Jump-starting Discussion Using Images (Part 2)

In the foreground, people sit at desks with their hands raised. In front of them a woman in a white sweater stands against a green chalkboard.

Graduate Teaching Blog Post

Contributed by Phillippa Pitts

(5 minute read)

This post is a follow-up to my entry last week, where I introduced two quick approaches to teaching with images in ways that will get students talking and thinking about your course content in a new way. In this post, I’d like to introduce you to one more technique which uses image-based discussion to develop a slew of academic skills: critical thinking, argumentation, and language development among them. It’s been used to teach foreign language skills, build empathy, and even scaffold scientific observation.

Visual Thinking Strategies is a thinking routine developed by a MoMA educator, Philip Yenawine, and a cognitive psychologist, Abigail Hausen. It’s a very structured approach to facilitating a conversation about an image which, when repeated, teaches participants a new way of thinking. I have had success using it with kindergarteners and with medical students, in small groups and in a 200-person auditorium. I use some part of it with my BU students almost every class. 

At its heart, VTS asks you to step back from lecturing in order to embrace facilitating. You pause in teaching content in order to train students in how to think. You are no longer the source of knowledge or ideas or observations: that comes from the students. Through practice, they learn to look closely, offer evidence-based assertions, and place their ideas in dialogue with others’.

To create a student-led discussion, the VTS facilitator uses three questions in order to do three things. They encourage students to share what they observe (“What’s going on in this picture?”); to provide visual evidence for the assertions they make (“What do you see that makes you say that?”); and to collaboratively build upon each others’ observations, digging deeper into what they see (“What more can we find?”). Watch a video of a VTS discussion in action to see how it works.

In addition to asking these questions to clarify and draw out the students’ ideas, VTS also asks the facilitator to paraphrase: to pick out the big ideas from students’ observations, repeating them back to the whole group, often linking them to previous comments or ideas. Within and beyond the VTS method, paraphrasing is a wonderful tool to actively demonstrate that you are listening to what your students say, valuing their contributions, and confirming that you understood their ideas. Linking together comments from different students also reinforces that class isn’t just an instructor-student dialogue, it’s a space to co-create knowledge. Repeating and rephrasing also has wonderful benefits for language acquisition, whether students are building vocabulary in a new discipline, English Language Learners, or both!

VTS (and paraphrasing in particular) takes years to master. But imperfect VTS is still good teaching, and the questions and values of this method can be sprinkled throughout your class in whatever ways make sense to you. Take a peek! VTS has wonderful insights into the unintended subtext that we bring to discussions: how your enthusiasm for one response might dampen further conversation, how a subtle shift in wordswhat more can we find, instead of what elsecan change the kind of responses you hear, why thinking routines help students succeed in seemingly unrelated tasks. You might find something you’d like to bring back to your teaching!

Good luck!