VTC, art as educational vehicle

08 | 04 | 2020

An educational method uses art as a teaching tool. It’s an invitation to critical thinking, collaboration, inclusion, and community creation.

People’s survival and evolution are closely related to our ability to transmit knowledge. We know that within this dynamic, art and pedagogy has been particularly valuable methods since their origins in the distant past. This is because artistic practice is a way to ask questions about ourselves and our surroundings. Art is, after all, a representative witness to our history—and all the possible narratives that define us within our ever-changing societies.

Based on these ideas, in the 1980s, the psychologists Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine developed a school program called VTC (Visual Thinking Curriculum). It was part of an initiative of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA). A method of cognitive and aesthetic development for the stimulation of critical thinking through art, it emerged from Housen’s prior research on the cognitive processes of people facing works of art.

Applying the VTC method starts with two essential questions: What’s happening in the painting? And what elements in the painting make you think so? With the feedback of a teacher or guide, and other members of the group in a shared discussion, the purpose is to enrich the understandings of all those present. It’s a structurally flexible practice, and one which depends on the artistic materials used in each session and on the people present in each working group.

The process presents what the technique’s creators call “visual literality.” The concept was clearly defined by Yenawine in a 1997 article.

…the ability to find meaning in imagery. It involves a set of skills ranging from simple identification (naming what one sees) to complex interpretation on contextual, metaphoric, and philosophical levels. Many aspects of cognition are called upon, such as personal association, questioning, speculating, analyzing, fact-finding, and categorizing. Objective understanding is the premise of much of this literacy, but subjective and affective aspects of knowing are equally important.”

According to Yenawine, visual literality, when compared to a more traditional art critique, allows for the possibility of a much more complete and complex understanding of what art might provoke in a person.

The VTC method was intended to achieve greater pedagogical effectiveness with groups of students visiting MoMA. It focused on students reaching their own conclusions collectively, based on face-to-face observations of works of art. But the results of the method were positive and so well-received that the model was soon replicated outside the museum (using photographic reproductions of the works). It later inspired multiple educational programs in the United States and other countries, including the methodology applied by the DÍA Institute in Mexico.

The method’s success is partly due to its emphasis on collaborative and inclusive dialogue: an invitation to form communities of people united by their sensitivity. It a clearly positive transformation of the way all those involved in the teaching process relate to one another.

Since its inception, VTC has been transformed, improved, and adapted to global needs. It’s currently used in dozens of countries and in countless museums around the world. The website offers teacher training and a wealth of information about the method and the many uses to which it’s been put over the years. But all of this is thanks to the method’s intelligent and intuitive approach to the power of art over people, and all the possible learning that can be derived from art.

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