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VTS has been developed and refined over the past 30+ years based on ongoing research by VTS co-founder, Abigail Housen. Abigail and co-founder Philip Yenawine first developed VTS as an effective teaching strategy based on her theory of aesthetic development.

Abigail’s theory describes the viewer’s experience of the visual world, and specifically of visual art. Her work is based on over 4,000 subject interviews, as well as published, peer-reviewed research. Abigail’s research has influenced every aspect of the VTS program which was developed to accommodate the strengths and needs of viewers at different aesthetic stages.

Aesthetic Development

In his 1997 article Thoughts on Visual Literacy, Philip Yenawine describes visual literacy as:

“…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.”

Coined by German-born author and psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, whose primary book shares the same name, “Visual Thinking” stands paramount in Abigail Housen’s “empirical research” and resulting theory of aesthetic development. The application of Housen, Arnheim, Piaget and others constitute the genesis and ongoing theoretical underpinnings behind the development of Visual Thinking Strategies methods and curricula.

Through the process of collecting and analyzing Aesthetic Development Interviews (see Research Methods) and identifying and understanding the concrete words and ideas of novice viewers in the moment and over time, Housen derived the developmental stage theory that informs all VTS methods and curricula. In Housen’s essay Eye of the Beholder: Research, Theory and Practice, she provides an account of how she began her study of Aesthetic Development, how she came up with her research methodology, and the overall findings of her 20-years-old research. Housen also briefly discusses how she applied what she learned to creating the Visual Thinking Strategies curriculum.

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Abigail Housen developed rigorous research methods based on her work with VTS over several decades, and informed by her studies over a wide range of settings and with diverse populations. This section introduces three of the primary data collection methods used in Abigail Housen’s research. The Aesthetic Development Interview (ADI) is a core tool used in her empirical research from which she derived her Stage Model of Aesthetic Development, and which continues to be used today to measure aesthetic stage and stage growth. Both the Writing Sample and the Material Object Interview tools were used in subsequent research examining the impact of VTS and Aesthetic Development on critical thinking.

Aesthetic Development Interview

VTS's main data collection instrument is a non-directive interview, the Aesthetic Development Interview or ADI, that involves showing subjects a reproduction of a work of art and asking them to talk about it as though thinking out loud. This interview is tape-recorded, transcribed, and parsed. A sampling of thought units is coded using a manual covering thirteen different domains of thinking that was derived over a fifteen-year period using the same interview protocol. We further study each interview in context to understand how each thought unit fits into an over-all pattern of thinking. Example 1

Writing Samples

Because of consistent teacher reports that the students write more and better as a result of their VTS discussions, writing assignments are collected and analyzed. They are also used as part of VUE's teacher professional development program as they provide evidence of growth in writing and critical thinking skills.Example 1, Example 2, Example 3

Material Object Interview

Originated from the Aesthetic Development Interview (ADI), the Material Object Interview (MOI) utilizes a material object such as a coin, a fossil, or a map in place of a work of art to elicit thoughts. As with the ADI, this non-directive interview follows the same procedures of collecting, coding, and analysis. Example 1, Example 2

Research Reports

Research has documented a strong relationship between the VTS program and students' academic achievement in math, science, and language arts. Abigail Housen's own research in this area has been backed up by independent researchers. (Download an overview of selected studies from 1998 to 2003.)

Key Studies

  • Download

    Artful Citizenship Project: Three-Year Project Report

    Author(s): Program evaluation conducted by Curva and Associates

    A pilot program funded by the U.S. DOE in partnership with Wolfsonian-FIU and the Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Understanding the relationship between visual literacy and other academic skills, VTS was a major piece of the Artful Citizenship project. The study produced significant findings about efficacy of VTS, including a strong relationship between growth in visual literacy and growth in reading and mathematics. Program Evaluation conducted by Curva and Associate. (Miami, FL; 2005)

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    Thinking Through Art; The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum School Partnership Program

    Author(s): Principal Researchers: Marianna Adams and Jessica Luke

    In 2003, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (ISGM) partnered with the Institute for Learning Innovation (ILI) in a three-year grant from the Department of Education to research students' learning from an art museum multiple-visit program. The study concluded that participating students generated significantly more instances of critical thinking skills, said more, and were more likely to provide evidence for their thinking. (Boston, MA; 2003-2007)

  • Download

    Aesthetic Development and Creative and Critical Thinking Skills Study

    Author(s): Abigail Housen

    San Antonio Independent School District students who completed VTS lessons significantly outperformed students who did not receive VTS, in aesthetic and critical-thinking growth. Students with VTS transferred critical-thinking skills to individual art-viewing experiences independently, and transferred those skills fostered by VTS discussions to individual viewing of non-art objects. Results of this study convinced the San Antonio Independent School District to implement VTS system-wide. (San Antonio, Texas; 2000-2002)

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    Aesthetic Thought, Critical Thinking and Transfer

    Author(s): Principal Researcher: Abigail Housen; Senior Research Associate: Karin DeSantis

    Results show VTS causes critical-thinking growth and transfer of critical thinking to other contexts and content. A five-year study with Byron School District, Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, and VUE looked for evidence that VTS develops critical thinking, its transfer, and tested the effect of VTS in stimulating aesthetic growth. Results show that over time VTS accelerates growth and enables students' critical thinking in other areas. (Byron, Minnesota; 1993)



In this section you will find published books, chapters of books, and articles related to VTS. Books and chapters precede published writings by both VTS Co-Founders Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine, followed by articles written by others in our community. All writings are organized from most recent to earliest. We seek to keep this list comprehensive and up to date. If we are missing any publications, we’d love to know! Please contact us with "Publication" in the subject line. Thank you.
All by Philip Yenawine

By Philip Yenawine

All by Abigail Housen

By Abigail Housen

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All Authors