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Discussing Art and Photographs


Instructions for facilitating group discussions about art and photographs using Visual Thinking Strategies


This lesson uses a method of interpretation known as Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), which encourages students to pause and examine images (art or photographs), then share their observations with the group. The goal of VTS is to develop patterns of thinking, rather than to learn specific facts about works of art. VTS is a way of facilitating a class discussion. Once the technique has been introduced to students, it should be repeated on a regular basis to interpret new works of art or photographs.

Grade Levels: Kindergarten to Grade 12, kindergarten to Secondary 5 in Quebec

Estimated Time: 30 minutes

Curriculum Connections: Social Studies, History, Language, Media Arts, Fine Art

Historical Thinking Concepts

  • Evaluating Evidence: What can we tell about how people lived by examining the clues they left behind? What questions remain?
  • Historical Significance: How do we decide which and whose stories to tell? What evidence do we use? What evidence do we leave out?


  • By engaging in VTS interpretation of art or photographs, students will:
  • Examine a photograph or painting from the Canadian War Museum’s Remembrance Day web module
  • Develop new vocabulary
  • Develop confidence in verbal expression
  • Practice active listening and making connections to what others are saying
  • Appreciate that people will see different things in the same work of art and that sharing observations provides multiple perspectives related to the work

Materials Required

  • Selected photographs and/or paintings from the Canadian War Museum’s Remembrance web module
  • Projector or interactive whiteboard

Tips for Moderating a VTS Session

  • Select your images in advance. Start with something familiar, such as an image from a historical period your class has studied. Select two images for your first session. For subsequent sessions, you may select anywhere from one to three images.
  • Students will become more comfortable with VTS with practice.
    • Look for cues that your group is fatigued with an image and move on to the next.
    • Initial sessions may be short but as students get more comfortable, a single image could take over 20 minutes to discuss.
  • Don’t expect perfection from the start. Every time you lead a VTS discussion, you will improve as a facilitator, and your students will become more comfortable with the process, and will develop the skills required. This will lead to longer, richer and more thought-provoking discussions. Repeating the activity will lead to more rewarding experiences!
  • During the discussion, allow students to be wrong. Don’t jump in with a correction. Instead, use the follow up questions to have the student explain their rationale. Give their classmates a chance to disagree or raise a new hypothesis. Even inferences that may seem outlandish at first can raise new ideas that lead to worthwhile discussions.
  • Do not try to push the discussion in a particular direction. Allow each discussion to flow naturally. The same artwork or photograph may lead to different discussions, depending on who is in the group.
  • For more information on Visual Thinking Strategies, please visit:

Part A: Introduction

At the start of the class, introduce Visual Thinking Strategies. These strategies allow students to examine art, think, contribute observations and ideas, listen, and build understanding together. This approach works for all grade levels. Display a projection of the painting or photograph. Tell students that they should take 1 minute to look closely at the image in silence before the discussion will begin. Do not give the students the title of the painting or photograph as part of the introduction. Allow them to begin their study of the image with an open mind.

Part B: Asking Questions

VTS discussions require the facilitator to ask students specific questions in a specific order. Phrasing matters, so use the questions as written. After they have examined the image, ask them:

  1. What’s going on in this picture? When a student makes an inference (a comment that draws conclusions based on observations), respond as follows:
  2. Paraphrase what the student said by repeating their comment back in different words
  3. Ask them to explain their thinking with the question: What do you see that makes you say that? To encourage more students to participate, frequently ask:
  4. What more can we find?

Tips for Effective Teacher Facilitation:

  • Listen carefully, making sure you hear everything students say and that you understand it accurately.
  • Point precisely to what they observe in the image.
  • Use supportive body language and facial expressions to encourage participation.
  • Paraphrase each comment by changing the wording, but not the meaning.
  • Be sure to use proper sentence structure and vocabulary to help students enhance their language skills.
  • Accept each comment neutrally. Remember that this process emphasizes a pattern of thinking, rather than correct answers. Students are learning to make detailed observations, sorting out and applying what they know. Articulating their thoughts leads to growth, even when they make mistakes.
  • Link related answers, including both agreements and disagreements. Show students how thinking evolves, how observations and ideas can stimulate others, and how opinions can change and build with each connection and commentary.

Part C: Concluding the Lesson

You will know when your students are done with an image. They won’t offer any new information when you ask, “What more can we find?” and the discussion will keep circling back to the same interpretations. Thank students for their participation. Tell them what you particularly enjoyed. Encourage them to think of viewing art and photographs as an ongoing, open-ended process. Avoid summaries; linking throughout is enough to show how conversations build. After you have concluded the VTS portion of the lesson, you can ask students if they would like more information about the image. At this point you can share the contextual information that has been provided, should you wish. This exercise should be repeated on a regular basis.