Education program embraces communication skills, critical thinking, visual literacy for youth

Recognizing successful teamwork in the name of education is a good thing. That success is the cause for a 2:45 p.m. gathering Nov. 6 at Camelot Intermediate School in Brookings where attendees will celebrate an article that appears in the November issue of Phi Delta Kappan, a professional magazine devoted to K-12 education that features stories about classroom practice, policy, research and innovations in education. The story showcases the research findings of Visual Thinking Strategies, a program that develops communication skills, critical thinking and visual literacy. Three entities joined forces in the research: South Dakota Art Museum, Camelot and the Department of Teaching, Learning and Leadership in the College of Education and Human Sciences at South Dakota State University. Their collaborative partnership began when the museum hosted a Visual Thinking Strategies workshop for local school teachers. Camelot teachers were impressed and agreed to implement the program for their fourth- and fifth-graders. Museum Director Lynn Verschoor, and professor Kay Cutler and associate professor Mary Moeller of the Department of Teaching, Learning and Leadership, agreed to support the implementation and to study its impact at the school. During the last three years, they collected data and recorded sessions from the Camelot teachers on the curriculum’s impact. They also collected pre- and post-writing samples from the students. “We took all the teacher reflections, read them and digested what was happening,” said Moeller. “We are thrilled with the results and thrilled with what the teachers are noticing. “What is so transformative about it is that it changes the teacher’s role in the classroom. You aren’t telling the students what to think—they are thinking for themselves and discovering things on their own.” The Visual Thinking Strategies takes place monthly in the language arts classroom. There are nine lessons with each session lasting 45 minutes. A 10th lesson will take place at the museum in the spring, something Vershoor is looking forward to

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happening. “Visual Thinking Strategies has been a rewarding endeavor for the museum because one of our goals is outreach and education and being able to work with

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Camelot is a golden opportunity,” she said. “Students feel empowered to have a voice in how they process new information.” The program uses three deceptively simple questions with images of increasing complexity to elicit observations. Students are then required to back up their thoughts

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evidence. The questions are: What’s going on in this image? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can we find? The first question invites students to explore, investigate and hypothesize about what might be occurring. The second question requests evidence. The third question re-invites the group to engage about what more can be discovered. “The curriculum supports students’ critical thinking development,” said Cutler, who noted that it’s an accessible way to develop students’ ability to voice their thoughts, perspectives and opinions in a safe environment while hearing and accepting opinions from others in a civil matter. “Students hear perspectives and ideas from others on the same image, which then ultimately assists them in being open to hearing about ideas that are not their own. Having two different, possibly opposing thoughts in their minds and simultaneously entertaining each other’s potential, is wonderful to witness.” According to Moeller, the pattern of thinking that Visual Thinking Strategies process doesn’t stop with the language arts class. “Teachers are saying that students’ thinking and their patterns of discussing with each other

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is showing up in other classes,” she said. “For example, the teacher in a fourth-grade math class put up a multiplication table and the students immediately began verbally examining it for patterns.” Moeller indicated the program’s effects are showing up in higher grades, too. “One teacher at Camelot observed this already,” she said. “She showed a PowerPoint and all of a sudden the students were VTSing. She didn’t know what was happening. Well, they were digesting and communicating among themselves about it because it was engrained in who they are now.” Cutler said the program is an innovative educational tool with a great deal of potential. “It’s so very exciting to watch children’s conversations and how they build their ideas with friends and classmates. There has been interest across the state, both at the school level and at the department of education level. We hope to partner with interested individuals, agencies and schools to continue to grow the use of Visual Thinking Strategies.”

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