When I want my students to talk, think, and wonder about scientific topics, I start with pictures. Images are an accessible and authentic entry point. They allow my students to engage in arguments through evidence and take different perspectives. I use Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), a technique created by Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine, which helps to position the teacher as a facilitator rather than an instructor.
My first step is choosing an image. It could be a photograph from the news or artwork created in response to climate change. Maps and graphs are also great options. I choose images that I think will provoke conversation, but I keep in mind that photos of tragedy and loss may be triggering for students. For example, if we are talking about wildfires, I might choose an image of wildland fire training or a wildfire map instead of a photograph of a wildfire.
To set the purpose, I tell my students that I want them to look closely. I give them ample time to notice details and formulate their thoughts. Then, I pose the first question, “What’s going on in this picture?” This is the hardest part for me since my job isn’t to confirm or correct, only to paraphrase. For example, if my student says, “I see people protesting,” I ask the second question, “What do you see that makes you say that?” Instead of validating or correcting the response, I let the student share the evidence that led to their presumption. Then, I restate my student’s response, “Khloe sees people holding signs and their mouths are open, so she thinks maybe they are protesting.”
At this point, I open the discussion back up. I don’t let students rely on the first speaker to answer the question for them; instead, I give wait time and if needed, ask the third probing question, “What more can we find?” I link the students’ responses as I paraphrase, helping students build on each other's ideas. As the conversation naturally flows and ends, I wrap it up by thanking them for sharing.
This exercise only takes around 10 minutes, but the students accomplish a lot! They examine images with a critical eye, share thoughts based on evidence, and engage deeply with the topic of climate change. VTS creates a safe space in my classroom for students to share because there isn’t a correct answer and everyone’s ideas are valued.
For more information and examples of VTS in action visit vtshome.org.
About the Author: Emily Townsend
Emily taught for over a decade in classrooms from K-8th grade, both as an ELL specialist and general education teacher. She loves working collaboratively with other teachers to create interdisciplinary content that meets the needs of all learners. She loves spending time outside in every way—camping, hiking, and learning about new flora and fauna. Emily has lived in many places across the country and has seen the effects of climate change on our land and water. She is excited to work with a team who is passionate about teaching about our planet and the effects of human activity.