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What is going on in this picture?

Posted on November 17, 2020 at 11:30 AM by Brooke Rogers

Earlier this year I had the incredible opportunity to virtually meet and collaborate with art educators from around the globe, thanks to attending the National Gallery of Art’s Online Summer Institute. During the Institute, I was introduced to new methods for getting students and other learners to think critically about art with evidence and reasoning. Each of the sessions I attended helped to put into context how crucial the ability to look closely at visual materials is. Reasoning to make interpretations and evaluations from observations is something that any learner can benefit from and can help us all to better understand the diverse cultural world we live in.

Interested in practicing visual literacy for yourself?
Look closely at the picture above (or see it for yourself in-person at the Christian Petersen Art Museum in the Who Am I? exhibition through November 20) and follow these three prompts to get started.

  1. What is going on in this artwork? Write down at least five descriptions of what’s going on in this picture. Once you have written five descriptions try to challenge yourself by writing five more descriptions.

  1. After you have generated your list of ten descriptions, think about what you see in the image that made you list those descriptions. Write down your thoughts in the comments.

  1.  Now that you have identified specific aspects of this image, what does this image make you wonder about. Jot your thoughts in the comments below.

Visual Literacy is a creative, learner-centered and research-based teaching method that uses works of art to enable viewers to observe, think, wonder and communicate. This approach builds awareness through art, develops critical thinking skills, expands language ability and improves academic achievement. 

IMAGE: Wander Off, 2006 by William Barnes (American, b. 1958). Purchased with funds provided by Wayne and Annette Rowley. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. UM2009.140


More About Visual Literacy

Visual Literacy is a method of engaging students and adult learners with artwork when they are in the museum or classroom by asking three open-ended questions:

• What is going on in this artwork?

• What do you see that makes you say that?

• What does this make you wonder about?

If students or visitors make an inference in giving their responses to the first question and do not back up their statement, then we ask the second question. What do you see that makes you say that? This allows viewers the opportunity to articulate their thinking and observations while supporting it with evidence. The final question implies that there are still answers to be sought, which promotes inquiry and reminds us that no one has all the answers. Visual Literacy promotes research in the classroom and museum space often concerning the artist’s technique, method or underlying concepts. This type of thinking transfers across curricula because learners develop the habit of higher-level thinking and back up their findings with evidence.

Visual Literacy supports the open-ended, learner-centered instruction that is integral to best practices in current pedagogy. Classroom analyses have stressed the importance of encouraging student-centered critical thinking, as opposed to traditional or generic “right/wrong” answers, in the growth of significant cognitive development in participants. 

Visual Literacy is a powerful tool that promotes cooperation, respect, and tolerance for various viewpoints. National evaluations have quantified marked improvements among participants in general learning skills, including reading, writing, and mathematics. A continued focus on specific key elements of the Visual Literacy methodology ensures the success and sustained improvement of current and future University Museums programs.

I cannot wait to hear your interpretation of this work of art! 

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