Newswise — Teaching students to think critically is challenging, but a new strategy that asks students to describe what they see in a piece of artwork is helping develop critical-thinking skills. 

Professor Kay Cutler and associate professor Mary Moeller, recently retired, of the SDSU Department of Teaching, Learning and Leadership and South Dakota Arts Museum Director Lynn Verschoor have been training teachers in South Dakota and, more recently, North Dakota to use the visual thinking strategies in their classrooms. Verschoor, who began the local VTS training program, collaborates with multiple entities to fund this outreach work.

“Art is the jumping-off place,” Verschoor said. “It’s a real opportunity for us to get people to jump into describing what they see and what they think it means.” The goal is to develop creativity, critical-thinking skills and English language literacy.

“There are no right—or wrong—answers; that is why this is so important,” she continued. The teacher shows the class a painting and then asks students open-ended questions, such as “what is going on in this picture?”  As part of this conversation, the teacher then encourages students to explain, asking, “what do you see that makes you say that?” That prompts them to provide evidence on how they reached those conclusions.

As facilitator, the teacher’s job is to remain neutral and paraphrase what the students are saying. This then creates what Verschoor describes as “an environment of trust where anyone can say anything as long as it can be backed up with evidence.”

The VTS curriculum, which is available at, contains images for 10 lessons, delivered once a month for 45 minutes and is available for pre-K through eighth grade, with one for high school under development. Verschoor, Cutler and Moeller are available to train teachers and the S.D. Art Museum offers summer seminars on VTS.

In addition, the national VTS organization has developed an online training course. “This will create new opportunities to reach teachers who are geographically distant,” Moeller said. She and Cutler participated in the online course pilot program.

Cutler, who is the director of the Fishback Center for Early Childhood Development, first utilized VTS with preschoolers in 2004. “It fits well with the preschool’s mission and our philosophy of inquiry-based teaching,” she explained. When teachers at Camelot Intermediate School in Brookings decided to embrace VTS as part of their core curriculum in 2007, Verschoor invited Moeller to join the training team.

“VTS changes the teachers’ roles and their understanding of what it means to be a teacher,” explained Moeller, a former high school English teacher. “It takes the teacher from being that sage on the stage to the guide on the side—that is truly transformative.”

In September, the SDSU researchers offered a two-day workshop in Bismarck for the Missouri River Educational Cooperative in which they trained 19 teachers from seven cities. The North Dakota pilot program, which is supported by the North Dakota Council on the Arts and Heritage Center, targets English language literacy.

To further develop their VTS skills, the teachers will videotape themselves teaching a lesson and then SDSU researchers will provide further coaching via Skype.  In addition, small group meetings will be held in January and February, so the teachers can talk about the challenges they’ve face and benefits they’ve seen, as well as work on strategy development.

“By about the third lesson, new groups have picked up on the culture and expectation of what the conversation will look like,” Cutler explained. “It happens naturally.” Not only are the students learning critical-thinking skills, but the teachers are also gaining new insights about their students.

“Using VTS, the teachers get a new understanding of who these children are—that’s the other thing that is so magical,” Moeller explained. “It’s not just academic; there’s a lot of social-emotional work happening as the students listen to each other and build on one another’s ideas.  In addition, the teachers have the opportunity to hear thoughts and ideas from students. They often mention ideas related to what they have been thinking about from a social standpoint,” Cutler said.

As was done at Camelot Intermediate School, the teachers will ask students to respond to the three VTS prompts to describe a painting after completing the 10-month intervention. The writing will be used to measure outcomes.

In an article published in the Nov. 2013 issue of the Phi Delta Kappan, an education journal, former Camelot teacher Lisa Weier and principal David Fiedler, Cutler and Moeller described the effect VTS had on Camelot students and teachers.

Fiedler noted the skills students gained through VTS transferred to other areas of the curriculum and into school life. When a community member pitched a service idea to the student council, the group debated the proposal’s merits, agreeing and disagreeing politely on various points. “The group’s advisers found themselves explaining VTS to the surprised guest.”

If North Dakota pilot program proves successful, VTS may be expanded to other schools.