Using Visual Thinking
|“Having been led into a discussion of their own ideas, they learned that they do have something valuable to bring to the study of art. They learned that careful observation and respectful discussion can yield fascinating insights.”|
Because they have been taught that they don’t have the right to participate in and enjoy it. They have been taught that art has right answers and wrong answers. Those who get the answers wrong are corrected, mocked or sneered at by those who know the right answers. They conclude that either they just don’t get it or the emperor has no clothes. In either case it is not worth risking the embarrassment or frustration of participating in art exploration. They have effectively been shut out.
About two years ago, I volunteered to be an art docent at our favorite local park’s sculpture garden. To my amazement, the professor doing the training did not want us to tell people about the artist or about what a work meant. She wanted us to encourage touring groups’ exploration of art. We were to facilitate discussion by asking a general open-ended question and eliciting the group’s ideas about art. No expert summaries, no corrections.
This method is called Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) and it was developed by cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine. It confirms what advocates of non-institutionalized learning believe: Allowing people to learn for themselves is the most effective means of education.
Gradually, the three other docent trainees dropped out of the sessions. I believe they were terrified at being in a position of “authority” without knowing all the answers. What’s the point of “leading” a tour if you’re not giving information? How could you answer, “I don’t know” to participants?
I lead a session of mixed-age children at a housing project after-school program, one of special education fourth graders, several third grades, a mixed-age church group, a group of YWCA board members and a group of college teachers. In each case, the participants answered tentatively at first. There were silences. The participants looked at me expectantly, but I did not give them the evaluation they’d been taught to expect. I had to remind myself not to rush to fill in these silences. When they caught on that I was listening and paraphrasing their own answers (thereby reinforcing, legitimizing and clarifying them), they ventured into further participation. In each case a lively discussion, respectful disagreement and active listening emerged from the group. In each case, I learned something about the art and the individual knowledge and perspectives of participants. It was a fascinating and exciting process to be part of.
A 70-ish man from the church group seemed irritated at first that I would not give answers. He reminded me that I was supposed to be telling them about the sculptures. By the end of this tour, the same man happily exclaimed: “We knew more about art than we thought we did!”
It is important to remember that learning takes time and personal interest. What would the participants have learned if I had simply given them the script about each artist and work: name, date, influences, era, school of thought? They may have remembered a tidbit or two which would have been unconnected to anything else in their lives. They might have been able to show off to friends by repeating some factoid about what an artist said about his work. Soon this would fade and there would be no trace of the session left on their consciousness. This would have been superficial entertainment or, worse, an empty “educational” experience.
|“I try to stop myself from helpfully offering unsolicited information. I have also learned that offering their own ideas back to them gives them permission to continue with a thought or line of reasoning.”|
Having been led into a discussion of their own ideas, they learned that they do have something valuable to bring to the study of art. They learned that careful observation and respectful discussion can yield fascinating insights. If they wish to find out what the artist was trying to achieve or the technical details of the work, they can seek out this information. If they do seek it out, it will be a self-initiated learning experience, which is the only kind of learning that sticks.
Two mistakes avoided by using this method of “teaching” are: 1) trying to cram all possible information and interpretation into one session and; 2) presuming what the participant can and wishes to get out of the session. Using the VTS method, the docent doesn’t know how the discussion will turn out. She doesn’t presume to know the background knowledge, worldview or interests of the participants. She doesn’t insult their intelligence!
I believe this method can be brought to other areas of learning. It seems obvious that the study of literature can be enriched by using a similar technique. The questions simply need to be altered to address a written text rather than a work of art. But how would it be useful in science? Well, the scientific method is based on detailed observation and keeping all possibilities open. Open-ended questioning would allow participants to discover some scientific phenomena on their own. Once the gate is opened, these same learners could research more in-depth concepts and ideas for themselves.
I often think about how to use this deceptively simple technique in my role as parent. Occasionally, I ask my children what is going on in a piece of art they are examining. I have also learned to refrain from being a know-it-all when they ask questions. Often as not, I will say, “What do you think?” or “We can look that up next time we’re at the library.” I try to stop myself from helpfully offering unsolicited information. I have also learned that offering their own ideas back to them gives them permission to continue with a thought or line of reasoning. The greatest reward for doing so is that I learn from their observations about the world and they learn to trust and depend on themselves for their own education.
Gina Cassidy is a community college composition and developmental writing instructor. She has master degrees in English and Applied Linguistics and she’s a volunteer for Illinois Radio Reader for the blind and an art docent with the local park district.