Art & Critical Thinking

Lesson Study Cycle 3


Andrew (Art K-8), Sebo (Humanities 10), Sarah (Art and Design 8), Karinne (Humanities 7)

Observed Problem of Practice

Students are unaware and unappreciative of latent messages within visual artwork, making them (on one hand) susceptible to visual manipulation that harms their health and wellbeing. This also causes them to be ignorant of social justice and activism in visual artworks and resist both calls to action or working with these themes into their own artwork.

Research Theme

Students will grow into critical consumers by learning to identify and infer social themes and messages in artwork. They will use visual thinking strategies and their own lived experiences to think critically about the world around them and the messages that are delivered and received both explicitly and through subliminal/targeted messaging. 

Part 1: Planning

Research Base

We began our research by investigating how the process of Visual Thinking Strategies, something one of our team members already had experience, might contribute to critical pedagogy in the classroom. We had difficulty finding research that provided data about which strategies most effectively help students critically analyze art for latent messaging. As a result, most of our research revolved around case studies of individual teachers' experiences with critical pedagogy and empowerment of students through visual arts. 

Half of this research describes the process of using Visual Thinking Strategies and evidence of their effectiveness. The other half looks at a high school art teacher’s experience with critical pedagogy in an art classroom and extending into the community. My writing summarizes the research and reflects on potential application.

This research followed a study on critical analysis of ads using visual elements, then developing art that "speaks back." I also interviewed a teacher who uses color theory to teach about advertising strategies in her classroom. My writing summarizes these experts and reflects on potential application.

Bibliography accompanied by research summaries

A look at the effectiveness of equity-based research themes and tips for how to write and use one. 

PDSA Data & Experience

Cycle 1: Chalk-Talk VTS Practice

For our first PDSA cycle, we decided to try using Visual Thinking Strategies in a chalk-talk format instead of a whole-class discussion. This decision was based on the knowledge that some of our focus students express themselves more quickly and openly in writing rather than verbally in a whole class setting. I posted 6 pieces of large butcher paper around the school, each one accompanied by with a different image. Before sending students to look at these, I modeled the VTS process in the classroom and had students write the first two questions ("What is happening in the picture" and "What do you see that makes you say that") in different colors on a notecard. The third question ("What else can you find") was already written on each piece of butcher paper outside. After modeling the activity and answering clarifying questions, students left the classroom and explored the posters, writing their answers to the questions on the butcher paper in the correlating colors. 

All students were fairly engaged through this activity. I had asked students to complete the chalk-walk without talking to their peers; however, many still engaged in conversation about the art while they looked. There were a lot of repeating thoughts and observations written on the butcher paper at the end of the activity. There was also some off-task/goofy thinking. After the activity, we debriefed one of the images and posters together. However, students were not interested in reviewing their thinking in this way.

When I asked for feedback about the activity, students shared that they were disappointed they didn't get to talk about the art (instead of writing) because they didn't get to hear others ideas (even though could read them). 

This change idea seemed to have a positive effect on student engagement and understanding. However, it did not result in as much diverse thinking or deep observations as I had hoped to see. We decided to try a more pure approach to VTS with our next PDSA cycle. 

Cycles 2: Class Discussion VTS Practice

During this cycle, students engaged with Visual Thinking Strategies in the format of a whole class discussion about one image (projected on the board). The first time I did this, I wrote student observations on the board as they shared.

I had students participate in this activity that do not usually share, and a wider variety in the students who were offering to speak out. In one class, nearly everyone shared and the conversation continued easily for almost 30 minutes before I closed it (students probably could have continued the conversation but we had to move on). The other class was much quieter, possibly because it is an 8am class and students are still waking up. Even in this quieter class, I had students participate who do not usually share in a whole class setting. Answers were less repetitive during the discussion than they'd been in the chalk-talk, and by the end of the discussion their observations were beginning to guess at deeper meaning and messaging contained by the art. For example, they pulled out the possibility that there were two different groups may be represented in the painting since most people were either wearing red or blue, and since we are studying the Protestant Reformation. This level of meaning-making had not been achieved in the chalk-talk VTS. Students also voiced more connections between the art and their personal experiences and background knowledge during this discussion than they had in the chalk-talk.

When I did this activity again a second time, I repeated student observations back verbally instead of writing them on the board. I did not notice a significant difference between the two ways of tracking student thinking, but I hold a slight preference to recording what they share on the board. This allows me to track how many times an idea has been shared and to validate student thinking without dragging the conversation out too long.

Staying true to the basic Visual Thinking Strategy rather than combining it with other pedagogical protocols appears to be more beneficial. Students responded in a more positive way to this second activity, and were applying the strategy to their observations and responses. 

Part 2: The Focus Study

We decided to combine the two strategies from our research -- VTS and media literacy via ads -- in our lesson study for maximum effectiveness. 

A theme that emerged from our research was the importance of experimentation. In every part of our research, individual and group critique of visual art/messaging was followed by students making their own art. This application part gives students an opportunity to engage in dialogue with visual messages by creating their own visual responses. In order to appropriately respond, students first need to sufficiently understand what the visual they are looking at is communicating. Based on this, we decided our lesson would end with collaging.

Analyzing art in a VTS discussion allows for modeling and "we do." During these discussions, students consider what they think while also hearing others thoughts. This gives them space to engage with the art on their own timing, when they are ready. With this in mind, we decided to launch our lesson with a VTS discussion. Beginning our lesson study with a VTS discussion would allow us to model with images that have social messaging, priming students to think about the social messaging in the ads they would engage with. A VTS discussion would also be a good space to introduce the ways that art elicits emotion, and to talk about art techniques/visual elements and how they impact how you think about art. 

The bulk of our lesson, between the VTS launch and the collaging, would focus on having students identify the hidden messages in artwork. We would use ads, since these are a place where young people already know they're being targeted, and since ads are common forms of art with very intentional, layered messaging. Students would choose the ads they wanted to work with most closely, since choice is really important in getting students to truly think about their own emotional engagement with art. 

Finally, upon considering our focus students' needs and strengths, we decided we would provide graphic organizers and emotions lists as an equity strategy. 

Focus Students: Assets & Needs

Focus Student S.

Focus Student "S." is a very high performing student and is very eager to move on to high school. He has great relationships with his teachers and can occasionally struggle to connect with his peers. He has had a recent falling out with his friend group that has caused him to isolate himself from his peers. 

My hope for this student is that during the VTS and art creation portion of the lesson, he will be able to use his strength in analytical thinking to encourage sharing his ideas with his peers and build more positive connections to his peers.

Focus Student A.

Focus Student "A." is a quiet, patient, kind hearted student. She is always willing to try her best on assignments even though she struggles with believing in her abilities as an artist. She is a middle child with a lot of family responsibilities at home. Recently she has had some issues within her friend group that have caused her to feel uncomfortable sharing her ideas with others. 

My hope for this student is that she will feel empowered by understanding how advertising can affect her self esteem. I also hope she is able to create a meaningful art piece that reflects her feelings about advertising.

Focus Student E.

Focus Student "E." is a very social and creative student. He has many friends and is always enthusiastic about coming to art class. He has had negative experiences in previous art classes that has left him feeling insecure about his artistic abilities. His unique personality and interests come through in his artwork and helps him create really unique art pieces. E.'s creative thinking can occasionally cause him to get off task and miss important assignment instructions. 

My hope for this student is that he will find a deep  interest in this activity, causing him to contribute to class conversations during the VTS portion of the lesson. Also, his interest in the subject might help him stay on task and create a meaningful art piece that reflects his thinking. 

The Lesson

Lesson Plan & Materials 

Lesson Hypothesis: If we employ use of VTS discussions and concepts related to media literacy while students are consume and process visual imagery, then students will be more likely to notice the hidden messages in art as evidenced by their reflections on the graphic organizer, verbal observations, and their own art pieces.

Equity Goal: Every student will be able to identify as well as utilize the hidden messages related through visual arts/media.

Content Goal: Students will use their personal life experience, prior knowledge, and knowledge of visual elements to identify the messages and emotions conveyed by an ad. 

Lesson Flow: 

Class Slides

Hidden Message Collage

Audio Recording

Emotions List

Emotions PDF list.pdf

Graphic Organizer

Hidden Messages Collage

Student Data & Observations

FSA: Art
FS_S.: Art
FS_E.: Art

Part 3: Reflection

Debrief Insights and Analysis

Our team felt that the lesson was not as successful as it could have been, although it was also not entirely without success either. The host teacher was surprised that her students had difficulty differentiating between advertisements and general photographs/art. Were we to re-do this lesson, advertising is something she would pre-teach more intentionally (defining ads, identifying their goals and how they achieve those goals, common advertising strategies, the psychology behind advertising, etc.). 

We ran out of time during the focus lesson to have students create their own art, so they did that in the next class. The host teacher shared that this portion was not very successful. Most students veered away from the prompt. Rather than responding to the message in the ad they had chosen, many students created collages with their own unrelated, sometimes silly messages and focuses. Additionally, students were only supposed to work with the ad that they had completed the graphic organizer reflection about, but several students used a combination of ads or a different ad entirely. This impacted consistency in our study and detracted from our ability to analyze the success of the sequence of activities in the lesson.

We considered that the collaging activity may not have been successful because we skipped all the mapping and layering steps from the article "Are You Being Hailed?" which we borrowed inspiration from (see "Read, Ask, Reflect: Critical Media Literacy Through Ads" above). Those additional steps would have provided scaffolded instruction that we now believe is critical to helping students identify the visual elements that artists use to evoke emotion, how ads use those emotions to deliver messages, and how one can effectively or pointedly respond to those message. 

In terms of materials, our emotion list was not the most accessible, as the entire page was packed with words in small font. This may have been a greater support to students had we limited the number of words on the page and simplified the visual formatting. We also believe we should have been more selective in the types of magazines and ads we gave students. Identifying the emotion evoked by an ad is somewhat challenging, and some types of ads (like fashion ads) were easier to apply our study to than were other types (like food ads). Preselecting the materials students would ultimately choose from may have impacted our results in a positive way as well. 

The VTS discussion was the most successful portion of the lesson. The inferences students made about what was happening in the image and any messages being sent were based in their own experiences and in world events. Students drew on prior knowledge and on their understanding of visual elements when engaging in the VTS discussion. We were impressed with the depth of their thinking and observations. However, the shift to identifying emotions evoked by art and advertisements was challenging for students. We believe we could have began this shift earlier by building emotional and visual elements more intentionally into the VTS process. For example, we could have asked the question, "What is the artist doing to make you feel this?"

The host teacher also noticed that many of her students who were not sharing with the whole class were having side conversations with their friends about the art. She wondered if having students complete a small group VTS at their tables first and then moving into a whole-class VTS discussion would have elevated our conversation and their observations. 

Reflecting on the Lesson Study & Process

I learned a lot from this lesson study. Implementing VTS in a Humanities classroom was revealing. Students loved looking at the artwork and digging for clues. I was excited to see so much engagement from students who rarely engage in class discussions. I also observed a growth in confidence in students who are more arts-oriented and have struggled with writing throughout the year. This confidence translated from their class engagement to their writing as well. I would like to use this strategy more consistently throughout the school year next year, and hope that by using it sooner in the year I can build students' confidence and comfort levels sooner. 

I would love to find ways to implement the mapping and layering process from the "Are You Being Hailed?" article as well. I am interested in applying this not only to historical art in my classroom, but also as a tool to analyze written texts. I wonder if applying this process first to art, then to writing, will change how students annotate text. 

Unique to this Lesson Study Cycle was my discovery that you have to pay attention to all the steps of a process/lesson proposed by a researcher, and that implementing only some of the steps will likely result in much less success. This seems like it should have been obvious, but it was not something we considered when planing our lesson and it certainly impacted the success of our study. When researching classroom strategies in the future, this is something I will pay mroe close attention to.