciplines including design, business, and medicine.

Example 2

Example image [2]

In Spring 2015 I offered a course called Visual and Critical Thinking . VTS was used as a theme throughout, enriching the course experience, and providing a means to examine visual images the same way we examined written texts and verbal arguments. Visual thinking discussions occurred with each weekly class session, lasting between about 20 and 40 minutes. Students completed the exercises individually, in small groups, and in a full class group. Discussions helped develop their analysis and critical thinking skills. While none of the students were majoring in art or art history, each actively used the methodology and could see how it could apply to their home discipline.

Students in the course were changed by the VTS focus in the course. They were more engaged with each other in talking about the images, often offering differing opinions and ideas about picture elements. They became more observant of their own lives and the visual cues that are present; in one case observing the visual presence of mobile phones in social situations, indicating a decline of conversations. They expressed a desire for more visual activity both as observer and producer. And their skill was evident in the final full class session at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, when MIA patrons were following the class around, listening to student observations of the work.

The larger goal remains one of shifting the cognitive load to the learner. Making the classroom more active, making the projects more investigatory, and encouraging them to express their skill in examination, observation and thinking helps the learner develop. Learning needs to be more than distributing information, effective learning is providing learning experiences for students to develop and grow.


For me, the use of visual thinking strategy was not meant to have students learn about art or art history, but rather as a public, engaged development of their larger skills. These are skills that can be applied in any field.

Most faculty members would like to improve their own capability in leading discussions; this is one flexible model that can spur engagement with learners. The visual stimuli can vary with discipline, from visual art to urban conditions to live patients, and it can engage a number of students in the cognitive effort.

Visual Thinking Strategies are not for learning about art per se, but about building skills through understanding art. For example, observation of news photographs can develop better understanding of communication, politics, and sociology. [The use of Visual Thinking Strategies is the focus of an ongoing educational blog on the New York Times website, where images are presented with the VTS process on a regular basis.] This method could also be used to enhance learning in the medical fields as well, whether engaging with patients, observing radiographs, or examining teeth. And, for example, social science students could use the explicit observational techniques in examining social interactions in photographs, videos, or real life.

The hope of any discussion in class is to improve the student learning experience and to extend the learning out into their lives. Something that sticks, something that’s remembered, something that changes ones’ life…or changes how one views life… is an ongoing goal for my teaching. Coming from my history in the design fields, it is clear that improving learners’ visual literacy and understanding would be of value for any course.

Brad Hokanson’s February 2016 “Teaching Innovations” discussion for CEI is available as an online presentation:

Additional Resources


  1. Tooker, G. (1950) Subway.
  2. Hopper, E. (1942) Nighthawks.

Visual Thinking Strategies


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