Visual Thinking Strategies

About 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.

Working Together

The method is the result of more than fifteen years of collaboration between cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen, a Harvard trained educator and psychologist and veteran museum educator Philip Yenawine, and their colleagues

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 don’t in others.


Students are active participants in their own learning

Students learn from one another, respect each other, listen and understand that there are multiple ways to see any given situation

Every student’s perspective is valued and builds deeper engagement and thinking

Thinking skills become habitual and transfer from lesson to lesson, oral and written language literacy, visual literacy, and collaborative interactions among peers

What have we found so far?

  • The process of looking at visual art enables students to use existing visual and cognitive skills to develop confidence and experience
  • Our students brought their parents/guardians to weekend events at the gallery and said things like I was walking past the gallery the other day and I noticed  which strengthens the community connection to the LAB
  • Engaged by contributing observations and ideas, the students participate in VTS-based lessons in ways they often don’t in others
  • The process fosters thinking skills that become habitual and transfer from lesson to lesson, oral and written language literacy, visual literacy, and collaborative interactions among peers
  • The slow process of looking and taking time to react, coupled with facilitation method of linking and framing to guide students rather than say something is right or wrong, encourages participants to speak
  • Students learned to listen to each other and to give each other time to speak
  • They learned how to incorporate others ideas and began, after a few months, to say things such as “I agree with and I think that” or “I can see what ___is saying, but I think this as well”


This year, we are broadening the areas of contemporary practice that we look at, encompass the city and its history, and we will also be incorporating making artwork with the students, whereas, last year, we were learning to look together.

For our project this and next year, we are focussing on 1916 and as part of that, we hope to visit Trinity College and see and discuss The Proclamation. This visit will be filmed as part of our documentation process of the project and will form part of our end of project showcase.

By Liz Coman

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.

“The Art of Remembering”

Led by 3rd Class (Room 9, Mr Wrynn)

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 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’.

By Liz Coman

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 Sean 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.

By Lynn McGrane

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.

By Lynn McGrane

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.

By Lynn McGrane

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 art form, 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 really lend themselves well to intense looking . However, it has been really useful to learn.

By Lynn McGrane


Visual Thinking Strategies

Early Years

VTS session with KIDS INC, led by Seodin O’Sullivan, July 2016.

Looking at John Byrne’s recent exhibition at the LAB, Would you die for Ireland?


Visual Thinking Strategies

Early Years

VTS session with DALC Little Learners, led by Liz Coman.  July 2016.

Looking at John Byrne’s recent exhibition at the LAB, Would you die for Ireland?

Visual Thinking Strategies

VTS session with St. Mary’s National School, led by Claire Halpin.  September 2016.

The children of 3rd Class will work with Claire Halpin and Ms Coyle (classroom teacher) over a series VTS sessions.

Week 1: Visit to Vanessa Donoso Lopez exhibition at The Lab Gallery

Before leaving the school we had gone through some basic rules of the gallery and I mentioned there would be work on the floor of the gallery so they would need to watch their step. Some of the girls are familiar with the gallery as they live nearby and some had visited with their parents. We met Liz Coman and Sheena Barrett from the DCC Arts Office on our arrival and they gave us a warm welcome.

On entering the gallery, the class moved slowly and quietly around the artwork looking carefully. I opened the discussion by asking: What do you see? What’s going on in the artwork?

The girls pointed out the clay balls, different sizes, different colours, some strung together using string or metal, arranged or placed in different patterns or to form a shape or maybe letter. On further looking they noticed the number labels – so maybe another way of arranging or ordering the balls. The class wondered if it was one or more artist and decided it was one by looking at the exhibition title in the window. They wondered how long it took the artist to make the work so we referred back to the labels and as well as the dates noticed the place names so agreed they were made in different places – Dublin, Wicklow and Spain. In looking at the cups and bowls – one girls noticed that the cup was smoother and rounder so might have been made using a tool like a potters wheel while the bowls were moulded by hand.

We discussed this work for around 40 minutes so spent a shorter time discussing the second work – Gilgamesh Weeping. The girls spent a lot of time discussing how it was made and the use of materials, looking closer to see if the moss was real or false. One girl noticed the text on the wall so Ms.Coyle read it out and it explained some of the elements in the work. Just before leaving we took a quick visit upstairs to view the main floor based artwork from above – noticing how the lines and shapes and patterns of the beads are clearer from above. They also thought it looked more like one artwork when you can see it altogether.

Very enjoyable first session with Ms.Coyle’s 3rd Class – even if it did take me a little while to get into the swing of the Visual Thinking Strategies of paraphrasing and drawing links between responses. The group did listen to each other and were engaged in the session – although there were some who did not make any comments I will need to make sure that some others do not dominate the comments.

Written by Claire Halpin