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Visual Thinking Strategies is the result of more than 20 years of collaboration between cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen, veteran museum educator Philip Yenawine, and their colleagues. As Director of Education at the Museum of Modern Art, New York from 1983-1993, Yenawine was primarily concerned with making museum education programs more effective. His work introduced him to the research of Abigail Housen in 1988.

Housen, a Harvard-trained educator and psychologist, conducted empirical research exploring how viewers — experienced and novice — think when looking at art objects. The culmination of her many years of study, Housen’s Theory of Aesthetic Development, identifies five distinct patterns of thinking that correlate to the amount of exposure subjects have had to art. This research became the core of VTS.

Visual Understanding in Education (VUE), a nonprofit organization, was formed in 1995. VUE’s mission would be to test and implement Visual Thinking Strategies throughout the United States and abroad with students across all learning abilities, languages, and cultures.

Since its founding, VTS has influenced the landscape of education in schools and museums around the world, reaching over 1 million students in 33 states and 18 countries through more than 5,000 educators in more than 300 schools and 100 museums. Our research, and that of others, has continued to confirm that VTS is an effective means of developing critical thinking and communication skills with every demographic.

In addition to flourishing in schools and art museums, today VTS is applied in natural science centers, in medical and nursing schools, as a therapy for adults with dementia and patients with brain injuries, and as tool to support both children and adult English-language learners.

In 2015, after 20 years as an independent nonprofit, VUE restructured, joining forces with Commonweal to become the program Visual Thinking Strategies, within their portfolio of 12 ventures. Commonweal is a nonprofit organization with a 40+ year track record of growing, administering and supporting programs rooted in three areas: education and the arts, health and healing, and social justice. Leveraging the considerable administrative resources and support offered by Commonweal allows VTS to meet the increasing demand for its services, and to support its expanding network.

Our Mission

Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) transforms the way students think and learn. Based in theory and research, our program uses skilled facilitation of visual art discussions to significantly increase student engagement, performance, and enjoyment of learning.

We believe that rigorous discussion about visual art activates unique, transformational learning accessible to all.

As a team of student-centered educators we are dedicated to cultivating flexible, curious learners. We envision a culture where careful listening and engagement build a community of open-minded and thoughtful citizens.

  • To empower individuals to broaden their capacity to make meaning
  • To shift education practice to prioritize facilitation of learner experience
  • To connect the VTS network to foster collaboration and reflective practice

By the Numbers