More than a Strategy: Building a Culture of Thinking

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I was recently talking to a fellow museum docent about how they were given a 10 minute training on how to use thinking routines (from Visible Thinking) in another museum. A few routines were enthusiastically explained to them and they were told that these routines could be inserted ‘ad-hoc’ into tours to inject a little more participation and conversation. Whilst this may provide a quick-fix for those moments when you want to enliven a tour, this is not how thinking routines are intended to be used nor how I personally envisage their use or potential for use in the museum.

When we give in-depth training to museum educators and docents, we stress that the use of thinking routines is more than a strategy to use as and when required in the museum. Before selecting a routine to use with a work of art or an object, it is first important to establish the type of thinking that you would like to elicit from the participants and then to choose the correct thinking routine for that task. This allows different types of routines to be used around the museum and to specifically focus on certain types of thinking with different objects.

Thinking routines provide a structure for making meaning and give participants an introduction to the process of thinking slowly and carefully about art and objects. What separates thinking routines from other thinking skills programmes and routines is the way that these routines enculturate a disposition to think. That is, when used regularly and as part of the learning fabric of the environment, these routines help to develop what Ron Ritchhart calls a ‘culture of thinking‘.

We believe that to fully immerse yourself in using this method in the museum, attention needs to be paid not only to the routines themselves but also to documentation, the language of thinking and group work.

1. Documentation
4446069876_8340b115a1_z Documentation of the learning journey is an integral part of Visible Thinking, literally making the thinking visible. This can take many forms – such as the use of charts of tables, mind maps or lists, audio or videotape and photographs. Sometimes the museum teacher will write down the thoughts of the participants, whilst at other times, the participants themselves write down their thoughts (on a post-it, in a journal etc). This can also take the form of a visual display (a thinking or wonder wall) which shows the process of learning rather than the end-product. In the museum you can carry around a portable whiteboard, use post-its or video the conversation as it is taking place.
With school groups, we often give the documentation to the teacher at the end of the session to enable further discussion back in the classroom based on what has already taken place in the museum.

2. Language of Thinking
imagesThe language of thinking can be simply defined as words that describe and evoke thinking. The aim is to develop and encourage a rich language of thinking; where one hears words like reason, conclude, opinion rather than think, guess and feel as using these precise words actually helps people to think better.
The use of thinking routines alters the way that museum educators and docents interact with their groups; attention is paid to modelling the language of thinking and to encouraging its use within the group (‘I see you made a connection there’ ‘What theories can we come up with?’).Regular and repeated use of thinking routines has been shown to help build this language of thinking, encourage the use of conditional language (‘might’ ‘could’ etc) and help people to externalise their thoughts more clearly (for more information, see here) In our training sessions, we devote time to working with educators and docents to develop and use this precise language of thinking and in the art of using non-judgemental feedback with groups.

3. Group work
images-2 As, according to Ron Ritchhart, learning is chiefly a social and collaborative endeavour, it makes sense to use thinking routines in spaces where visitors get together to learn, namely in a museum environment. When museums fully incorporate thinking routines into their organisations, they are taking full advantage of the benefits of group work where ideas are explored through group discussion and dialogue.
The process of using thinking routines extends the conversation as everyone feels at ease offering thoughts to the discussion. As all comments are received non-judgementally by the museum docent or educator, a more balanced discussion takes place where everyone feels they can take part. The process of using a routine also teaches participants to respect and listen to other’s opinions. Everyone profits from the ‘distributed intelligence’ of the group as individuals are able to use and build upon other’s experience and interpretations. This way of working, where a group reasons together out loud, puts forward new ideas, responds to and builds on the ideas of others and generates further questions is known variously as collaborative learning, a community of enquiry, ‘collegiality’ as it is termed by Arthur Costa, and also a ‘culture of thinking‘ in Visible Thinking. Ritchhart defines this as a culture where thinking is valued, visible and actively promoted, not just in one department but across the whole organisation. It is this ‘culture of thinking’ that distinguishes this approach from other methods.

Using thinking routines is not just a new way of working or quick fix for those quiet moments on a group tour; it is about embracing an entirely new culture of thinking and learning in the museum. Emphasis is placed on how the group interprets a select group of objects through open-ended questions facilitating lengthy discussion. Value is placed on gaining new perspectives and knowledge from the students themselves. The aim is to be inclusive and include everyone in the discussion regardless of age, ability of background. Ultimately the goal is to foster and encourage a community of learners that all feel happy, willing and able to contribute to the discussion taking place.

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