As routines are part of the classroom, so they are also an important part of the guided tour experience. As you welcome guests or visitors at the start of a tour, you will take a few minutes to remind visitors of any guidelines to keep visitors and any historic sites or collections safe. You will also introduce them to the theme and structure of the tour. If done well, these guidelines help participants to understand what to expect and what to do.

Imagine the benefits then of a routine that would help visitors to make sense of objects/artworks/buildings in a memorable and engaging way? Imagine what would happen if (museum) guides used such routines to facilitate open-ended discussions with groups?

Questioning strategies, routines or procedures have been in use for some time now in museum education. Museum educators guide people through the exploration of an artwork/object by asking questions aimed at stimulating thought processes and encouraging visitors to take a more active role in thinking and reasoning. These methods weigh heavily on the ability of the museum guide to be a good facilitator: using an open style of questioning and working to ensure that all participants feel happy to take part and to feel valued and understood. Some of these strategies work well, are easy to remember and produce great responses. Others, however, often fail to capture the enthusiasm of the participants and can seem artificial.

Thinking Routines

The thinking routines developed as part of the Visible Thinking framework go much further and deeper than previously-developed questioning methods or strategies. 

Visible Thinking Routines are short, easy to use and are composed of a few simple steps . There are more than 32 thinking routines and each one encourages a certain type of thinking.  

For example, See-Think-Wonder:

  1. What do you see?
  2. What do you think is going on?
  3. What does it make you wonder?

This routine concentrates on the importance of observation, interpretation and stimulating curiosity. It is an excellent thinking routine to use when you are new to Visible Thinking and a good one to use at the beginning of a museum programme. The stages of the routine structure the conversation for both the museum docent and the participant. As a result, everyone knows what to expect. Before the routine begins, we always ask all participants to observe the artwork/object for a short while. This can take place in silence or the guide can guide the looking (to help younger participants).

Key Benefits
  • Factual or supplemental information can be added as and when required. Thinking routines allow information to be offered to the group in small amounts and at appropriate times, rather than as a lecture by the guide.
  • Can also be adapted or modified to suit the needs of the group or educators can even create their own routines based on the Visible Thinking ones.
  • Intended for repeated use, which enables participants to remember them and use them independently in no time at all
  • A selection of different thinking routines can be used throughout a programme to target different areas of thinking and keep the programme lively.
  • Provide a loose, flexible structure around which to base the discussion of an artwork or object. This flexible structure organises thoughts and serves as the backbone for the discussion and helps museum guides (and visitors) to know what to expect. It helps the discussion become a rounded whole rather than a loose muddle of open-ended questions. The key point is that any strategy should be memorable enough for you to easily recall where you are in the discussion.
  • The questions of the routine are carefully worded to allow for multiple interpretations and to open up discussions. The wording of the questions in the routines also helps guides or educators format their own open-ended questions.
  • You can use the routines on all types of guided tours – in all types of museums, historic houses, outdoor walking tours, food tours and so on.

Thinking routines are more than just a strategy; they provide a structure for making meaning and give participants – young or old – a chance to participate and interact in the guided tour. The diversity and flexibility of Visible Thinking Routines makes them ideal for exploring ideas, sparking curiosity and provoking debates in a variety of contexts and environments.

Further Reading: Ritchhart, R. 2007. ‘Cultivating a Culture of Thinking in Museums.’ Journal of Museum Education, 32(2), pp.137-154 and Bown, C. 2015. ‘Visible Thinking and Interpretation’ in Interpreting the Art Museum, Ed. Graeme Farnell

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