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Cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen’s original research on aesthetic development began with the intrigue that some people know nothing about art while others are experts. Once naïve viewers, the experts must have undergone many changes as their capacities developed. After many years of research, Housen published a study on aesthetic development in 1979 and in 1983 submitted her doctoral thesis on analyzing aesthetic thought, to the Harvard School of Education.

From the time that Philip Yenawine was appointed Director of Education at The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1983, he began to conduct research that could inform the Museum about its audiences. Yenawine was introduced to Abigail Housen in 1988 and they began to work together to assess MoMA's Education Department programs focusing on programs for teachers and students. One initial finding confirmed what was suspected: almost all teachers in the study were beginning viewers. However, one experiment showed that if properly prepared, classroom teachers could have a significant impact on the viewing abilities of their students.

Housen and Yenawine began to consider ways in which their findings could be incorporated into a sequential curriculum that would enable general classroom teachers to introduce the discussion of works of art to their students. In January 1994, the Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) was tested for the first time in classrooms outside of the United States. Experimentation in St. Petersburg, Russia, recognized that the VTS could help reform educational practices in the former Soviet Union. This student-centered approach to education has now been implemented in Kazakstan, Estonia, Macedonia, Lithuania, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine.

In January 1995, Housen and Yenawine formed Visual Understanding in Education (VUE), a not-for-profit organization, to further developmentally based education research. The K-6 VTS method is currently being implemented in specific U.S. sites including San Antonio. • In March 2001, a study entitled “Methods for Assessing Transfer from an Art-Viewing Program” was published by Dr. Abigail Housen. The paper summarized a research project conducted by Philip Yenawine and Dr. Housen in Byron, Minnesota in the years 1993-1998. The project set out to prove art viewing as a means to other types of academic development. The conclusions ultimately suggest an important role that art viewing can play in education. The VTS method proves to transfer to other academic disciplines of reading, writing, science, and math.

During the first three-years of the San Antonio VTS program, Abigail Housen conducted on-site research to prove that experimental students trained in the VTS would display more critical thinking skills (making observations and generating speculations) than control students. In effect, critical thinking skills would transfer to other domains. Her strategies included:

  1. Looking for evidence of enhanced critical thinking in Aesthetic Development Interviews;
  2. Looking for evidence of transfer of VTS-learned skills to non-art objects such as foreign coins, calipers, and anemometers in Material Object interviews; and
  3. Looking for evidence of transfer of VTS-learned skills in writing assignments

The study concluded that within the SAISD, the use of the VTS method facilitated an increase in students’ development of aesthetic thinking and demonstration of VTS learned skills of observation, supported observations, and speculation.


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