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Learning Visual Language

November 13, 2015

Kerry Kuhlkin-Hornsby, director of education and engagement

Working in museum education and teaching kindergarten for 20 years has given me a unique perspective into how young children learn and take in information. In one word, it would be “visually.” From cave paintings to flashcards with pictures of colors and shapes, humans have always been visual learners. Even in the Renaissance, literate and non-literate people alike could understand art through visual language. In most learning environments, emphasis shifts from the visual to the textual, and the first way we learned is put aside. We are constantly inundated with images in the digital age, yet our society does not teach how to read and interpret the images around us.  

About two years ago, the education staff here at the CMA started looking into how we could incorporate teaching visual language as part of our philosophy to encourage lifelong learning in programs accessible to all age groups. We realized the need for a comprehensive model for implementing visual language in our tours and programs in a fun and engaging way. We found the necessary tools in Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). With VTS, rather than simply being told about a work of art you explore it as a group. You form ideas about the piece naturally, informed by what you see in the artwork while also building on the interpretations of your peers. In September, four staff members from the CMA Education and Engagement Department travelled to New York to attend a two-day practicum on VTS at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, one of the best community and audience-centered museums in the nation. Through this training we learned how to use art to teach observation, thinking, and communication skills as well as facilitate meaningful discussions about art with our visitors.

In New York, we gained new insights into how people process information that is invaluable to improving the ways our visitors can engage with art. People take in nearly 90 percent of information with our eyes and read images 60,000 times faster than text. Think about it—you knew what the color blue was before you could read or write the word. The average person spends only 17 seconds looking at a work of art. By slowing down, really seeing the work, and observing the details, one can deduce that things are not necessarily what they seemed in that first, quick glance. And here is where the curiosity, observation, and interpretation turn into understanding.  Visual literacy techniques support learning in areas of communication and social skills, and help develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills while encouraging observation and comprehension skills. This leads to greater understanding of not only the world of art, but more importantly, the world at large. 

During this exciting evolution, the CMA will continue to incorporate visual learning techniques into engaging tour programs for both schools and adults. People can use these ideas in their visit and hopefully carry them to all areas of their lives. You can learn more about how we will be spending our time training our staff and volunteers, and enhancing our programs in upcoming editions of Collections and through the CMA Stories section of our website. If you would like to chat with me about VTS and our tour program or any of our education and engagement initiatives, do not hesitate to reach out to me to learn more at

If you prefer, read the full fall 2015 issue of Collections in PDF form here.