Images For Critical Thinking

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  • Select an Image
    Choose an image that lends itself to deep analysis by students. This analysis strategy works best when the image is one that reflects (intentionally or not) a particular opinion, point of view, or perspective. Visual art, propaganda images, photographs, and political cartoons are good examples of visual media that reflect a perspective.

  • Lead Students through Analysis
    Share the image with students by providing copies or by projecting or displaying it in the classroom. Lead students slowly through the following six steps, pausing between each step to give them significant time for thinking and writing.

    Step One:
    Ask students to look deeply at the picture for a good long time. Have them observe shapes, colors, textures, the position of people and/or objects, etc.

    Step Two:
    Have students write down what they see without making any interpretation about what the picture is trying to say.

    Step Three:
    Ask students: What questions do you have about this picture that you would need to have answered before you can begin to interpret it? Ask as many questions as you have.

    Step Four:
    Have students discuss their questions with two other students in the class to try to find some answers.

    Step Five:
    Given the historical context and subject of the piece, ask students what they think the artist is trying to say (what does the piece mean), and who they think is the intended audience?

    Step Six:
    Discuss your interpretation with the class, and be prepared to support your view by referring to specific elements of the image and what you know about the history of the time.

  • Discuss the Process
    Take a few moments to discuss with students how they experienced this process of analyzing visual media. For many, it may feel uncomfortably slow, but by practicing and discussing this process, students will begin to respond more thoughtfully and critically to the images they encounter every day.

  • Updated, March 17, 2016 | We have published a companion piece: “8 Compelling Mini-Documentaries to Teach Close Reading and Critical Thinking Skills.”

    Ever want your students to slow down and notice details when they read — whether they’re perusing a book, a poem, a map or a political cartoon? Young people often want to hurry up and make meaning via a quick skim or a cursory glance when a text can demand patience and focus.

    Closely reading any text, whether written or visual, requires that students proceed more slowly and methodically, noticing details, making connections and asking questions. This takes practice. But it certainly helps when students want to read the text.

    We’ve selected 10 photos from The Times that we’ve used previously in our weekly “What’s Going On in This Picture?” and that have already successfully caught students’ and teachers’ attention. These are some of our most popular images — ones that may make viewers say “huh?” on first glance, but that spark enough curiosity to make them want to dig deeper. (Please Note: You can quickly learn the backstory about any of these photos by clicking the link in each caption that takes you to the original post, then scrolling down to find the “reveal.”)

    Below, we offer ideas from students and teachers who have engaged with these images for ways to use them, or images like them, to teach close reading and visual thinking skills.

    1. Be Detectives: Looking closely can almost be like a game, Shirley Jackson, a teacher in Sydney, Australia, said:

    I stumbled across your site while looking for alternate ideas. My class of 10-12-year-olds absolutely love the photos and the back story became a competition as to who could “see” the most, justify it and how close they were to the truth. Please don’t stop this amazing resource as it keeps our students informed as well as visually aware.

    Indeed, practicing visual thinking skills with these images can be fun and a quick activity, but it can also hone important skills that transfer to other texts. Making sense of intriguing images like these can be more like detective work than anything else: Careful attention to detail rewards the viewer with a “big picture” understanding.

    2. Practice Regularly: Every Monday during the school year we post a photograph stripped of its caption and context, and ask students what they see going on in this picture. Hundreds of students participate every week from classrooms across the country and around the world — from elementary through high school, and even adult education E.S.L. classes — sharing their observations. Our partners at Visual Thinking Strategies moderate the discussion and encourage students to look even more closely for more details.

    You can use our “What’s Going On?” photos, or ones you select that relate to the content you are teaching, to help your students practice close reading.

    3. Ask Open-Ended Questions: At the heart of the activity are the three deceptively simple open-ended questions that make up V.T.S.’s facilitation method. The goal? To help students notice details and make observations without leading them toward any conclusion or “right answer.”

    • What’s going on in this picture?
    • What do you see that makes you say that?
    • What more can you find?

    Students then share what they see and comment on what other students notice.

    4. Notice Details: For example, here is what Josh W. observed in the image above:

    It appears in this picture that a man is trying not to drown in some kind of sewer, and he seems quite in danger because of the frightened look on his face. However, maybe it’s some sort of public punishment because the police are just looking at him while driving by and then walking by, while random people to the left don’t seem to care either. It also looks like the area he is in has been barred off, so maybe nobody is allowed to help him. The place seems to not be the richest place on earth, this area is quite worn down, and it seems Latin because of the writing on the police’s shirt. It is also possible that he is seeking refuge from the police, but he has failed as they have found him.

    5. Build on Others’ Observations: Encourage students to comment on other students’ observations to help them evaluate and link to other ideas. We try to do that in our Monday discussions by asking students to use the @ symbol. Here is what Summer wrote to Connor about the above photo:

    @Connor: That flip is not effortless, there is pain in his facial expression, which leads me to believe the chaos in the background is not a natural disaster but the aftermath of warfare. My suppositions are supported by the young boy in a uniform nearby in the pic.

    6. Adapt These Questions for All Subjects: Jennifer Bradley, a science teacher at Bentonville High School in Arkansas, told us how the practice of finding details to defend their interpretations of each photo improved students’ academic skills in general, and their science skills in particular:

    After practicing with “What’s Going On in This Picture?” weekly, I started to see my students get much better at using evidence in their writing. For example, in their lab reports, they started to be much more detailed and to explain the context clues that led them to a conclusion.

    In fact, the three simple questions at the heart of V.T.S.’s facilitation method can be adapted for close reading any text, whether in an English or a science classroom:

    • What do you notice going on in this chapter? In this diagram? Or in this political cartoon?
    • What details do you see that make you say that? What evidence supports your observations?
    • What more can you find in the text?

    7. Expand Knowledge of the World: Teachers tell us that students enjoy the activity, and that it actually helps expand their knowledge of and curiosity about the world in addition to making them more visually literate. And students make connections between our “What’s Going On?” photographs and what they’re hearing in the news and learning about in school. After finding out the caption of the photo above, Cashel IMS wrote:

    This picture and caption makes me think how tough it must be to be sent away to this facility alone, taken away from his parents, and be treated poorly in these conditions. Just because this little boy crossed the border, he should not be held captive. He is only seven years old and it was not his fault. If I were seven years old and I was held in this detention center, I would be very confused.

    8. Start Conversations:Julia told us that she uses these photographs to help foster conversation in her adult E.S.L. education classes:

    They are great conversation starters to get my class speaking in English. It also brings up new vocabulary words. Students often use their personal knowledge of the world to figure out what is happening in the photos. Some students may have an advantage when the photo is from their region of the world. Thanks!

    9. Introduce New Ideas: On Tuesday mornings, we reveal the original caption of the photo and any relevant back story as well. Sometimes, we’re fortunate to hear from the photographers themselves about what they were thinking when they took the shot. The activity, therefore, can transform from practicing visual thinking strategies to gaining a window into another place, time or perspective.

    Additionally, many students return to comment on the image with new ideas and questions after reading the caption. Here is Evan K. IMS7’s follow-up response to this week’s photo (above):

    So my prediction was actually right… (Thank you Animal Planet.) But I find it interesting that something that I learned I could actually apply to my academics. I wonder if the ant can resist the fungus taking over its brain. I also wonder if this fungus could infect another insect or if it can mutate.

    10. Experiment With Other Ways to Look Closely: V.T.S.’s three-question facilitation method isn’t the only approach to getting students to practice visual thinking. The National Archives has developed a photograph analysis protocol for noticing people, objects and activities before making inferences.

    The International Society for Technology in Education (PDF) and Edutopia both suggest multiple strategies for teaching visual literacy. And the University of Maryland has developed a visual literacy toolbox for helping students learn how to read images.

    Many of the recommended approaches are very similar, and build on the principle that students should be encouraged to look closely at images without being told what to see. That concept is at the heart of why every Monday we ask students: What’s going on in this picture? Join us next week!


    This resource may be used to address the academic standards listed below.

    Common Core E.L.A. Anchor Standards
    • 1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

    • 7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

    Speaking and Listening
    • 1 Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.


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