Two Keynotes – Part 1

In the past few weeks I’ve attended a couple of professional meetings, a three day Visual Resources Association (VRA) conference in Milwaukee, and a half-day symposium, Peer to Peer: Engaging Students in Learning and Assessment, sponsored by colleagues in the Center for Teaching and Learning at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health (JHSPH). Both meetings packed a lot of valuable information into the sessions and had enlightening keynote speakers.

Screen shot from home page of the Visual Thinking Strategies websitePhilip Yenawine, Co-Founding Director, Visual Thinking Strategies, gave the keynote address at the VRA conference. He opened with an active learning exercise where he had the audience examine an image of John Singer Sargent’s Madame X and make statements about what we saw.  I should note that the Visual Resources Association is “a multi-disciplinary organization dedicated to furthering research and education in the field of image management within the educational, cultural heritage, and commercial environments” so many of the attendees examine art-related images on a daily basis, and were, perhaps, a bit better practiced at the exercise than average.

Yenawine states: “Of the vast array of images available to us, art tends to be the most complex and as such gleaning meaning from it – in its many manifestations – is a challenge. Frustrated when data revealed visitors learned little from the many educational interventions offered by [my] talented staff at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, [I] turned to Abigail Housen, a scholar who studied “aesthetic thought”– how people use what they know when looking at art – to try to determine and remedy the problem.” []

Yenawine and  Housen created a method they called Visual Thinking Strategies, and began introducing VTS into schools seeking to improve aesthetic development. “In longitudinal research studies, it was shown that, in addition to developing visual thinking, VTS programs promote creative and critical thinking skills. [Housen’s] research also demonstrated that students’ application of these crucial 21st century skills transfer to other subject areas across the academic curriculum.” []

Yenawine reported in his presentation that VTS discussions of art can be used to teach language, thinking, and social skills, but equally important is the development of visual literacy – defined as the ability to interpret, negotiate, and make meaning from information presented in the form of an image.

So why is this program, designed for implementation in the K-12 sector, important for those of us in the Higher Education realm? In October 2011, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) introduced the Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education stating “[t]he importance of images and visual media in contemporary culture is changing what it means to be literate in the 21st century. Today’s society is highly visual, and visual imagery is no longer supplemental to other forms of information. New digital technologies have made it possible for almost anyone to create and share visual media. Yet the pervasiveness of images and visual media does not necessarily mean that individuals are able to critically view, use, and produce visual content. Individuals must develop these essential skills in order to engage capably in a visually-oriented society. Visual literacy empowers individuals to participate fully in a visual culture.”

In other words, it is never too late to become visually literate, or to think about how improving your student’s visual literacy might have a positive effect on their learning more generally.

The next post will highlight the keynote speaker from the Peer to Peer symposium.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources
Johns Hopkins University

Image Source: Screen shot from