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What is Visible Thinking – The Essential Guide

What is Visible Thinking?
What is Visible Thinking (VT)? Read my essential guide and discover how VT can be applied within museums and heritage sites using the  ‘Visible Thinking in the Museum’ (VTM) approach to facilitate meaningful experiences with art and museum objects.

The Basics

Visible Thinking has been developed over a number of years by researchers from Harvard’s Project Zero with teachers and students. Visible Thinking is essentially a ‘broad and flexible framework for enriching learning’ by fostering deep thinking and a better understanding of content. 

Central Idea

The central idea of Visible Thinking is simple: making thinking visible. The vast majority of what we think is hidden – it stays in our heads and we only articulate a small portion of it. This approach includes a number of key ways of making thinking – and opportunities for thinking – much more visible in classrooms and other learning environments. By making thinking visible to yourself, to your peers and to those around you, opportunities for learning expand. For example, teachers can establish exactly what understanding already exists on a specific topic. Teachers can then link new information to prior knowledge, which activates student engagement and curiosity. This “visible” element can provide a springboard to further discussion and lines of inquiry too.

Key Elements

  • Explain & articulate thinking out loud
  • Listening to others articulate their thinking
  • Engaging in discussions while forming understanding

Key Practices

At the heart of Visible Thinking are several practices and resources that help achieve the goals of the approach – such as thinking routines, documentation and using the language of thinking. One of the easiest ways of getting started with Visible Thinking is by using thinking routines – e.g. See-Think-Wonder which can be used to stimulate, guide, and develop a culture of thinking.

Thinking Routines

A routine is simply defined as a sequence of actions or pattern of behaviour that is regularly followed or rehearsed. Thinking routines are tools specifically designed to help, support and guide mental processes or thinking. They consist of short, easy to learn and teach steps that get used in a regular fashion. Unlike other strategies designed to cultivate thinking skills, thinking routines are short and memorable with only a few steps based on carefully crafted questions – For example, one of the more popular routines ‘See-Think-Wonder encourages individuals to practice slow-looking and observe, before processing and analysing and then questioning – ‘What do you see?’ ‘What do you think is going on?’ ‘What does it make you wonder?’ Breaking down thinking into simple and engaging steps can build confidence as well as skills in making sense of collections. Thinking routines allow people to contribute and participate in different ways and are flexible and adaptable, making them effective with a variety of audiences within museums. These routines loosely guide the analysis of a wide variety of materials such as artworks, photographs, documents, newspaper articles, museum objects and so on. Thinking routines can be used across a variety of contexts and environments from schools, universities, private institutions and corporations and, of course, museums. They are not subject-specific either – thinking routines have a wide appeal and application across a variety of disciplines including arts, history, maths and science contexts. Visible Thinking Routines range from more observation-based routines such as See-Think-Wonder,5×2 and ‘Colour, Shape, Line’ which encourage people to look carefully, to more narrative-focused and creative ones such as ‘Beginning, Middle, End’ and ‘Step Inside’.

What is ‘Visible Thinking in the Museum’?

In recent years, museum educators and heritage professionals have started to adapt elements of Visible Thinking for use in the museum with groups of all ages. They have understood the benefits of using Visible Thinking to help visitors make sense of art and museum objects in a memorable and engaging way. ‘Visible Thinking in the Museum’ focuses on developing thinking dispositions (i.e. not just the ‘skill’ itself but the inclination and ability to use it) within visitors that foster curiosity, creative and critical thinking and structure personal and collective exploration of collections and their stories.
Visitors can explore and discuss artworks using thinking routines from Visible Thinking as the structure to guide their thinking and to help them practise and develop certain skills, such as careful observation, thoughtful interpretation and understanding different viewpoints. The museum teacher, guide or educator facilitates and guides this process combining elements of Visible Thinking with certain museum education practices. I saw the benefits of using Visible Thinking in the museum environment back in 2011 when I spent a year developing a new programme at the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, using thinking routines as a method of engaging and interacting with museum objects. The resulting programme ‘Stories Around the World‘ uses these routines as the structure around which students can explore objects in the museum in a slow, careful and detailed way.
Since then I’ve developed my own approach to using Visible Thinking with art and museum objects. You can find out more about Visible Thinking in the Museum (VTM for short) here

Who is VTM for?

Practitioners working within museum/heritage learning and engagement teams and responsible for designing or facilitating guided tours or experiences for visitors. Visible Thinking in the Museum can be used by museum educators, museum, heritage and tour guides, volunteers or museum docents, learning practitioners and teachers.

How does VTM work?

The thinking routines provide a loose structure around which to base the discussion of the artwork. The questions of the routine are carefully worded to allow for multiple interpretations and to open up discussions. Museum teachers find that with frequent use they are able to use the routines flexibly and to combine or modify them as required. The wording of the questions in the routines helps museum teachers format their own open-ended questions. The routines also allow for the inclusion of contextual information at appropriate moments so that museum teachers can navigate the delicate balance between selective content inclusion and information overload. Thinking routines are short, easy to remember and easy to use with little training required. Using documentation helps the museum teacher summarise what has already been discussed or revisit earlier moments in the conversation. Combining good facilitation skills and collaborative learning techniques with the thinking routines allows the museum teacher to get the most out of the group and to encourage a lively and balanced discussion that engages all participants regardless of whether they have any prior knowledge or subject interest.

Key Benefits of VTM

  • Thinking routines are memorable, simple and flexible.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Thinking routines 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.
  • Thinking routines are 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 diversity and flexibility of Visible Thinking Routines makes them ideal for exploring ideas, sparking curiosity and provoking debates in a huge variety of contexts and environments – e.g. in all types of museums (art, history, ethnographic, science, etc), historic houses, nature and conversation, zoos, theatre and dance and so on.
Using VTM is more than just a strategy; it provides a structure for making meaning and gives participants – young or old – a chance to participate and discuss ideas with each other.

The Ultimate Thinking Routine List

I’ve been working on an ultimate list of ALL 100+ thinking routines as a handy instant reference guide for educators, guides and creatives working with Visible Thinking. Get inspired!

If you’d like to receive a free copy, then click here.