Eyes Open Wide

By Mary J. Franco, PhD

First published in Spring 2022 issue of Missouri Association of Elementary School Principals Magazine


When your eyes are wide open... What do you see?

With a drive to help students succeed, the Missouri Alliance for Arts Education promotes teaching and learning strategies which leverage the power of the arts. Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is a powerful tool using student interaction with visual arts to sharpen student skills in observation, higher order thinking, and communication, while guiding educators in ways which can engage students, helping them reach their full potential. In this article you'll learn more about this technique, and meet Mary Franco, PhD (NBCT Early/Middle Childhood art 2004/2014) an educator with 28 years of experience as a K-5 art educator, 11 years as a university adjunct, and 16 years as a VTS teacher, trainer, & instructional coach. Currently Dr. Franco works with pre-service teachers at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her decades-long work with VTS prepares both practicing educators, her collegiate level students, and their students for success.

- Phyllis Pasley, Executive Director

Missouri Alliance for Arts Education


by Mary J. Franco, PhD

An eager group of preschoolers sit on the carpet before a reproduction of the painting shown here. After a moment of silent looking, their teacher cheerfully inquires “What is going on in this picture?” Anxious hands shoot up and a lively 12-minute discussion unfolds as students name (and rename) a variety of things they recognize. Then, a qualitatively different exchange occurs.

PreK Girl: I see a wedding dress.

Teacher: You see a wedding dress? Right here?

(Teacher points to a white-clothed figure in the wagon and the child nods.)

Teacher: What do you see that makes you say this is a wedding dress?

PreK Girl: It’s white. . . I think they’re going to a wedding. (LPSS, 2013)

What is subtly but unequivocally offered in this response is an interpretation supported by evidence and an inference in which the child draws from her prior knowledge and experience in the world to make sense of what she sees. The “correctness” of her assumptions is not at issue. Of significance, however, is her exercise of higher-order thinking skills prompted and made visible by a simple yet rigorous pedagogy called Visual Thinking Strategies.

Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is a learner-centered, research-based instructional method. It uses carefully-selected visual images to prompt close observation, critical and creative thinking, evidence-based reasoning, effective communication, and respectful debate from students in pre-K through high school and beyond. Through the discussion process, VTS also fosters collaboration, inclusivity, empathy, and community-building. Developed by cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen and veteran museum educator Philip Yenawine in 1995, the pedagogy has grown in popularity and applicability, and is currently practiced in K-12 art and non-art classrooms, museums; even hospitals and medical schools throughout the U.S. and the world.

VTS discussions are structured by three deceptively simple questions posed by a facilitator who is trained to support student engagement and meaning making. The questions are: What is going on in this image? What do you see that makes you say that? and What more can we find? Due to the constructivist nature of VTS, the facilitator does not endorse or “correct” student interpretations. Rather, she accepts them without judgment and paraphrases them using conditional language. This leaves the proposition open for reconsideration and revision by subsequent discussion respondents. The facilitator’s neutral stance also forces students to draw from their own knowledge, experience, and that of peers to construct evidence-based understandings of the image. In true Vygotskian form, as more knowledgeable peers contribute insights to the conversation, understanding moves ever closer to meanings the image creator intended. Questions, uncertainties, or curiosities that remain at the conclusion of the discussion become authentic prompts for student-initiated, post-VTS investigations.

As an art-based instructional method, VTS has important applications in the visual arts classroom. It not only involves students in rigorous discussions of masterworks and motivates meaningful art making, but engages them actively in addressing important National Core Arts Standards as well. These include:

· Anchor Standard #7: Perceiving and analyzing artistic work.

· Anchor Standard #8: Interpreting intent and meaning in artistic work.

· Anchor Standard #9: Applying criteria to evaluate artistic work.

· Anchor Standard #10: Synthesizing and relating knowledge and personal experience to make art

· Anchor Standard #11: Relating artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural, and historical context to deepen understanding.

In addition to its usefulness in an elementary art program, VTS has important applications in K-5 general elementary education classrooms. For example, key communication skills articulated in the Missouri Learning Standards for English Language Arts are utilized during VTS discussions as students practice “Speak[ing] clearly and to the point using conventions of language . . .” (MLS – ELA Speaking/Listening 3.A.) while responding to facilitator questioning. Students also “Develop and apply effective listening skills and strategies . . . (MLS – ELA Speaking/Listening 1.A.) while attending critically to the responses of peers. But these instances aren’t all! With only slight wording modifications, the VTS questions can also prompt rich investigative discussions in reading, science, and math as teachers ask probing questions like “What is going on in this poem? What did you read that makes you say that?” or “What’s happening in this science experiment? What do you notice that supports your hypothesis?” or “What number sentence comes to mind when you read this story problem? What words or ideas did you notice that make you say that?” These examples demonstrate that the VTS questioning strategy is not only rigorous and generative when applied to visual images, but also transferable across the curriculum!

In addition to benefiting students, VTS practice fosters more effective teaching! Some of the most noteworthy contributions are the strengthened tendency to teach mindfully, to reflect upon practice not only after teaching, but in the moment, and to shift from listening for “right” answers to critical listening - actually hearing what students are saying and considering how understandings reflected in their comments are derived from cognitive, linguistic, cultural, socio-economic, and socio-emotional influences in each child’s life. Just as VTS prompts students to slow down perception in order to notice details and nuances, it encourages us as educators to do the same. And when this happens, both students and teachers grow in understanding, empathy, and grace.

Training in Visual Thinking Strategies was the best professional development time and money I ever spent. Facilitating VTS discussions in which my K-5 students examined, reasoned, discussed, and respectfully debated the meanings of artworks convinced me that I was impacting their learning profoundly. Awe led me to continue my formal VTS education in New York, Boston, and Seattle, often at my own expense, but always with renewed zeal for the pedagogy and never with regret! Learning about and teaching with VTS ultimately led me to the University of Missouri to conduct VTS research and pursue a doctorate in Art Education. Now, I’m working to make VTS known and widely practiced by PreK-12 educators throughout the state of Missouri.

There are several ways in which Missouri teachers and administrators can explore VTS and its potential for individual classrooms, cohorts of teachers, or entire schools. One way is to contact the VTS at Watershed Collaborative (https://www.watershed-ed.org/ ) which offers affordable, accessible, online learning for PreK-12 educators. In addition to VTS training workshops and coaching, its various implementation programs include access to the full PreK-12 VTS Image Curriculum for 12 months. Customized on-site or museum-based face-to-face VTS introductory programs can also be arranged by contacting Dr. Mary Franco at francowatershed@gmail.com


Lafayette Parish School System (2013, May). PKGL8VTS1-WEB [Video]. https://vimeo.com/69783030

Missouri Department of Elementary & Secondary Education (2016). K-5 ELA Missouri Learning Standards: Grade Level Expectations. https://dese.mo.gov/media/pdf/curr-mls-standards-ela-k-5-sboe-2016

National Core Arts Standards (2015). Anchor Standards. https://www.nationalartsstandards.org/

Rousseau, H. (1908). La Carriole du père Junier [Painting]. Open Access. Retrieved from