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November 6, 2013 Repository 104: The Power of Paying Attention | VTS Posted In: community, education

Matt Dunham/Associated Press, "What's going on in this picture?". A post from NY Times Education blog, a collaboration between them and VTS

Matt Dunham/Associated Press, “What’s going on in this picture?” A post from NY Times Education blog, a collaboration between them and VTS

It’s been several years now that I have advocated for the arts in schools, mostly hitting brick walls, and sometimes having breakthroughs. I’ve had the pleasure of working with and knowing many incredible arts organizations that promote the arts in schools throughout the US, and learning about their challenges and successes.

While it is tempting to think of the arts as magical pixie dust, once sprinkled on a curriculum it will do wonders for the children. The truth is that it’s not pixie dust. Art is critical for kids (art in all forms – theater, visual, dance, etc), it’s like water or air. Art is not about making things, it’s about revealing the rewards of paying attention and looking at things in 360 degrees.

I like to share with administrators that the arts is to the brain as gym class is for the body. The kids need to jump around and let it all hang out in gym, so they can sit tight and learn multiplication tables. The kids equally need to stretch out their brains and think intuitively in art, so they can learn multiplication tables. I can say this with confidence – I was a math major for two years before I changed majors to art, and both were helpful in my learning evolution.

Any way you slice it; art in one form or another is a major bonus in any school. Piles of research funded over the years proves the simple equation that the more hours of art in schools the higher the grades in math and science. Still the curriculum in public schools remain anemic to the cause.

One particular organization I have found incredibly vibrant and powerful is Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). Consider this the most powerful tool with the easiest implementation. Consider it the most powerful effect with the least stress on the teachers to implement, and the most plausible for the space strapped. It is not a studio experience, and ideally you would have VTS coupled with an art making experience.

VTS is basically a teaching methodology that uses fine artwork as its curriculum. Predicated on the idea that we all have a level of reading comprehension, VTS is designed with the understanding that we too have a level of visual comprehension. Specific VTS images are chosen dependent on levels (kindergarten through high school). Teachers are then taught to incorporate their own materials from the curriculum to use with VTS.

VTS is the result of over fifteen years of collaboration between cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen, veteran museum educator Philip Yenawine, and their colleagues. As Director of Education at The Museum of Modern Art from 1983-1993, Yenawine was primarily concerned with making museum education programs more effective. His research introduced him to the work of Abigail Housen in 1988. Over the years the program has grown worldwide. Docents in museums throughout the world are trained in VTS, schools throughout the world have implemented the program, and even Harvard Medical School has implemented the program for doctors in training as a way of sharpening observation skills.

Simplicity is Key
The method of VTS is simple, herein lays its power. The teacher must ask three simple questions. “What’s going on in this picture?”, “What did you see that makes you say that?”, and “What more do you see?”. Teachers only paraphrase the responses, and link responses in the group. The teacher then becomes a mirror and facilitator, and the power of discovery lands squarely with the students. This seems simple, though in a teaching environment as we know it today it is profound.

VTS has also teamed up with the NY Times Education blog, so that schools can participate every Monday. A New York Times editor along with VTS chooses an appropriate image to post on the blog, and the kids chime in throughout the country responding to “What’s going on in this picture?”. The following day the actual description of the image is revealed. This is a great way for schools to engage children in current events, and life beyond the halls.

The core skill VTS is sharpening is the power of paying attention. The power of this paying attention lays the ground work for observing, slowing down our thinking, and reconsidering our assumptions. All skills that will take people far at any stage in life or vocation.

If you know of any schools or teachers who might be interested in VTS, I highly recommend checking out their web site and being in touch with them. There are plenty of references they can give you more officially, and I know they do training sessions throughout the US and abroad. At the very least you can see the methodology in action with art here.

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