Category Archives: Visual Thinking Strategies with 2nd/3rd Class

2002-2016 ‘Seen but not heard’

The attached article ‘Fostering Adult Literacy in Art Museums‘ was published in 2004 in the Journal of Visual Literacy for the International Visual Literacy Association. It offers a synopsis of my Masters in Museum Studies Thesis at John F. Kennedy University, Berkeley, California. Reading the article afresh today, I am, once again, struck by how loaded words like ‘literacy’ and ‘visual literacy’ are.

How varied their interpretation can be depending on the context. Overclaiming the benefits and/or transformative impact of visual art, by pointing out the interconnection between language development and visual literacy, can be precarious. Rather, articulating nuanced perspectives by what we mean in visual arts practice about our understanding of visual literacy and how we are experiencing it happening ‘live’ in Project 20/20 best exercised as reflective practice.

It seems timely to post the article here today and to remember the early stages of this research. We are about to embark on a new phase of work for Project 20/20 with a Visual Thinking Strategies Beginners Practicum Training and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. Reflecting and remembering as we continue to move and progress offers us space for more realistic expectations to emerge.

Journal of Visual Literacy – Fostering Adult Literacy in Art Museums by Liz Coman

“The Art of Remembering” – Led by 3rd Class (Room 9, Mr Wrynn)

Visual Thinking Strategies

Being able to articulate and stand up for what you believe in is an important skill.  Yesterday, we screened the premiere of the film ‘The Art of Remembering” – led by 3rd Class (Room 9, Mr Wrynn) for participating children, parents, teachers, community leaders, artists, art educators, arts office team, partners and funders.  It was an important moment for Project 20/20, illustrating how artists and and the art history of Dublin can bring together a local community to support children and how they access the arts in their local neighbourhood of Dublin 1.

As part of 1916/2016 Commemoration Programme, children from Central Model Primary School, Dublin 1, looked deeply at an original copy of the 1916 Proclamation, Irish history and the city itself using Visual Thinking Strategies.  They were supported in their journey by professional art educator Lynn McGrane and film maker Jenny Brady. The children visited The Preservation and Conservation Department of the Library of Trinity College, the GPO and Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane.  At their visit to the LAB Gallery, they met contemporary visual artist Bridget O’Gorman and discussed with her how she used materials in her exploration of the objects relating to 1916.

Approaching the subject of 1916/2016 was a considerable responsibility for us, as art educators and artists.  The children, the art and architecture of Dublin City were our guide.  VTS was the scaffolding which allowed the children’s perspectives to emerge, rather than us offering (or imposing) our own views & our version of our history. Many of the children in this project were not born in Ireland. Citizenship is a word and a subject of debate in Ireland – who has it, what does it mean?   The children’s fresh perspective offers us an insightful reflection on these questions and on our right to feel safe in our community and have a ‘good life’.



Central Model Senior School – 1916 & VTS (Session 7: The LAB Visit)


Wednesday February 3rd 2016

Bridget O’Gorman In the Flesh had opened the previous week and Bridget agreed to come and meet the students and talk about her work. Liz and I agreed beforehand that I would work with the students using VTS first and then we would have some time for a Q&Q session with Bridget.

It was obvious from the moment the children came into the gallery that they were really comfortable, talking excitedly and taking their coats off straight away. I welcomed them and took them straight into one of the film pieces and we sat down. I explained that the film was eight minutes and that we were watching together and that we were listening together. They watched the whole film in silence and afterwards I asked “what was going on in the film?”. One of the fifth class students who had joined us for the session, said “Someone is cleaning a gun used in 1916” .Some discussion followed about whether it was a gun or a piece of wood, whether it was a “sniper gun” or a rifle and then one of the children commented about the cleaning perhaps taking place in a lab. The discussion then moved to the location of the cleaning and what the person was cleaning it for and the child who had mentioned the lab thought that they were cleaning it for a museum. Another childe then made a connection between the visit to Trinity College and the conservation work done there on the Proclamation and said that she thought that the woman in the film was a Conservator and that she agreed with the idea that the Conservator was preparing it to go on display for people to look at.

After this discussion, we looked two pieces in the main exhibition space and the discussion centred around how the works were balanced and what the materials were.

For the last part of the session, Bridget took questions from them and the questions mainly centred around the materials used to create the work and there were a number of questions about the film and Bridget explained that it was one of the guns taken into the country by Roger Casement. They had seen The Trial of Roger Casement by Sir John Lavery at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane and one child remembered that his name was Roger but could not remember the surname. We ended the session there.

Reflections for next time:

It was made really clear to all of us at the session today that the children are really comfortable in the LAB gallery space and also in looking at contemporary art. We spoke later when the children had left the gallery about their approach to any work they see- they break it down one thing at a time and now they are used to talking about medium, subject, context, the artist’s practice and possible meanings. With Bridget’s work they went straight to medium and spent most of the session talking about the construction of the piece and there was no discussion about possible narratives etc., whereas, when they feel narrative might be applicable, they do talk about it, so, what I am saying is that they are discriminating and making choices about what they feel is the strongest line of enquiry and it’s just so great to see. Seeing them in the gallery space again has reiterated the need for repetition and reinforcement.



Central Model Senior School 1916 & VTS (Session 6: GPO visit)

Wednesday January 20th 2016

The objective today was to look at the outside of the GPO and to concentrate on mercury, Hibernia and Fidelity, the three figures on the roof of the GPO, and then to go inside and look at the Oliver Sheppard sculpture of Cu Chulainn.

Again, it was clear that the children were struggling with the concept of architecture as an artform – it was especially clear when we began to look at the Oliver Sheppard work and they completely came to life and were noticing the marks in the medium (they thought it was stone and then noticed the label said bronze, but they knew that the word bronze was the medium, so they are comfortable with terminology). They concentrated on the medium and the way the sculptor had modelled the material for a few minutes before mentioning the subject and then they began to notice the shield etc. We then moved to the front of the sculpture and they talked about the tension of the piece of cloth draped around the figure and how they thought it was holding him up and that because of this, he looked as though he were dead. They talked about how he may have been in battle (shield, tied up by someone else, wounded), and also noticed the bird and began to wonder about the symbolism of the bird. So, they are really looking at artwork on a number of levels which is absolutely great to see. They wondered whether the bird might mean he was still alive and that the bird was trying to help him, or whether the bird was taking a message or trying to deliver a message to him or whether the bird was some kind of other symbol for something else. They talked about the fact that they thought they had seen something before where Jesus and a bird were together in a picture but stressed that they didn’t think it was Jesus, but just that there may be some precedent for birds on shoulders meaning something, so they are referencing things they have seen before and linking their thoughts. One child noticed the names on the base of the sculpture were the same names he had seen on the Proclamation the previous week and also referenced the sculpture of James Connolly again. They asked questions about why the names were there and what it had to do with the sculpture, so I explained why it was commissioned and what DeValera’s motivations were.

One child was particularly anxious to tell me about the position of the foot in the foreground he had noticed and he felt that the particular angle of it (tension within it) led him to feel that CuChulainn was still alive. This, for me, represented a very in-depth piece of looking and noticing.

Reflections for next time:

This was a really successful session in terms of understanding where the children are in the process. I suspected it would be the case, but the last few sessions have shown that it is- that branching out into text and architecture and public sculpture with all the distractions of being outdoors on a busy street or in a totally new environment, don’t rally lend themselves well to intense looking . However, it has been really useful to learn.


Central Model Senior School 1916 & VTS (Session 5: Trinity College Dublin visit)

Wednesday January 13th 2016

We walked from school to Trinity College where Liz and Clodagh met us. We went into a room where Clodagh Neligan, Paper Conservator at TCD, had kindly laid out a copy of The Proclamation. I could see straight away that they perceived the words as a barrier and did not have as many observations that they were willing to share as they would usually have. I did struggle to find a way in to the text for them, so instead, I concentrated on the paper, what it may be made from etc. and they noticed things like the tears and the colour which made them feel that it was an old document. They also noticed that some of the signatories were names they had seen before and one student pointed out that James Connolly was the person we had seen represented by the statue a few weeks back. They picked out military as one of the words they noticed and concluded it had something to do with 1916 because of the age and because of James Connolly and the word military. One student asked asked about whether Ireland was the safest country in the world and I reminded him of the discussion we had had on neutrality previously and asked him whether he was thinking about the idea of safety in relation to war and he said that he was.

After our initial discussion, Clodagh had arranged for us to go to the Long Room via the back entrance (not a public entrance so we were very privileged) and view the copy of The Proclamation in the display case which belongs to Kilmainham Gaol. She spoke about her job as a Conservator and answered any questions they had about the library.

Reflections for next time:

The session was being filmed and I did feel a little anxious at the end because I wondered how the children would come out of it as they had not engaged as easily as they usually would, I think due to a number of factors:

  • Change of location
  • Quiet viewing room for the Proclamation
  • First time they had viewed an original document in a VTS session
  • The barrier created by text
  • Different people involved

In general, it has been interesting to see how differently they have reacted to us having a very specific theme this year. We have looked at diverse objects and I do think that we would need to practice looking at the same type of thing – e.g, architecture, public sculpture, text for a number of sessions before seeing the same results we have seen with visual art.

Central Model Senior School – 1916 & VTS (Session 4: Recap visit)

Thursday 7th January 2016

We had initially planned for a session to take place at Trinity College in November and had everything in place but the rain was so torrential on the morning in question, it meant that we had to cancel the session. The next available time that suited all parties was 13th January so to recap on all of our visits and to refresh the children’s memories, we had a recap session in class. We looked at the images we had previously looked at on the screen in class and had a quick discussion around each one. We didn’t VTS the images and I explained that we were not VTS-ing (made up verb), the works as usual but instead we were really just seeing what we could remember about our project. It meant we were not going in cold to the session at Trinity. I also used the opportunity to explain what we would be doing over the coming weeks and this session was really more of a Q&A for the children to give feedback and to ask questions. It was a very short session (30 mins) and really just to catch up.






Session 3: Central Model Senior School – 1916 & VTS (Session 3 – Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane)

Thursday October 22nd 2015


The works I had initially planned to look at: Men of the West by Seán Keating and Sir Edward Carson MP by Sir John Lavery, but when I went to the Gallery to do some research, neither of them were hanging so I chose The Trial of Roger Casement by Sir John Lavery to look at instead. I also decided that we would walk through the gallery first as they had never visited the Hugh Lane before.

Before we left the classroom, I put DCG The Hugh Lane’s website on the screen and we talked through what was going to happen. I explained that there were some rules in the Gallery and asked them what they thought they might be and we discussed the reasons for them before we left. We briefly looked at Men of the West on the screen just to get them into VTS mode.

We walked into the Gallery and as we went through the rooms they made comments like “I’d love this to be my sitting room”. We went to the painting (Sir John Lavery, The Trial of Roger Casement) and sat down on the floor in front of it. We looked at it for around 20 minutes, and in this time, they were able to get to the point of talking about it being a courtroom and that one side was trying to convince the other side of something and that there was someone who was at the centre of the discussion (they were able to point to Roger Casement as being the subject because of him being at the centre of the picture). They also noticed things like the differences in the gowns that the various lawyers and barristers were wearing and said that they thought the people in the red were the government and it was them that everyone was trying to convince and they were the most important and they though t this because they were positioned at a bench that was higher up than everyone else’s. They noticed that people were taking notes and that there were differences in the expressions of the various people giving the arguments and talked about the fact that they thought one person was saying “no”. When one child mentioned the clock, I said “the clock gives us a clue to what happens”. I then at that point, had to introduce some facts because it is an historical image based on real events. The VTS approach doesn’t work as successfully with religious iconography or historical paintings because there is a right or wrong answer and that’s contrary to the viewer-led discussion. So, we departed from VTs in this session and I asked if anyone could read the words on the frame: ‘The Trial of Roger Casement, 1916, Sir John Lavery, RA, RHA. We talked about what they thought a ‘trial’ was. I then asked “what do you think happened to the man who is being accused of the crime?” They thought that he got away with it but then I had to tell them that the clock showed the time at which he was sentenced to death and they were really surprised and gasped and said things like: “why, how could that happen?” and another child asked “what did he do?” and then this led me to be able to explain that he was executed for taking part in the 1916 Rising (I didn’t go into specifics of the case and the gun running) and that so was James Connolly, who we looked at last week. They were really shocked and had lots of questions, but I thought that we had had enough for one session so we left the picture and went to look at The Eve of St. Agnes by Harry Clarke as Harry Clarke went to their school. Liz and I both talked with them about it and we could have stayed a further hour but it was time to go back to school.

Reflections for next time:

The subject we are dealing with this year requires a lot of thinking around how the facts are managed and how VTS can be balanced with other approaches. This is something I’d like to explore further in the advanced level of VTS training.


Visual Thinking Strategies with 2nd/3rd Class – An Introduction

Visual Thinking Strategies with 2nd/3rd Class – Led by Lynn McGrane and Liz Coman in partnership with Central Model Primary School

About Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS)

Last year, we began by working on a long-term project with Central Model Senior School, Dublin 1 (a band 1, DEIS School). We trialled a specific methodology for looking at artworks called Visual thinking Strategies with the students.

Visual Thinking Strategies is an educational curriculum and teaching method which enables students to develop aesthetic and language literacy and critical thinking skills, while giving educators a new technique they can utilise throughout their career and is used in schools across the US and Europe.

Continue reading


Central Model Senior School – 1916 & VTS (Session 2 – Public Sculpture Tour)

Wednesday October 14th 2015


For this session, we met at school and walked up to Beresford Place to look at the James Connolly memorial. The children were very excited to be out of school.

I invited them to move around the work and to look at it from all angles. This led to them climbing onto it and touching the work (otherwise known as exploring the work!)

When I asked “what’s going on in this artwork?”, I had a range of different responses:

They thought that it was a man who had some power; a boss or the boss of the military. The evidence they gave for this was his ‘strict’ expression, his stance, which they thought was ‘strong’ and his clothes- they noticed that he was wearing a suit.

They thought that he was old because of his balding hair and the fact that he had a moustache.

They then noticed the text around the sculpture and there was some discussion about what ‘labour’ meant. They thought that it was something to do with work and being paid.

They noticed the stars at the back of the work, but didn’t pick up on the plough shape.

They thought the medium was some kind of metal, and they thought it was hollow because of the sound when they touched it. They also noticed the texture of the bronze (we had established the type of material through discussion at that stage)- that it was rough and also that it has some small cracks in the surface.

We then moved on to Jim Larkin. They made a comparison straight away between the two because ‘they were wearing the same clothes’- they said things like: they could be brothers, or friends and one child pointed out the dates on the plinth and said that they were around the same time as James Connolly’s dates, so they must have lived around the same time.

We talked a little about the text but the two passages from Patrick Kavanagh and Seán O’Casey were too long and dense for the children to understand (plus they are placed too high up to read) so I read out the sentence ‘the great appear great because are on our knees: Let us Rise”. They knew that it was written in three different languages but did not understand it. One of the children thought that it might be something to do with prayer because of the reference to being on your knees.

I had a volley of questions about who the artists were, when the works were made, why the people were famous. This led to a discussion about the idea of commemoration (we used that wordfor the first time) and why people might have statues erected in their memory. They commented on the fact that there are so many statues on the streets of the city.



Reflections for next time:

The session was not able to progress in a structured way because of the noise- the children were not able to hear one another’s comments, and so, it was practically impossible for them to engage as they would in a VTS session in the classroom or in a quieter gallery space.

I think that it was really good to experiment and to take the children to look at some public sculpture, but it wasn’t really possible to have a good VTS session because of the inability to hear each other, and this meant that some of the children lost interest and turned off the session (which was something I had not seen them do before- normally they are so engaged).

I am interested to see how the other sessions go- I am mindful of the fact that, unlike our last project, we have set ourselves the agenda of learning something about 1916 in these sessions and the process of uncovering the information needs to be carefully managed. I have to think about this.


Central Model Senior School 1916 & VTS (Session 1 – Classroom VTS)

Wednesday October 7th 2015


We worked all of last year with Central Model Senior School students on testing VTS in an Irish context using contemporary Irish art as our base image bank. The images I chose were all linked to work that had been on show previously at The Lab or work that was on show in exhibitions that the children would get the chance to see throughout the year with us at the LAB. For this year’s project, our focus was different and we set out with the year of commemoration in mind. We wanted to explore the idea of commemoration with the children and to look at the events around that time through objects and images. This year, the class we are working with is made up of mainly the same children with some changes in students, so those students were completely new to VTS. The teacher working with us on the project this year is also different, so the process was new to him as well. In order to prepare for the first session, I contacted him with my plan for the session and what to expect. I also asked if he could ask the students to write down anything they knew about 1916 without direction from him and at the end of the sessions, we will do the same exercise to see what kind of things they retain about the ideas around 1916 and how we explore it.

On the first morning of this year’s project, Liz Coman and I arrived at school. The children were very excited to see Liz & I again and were anxious to know what was going to happen this year.

We began by recapping on what we looked at last year and in the last session with Liz and the children remembered a lot. The idea that we had looked at themes came across strongly from the children, so this was encouraging, because although I had worked a lot on image selection for the project, (one aspect of which is theming), it is hard to measure whether this idea manifested itself, so I was hearing that it had in retrospect. Liz and I welcomed the new students and found out their names and then we began by looking at Robert Ballagh’s The Birth of a Nation. They noticed immediately that it was a conflict scene and we discussed this in relation to which conflict- one child said he thought that it was WWII and another said that he didn’t see artillery so “it must be the first World War” and he also mentioned “the war in Belfast”. Another child said “its something to do with the 100 years”, so 1916 we discovered is what she was speaking about. Another child then taledk about the building, and said “that they were inside defending a building from something” and she noticed a man taking notes who she thought might be a journalist in the foreground. They had all noted the fire and guns and the uniforms, the nurse in the foreground and also what she thought was someone taking notes or a reporter.

Reflections for next time: Some of the new students spoke but I did notice that some students from last year didn’t speak – the dynamic of the class may have changed so I will see if I can do anything about trying to diversify the responses. This may be something the training can help with.