Permission to Wonder

Permission to be puzzled and to think. Consent to use their powerful eyes and intelligent minds. Time to noodle and figure things out. The go-ahead to use what they already know to reflect on what they don’t: the first steps in learning. Again, not answers but ways to figure out things on their own.
— Philip Yenawine, co-creator of the Visual Thinking Strategies curriculum

Besides the work I do here at Ubiety Design, I’m currently working on my Masters in Digital Media Design with a concentration on Learning Design & Technology from Harvard, and this semester I’m taking Introduction to Instructional Design. I’m also an Art Ambassador at Fidelity Investments (where I work full-time as a design and content strategist). As an Art Ambassador, I take people on tours of our corporate art collections and teach them about the works and about art in general.

It’s amazing how sometimes parts of your life that you think are so separate seem to come together perfectly. This happened to me recently while doing my homework for my class. I expected to learn about learning, teaching, how the brain works, techniques for not boring students to death with PowerPoint, etc. I didn’t expect to learn anything that would help me be a better Art Ambassador…but that’s exactly what happened.

This particular block of my class was about being insatiably curious as instructional designers and two methods of teaching that rely heavily on that curiosity—visual thinking and curation. Hmmm, this kind of sounds artsy, right?

One part of my assignment was to read Visual Thinking Strategies: Learning How to Teach With Art by Phillip Yenawine, former education director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and co-creator of the Visual Thinking Strategies curriculum.

It was 1987 and MOMA had a problem. The education department created programs and materials to help museum visitors navigate and understand the modern art in their collection, art that is often misunderstood by the public, and visitors’ responses were positive—they were engaged, interested, and enthusiastic. But, the trustees weren’t sure that people were really “learning.” When they did surveys, quizzes, and other assessments, they found that visitors weren’t retaining much, if anything, from what they had just been taught.  That “failure” was the impetus for creating the Visual Thinking Strategies curriculum and a new way of not only engaging visitors, but helping them truly understand art, artist, movements, and the pieces that they were viewing.

You can see Yenawine at work in the video "Philip Yenawine conducts a VTS discussion in Amsterdam, 2012" where he masterfully uses an instructional design technique called “See-Think-Wonder” to gently prompt people to a deeper understanding of art using Caravaggio’s “David with Head of Goliath.” By only asking questions and repeating back the answers he hears (rather than jumping in to correct or explain), he truly engages the audience and allows them to lead the discussion so that they come to an understanding that is meaningful to them. I was impressed by this video—by the intriguing and thoughtful responses from an audience that was not educated in art—and by Yenawine’s patience. It’s so hard to hear people muddle through and try to understand when you are standing there with all the answers.

“See-Think-Wonder” can be a powerful tool in traditional classrooms as well. Watch "See Think Wonder" to see Matt Bornstein-Grove (Humanities Instructor at the Science and Math Institute in Tacoma, WA) use this instructional design method to engage high school students.

In Yenawine’s own words, the most valuable thing we as teachers, coaches, facilitators, or art ambassadors can do to help people learn and understand is to give our audience, “Permission to be puzzled and to think. Consent to use their powerful eyes and intelligent minds. Time to noodle and figure things out. The go-ahead to use what they already know to reflect on what they don’t: the first steps in learning. Again, not answers but ways to figure out things on their own."