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Understanding Visual Literacy: The Visual Thinking Strategies Approach

Abstract

This chapter makes the case for two aspects of visual literacy that the authors believe to be generally overlooked: (1) that visual literacy occurs by way of a developmental trajectory and requires instruction as well as practice, and (2) that it involves as much thought as it does visual awareness and is an integral component of the skills and beliefs related to inquiry. This chapter roots these ideas in the theory and research of cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen, coauthor of Visual Thinking Sttategies (VTS) with museum educator Philip Yenawine. Housen identified aesthetic stages that mark the development of skills helping to define visual literacy. Her research is also the basis of VTS, a method of engaging learners in deep experiences looking at art and discussing meanings with peers, a process that, this chapter posits, furthers visual literacy. This chapter presents that body of research and details the resulting VTS protocol. It reviews academic studies to date, subsequent to Housen, that document the impact of VTS interventions in various settings, and suggests beneficial areas for future research. In order to probe what development in visual literacy looks and sounds like on a granular level, two case studies of student writing from existing studies are presented and analyzed. Visual literacy skills enabled by VTS are briefly connected to broader educational concerns.

Keywords

  • Visual Thinking Sttategies
  • Aesthetic development interview
  • Viewing art
  • Museum education
  • Teaching strategies in museums
  • Aesthetic experiences
  • Visually literate

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Correspondence to Dabney Hailey .

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Appendix

Appendix

Abigail Housen’s stages of aesthetic development with details about stages 1 and 2 added. All quotes appearing here are taken from aesthetic development interviews Housen and associates conducted over 18 years. Aesthetic development interviews are nondirective, stream-of-consciousness-type interviews (Housen 1983).

Stage I Accountive viewers are list makers and storytellers. Using their senses, memories, and personal associations, they make concrete observations about the work of art which get woven into a narrative. Here, judgments are based on what is known and what is liked. Emotions color their comments, as viewers seem to enter the work of art and become part of the unfolding narrative. Sampling of thoughts at stage I, accountive, viewers make simple, concrete observations: lines, ovals, squares…. At times, the stage I viewer makes observations and associations that appear idiosyncratic and imaginative: A giraffe’s back…a dog’s face. Likewise, the stage I viewer may incorporate people and objects into an idiosyncratic narrative: I see two ladies, holding each other. It seems to me he is going home now, and he cannot find his clothes. Judgments are based on what the viewer knows and likes: The wallpaper is beautiful. Emotions color the comments, as the stage I viewer animates the image with words and becomes part of an unfolding drama: Like he is hurt [his arms] when he was swimming or like he was mad or something the way he was holding his arms. The stage I viewer (the “storyteller”) and the image (the “story”) are one. The viewer engages in an imaginatively resourceful, autonomous aesthetic response
Stage II Constructive viewers set about building a framework for looking at works of art, using the most logical and accessible tools: their own perceptions, their knowledge of the natural world, and the values of their social, moral, and conventional world. If the work does not look the way it is “supposed to”—if craft, skill, technique, hard work, utility, and function are not evident, or if the subjects seem inappropriate—then this viewer judges the work to be “weird,” lacking, and of no value. The viewer’s sense of what is realistic is a standard often applied to determine value. As emotions begin to go underground, this viewer begins to distance him or herself from the work of art.
Sampling of thoughts
At stage II, constructive, viewers’ observations have a concrete, known reference point: And they have five fingers, just like us. Aspects of images that do not conform to expectations can be seen as “weird”: The hair on the first person is blond, and it is true, but there is no such thing as a purple face. As this viewer strives to map what she sees onto what she knows from her own conventions, values, and beliefs, her observations and associations become more linked and detailed. The viewer looks carefully and puzzles. An interest in the artist’s intentions develops: The person has chosen; instead of using circles for the background, he used lots of diamonds
Stage III Classifying viewers adopt the analytical and critical stance of the art historian. They want to identify the work as to place, school, style, time, and provenance. They decode the work using their library of facts and figures that they are ready and eager to expand. This viewer believes that properly categorized, the work of art’s meaning and message can be explained and rationalized
Stage IV Interpretive viewers seek a personal encounter with a work of art. Exploring the canvas, letting the meaning of the work slowly unfold, they appreciate the subtleties of line and shape and color. Now, critical skills are put in the service of feelings and intuitions as these viewers let underlying meanings of the work—what it symbolizes—emerge. Each new encounter with a work of art presents a chance for new comparisons, insights, and experiences. Knowing that the work of art’s identity and value are subject to reinterpretation, these viewers see their own processes subject to chance and change
Stage V Re-creative viewers, having established a long history of viewing and reflecting about works of art, now “willingly suspend disbelief.” A familiar painting is like an old friend who is known intimately, yet full of surprise, deserving attention on a daily level but also existing on an elevated plane. As in all important friendships, time is a key ingredient, allowing stage V viewers to know the ecology of a work–its time, its history, its questions, its travels, and its intricacies. Drawing on their own history with one work in particular, and with viewing in general, this viewer combines personal contemplation with views that broadly encompass universal concerns. Here, memory infuses the landscape of the painting, intricately combining the personal and the universal

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Hailey, D., Miller, A., Yenawine, P. (2015). Understanding Visual Literacy: The Visual Thinking Strategies Approach. In: Baylen, D., D'Alba, A. (eds) Essentials of Teaching and Integrating Visual and Media Literacy. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-05837-5_3

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