One of the best way to get started with Visible Thinking is by focusing on thinking routines and See-Think-Wonder is the best one to begin with.

What are thinking routines?

First up, a bit of revision about thinking routines. As described here, 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.

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. They 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’.

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.

See-Think-Wonder

One of the most popular and well-known thinking 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?’

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 guided tour or museum programme. The stages of the routine structure the conversation for both the guide and the participant. As a result, everyone knows what to expect.

The first question ‘What do you see?’ gives participants the chance to fully observe and describe the object or artwork in question. Focusing on close looking followed up by careful describing allows participants to see the “whole picture” and to notice parts they would ordinarily have missed.

The second question ‘What do you think is going on?’ usually follows on naturally once the object has been fully described and ask the group for their interpretations of what they think is going on.

The final question ‘What are you wondering about?’ allows participants to ask any additional questions or thoughts. These “wonderings” can also open up new lines of inquiry and allow the guide or educator time to share some specialised knowledge in response to the group’s questions.

If you think about the structure of a well-rounded discussion (which I talk about here), we start with the outer layer, the observation and description, before moving on to the substance, the interpretation before moving on to any questions or puzzles we have. Throughout the discussion we are encouraging reasoning with evidence too (‘What do you see that makes you say that?’). One of the reasons why See-Think-Wonder is a great place to start is because the 3 stages of this routine mirror the stages of a balanced discussion.

Why is it the best routine to use when you’re new to VT?

  • It is straightforward and naturally leads towards open-ended inquiry
  • It can be used with all age groups & all levels
  • It can be used with a huge variety of materials such as artworks, photographs, documents, book covers, newspaper articles, museum objects, the natural world etc.
  • Works well individually, in small groups and with whole group sharing.
  • Can be used at the beginning of a programme or tour due to its simplicity.
  • It’s easy to set up and use – there aren’t any complicated instructions or set-up instructions. Some thinking routines require a little extra thought about how they can be applied in the museum or heritage environment. See-Think-Wonder is pretty much good to go as it is.
  • By separating the two questions, What do you see? and What do you think is going on?, the routine helps participants distinguish between observations and interpretations. This helps to avoid hasty interpretations. By encouraging individuals to wonder and ask questions, the routine stimulates curiosity and helps students reach for new connections.
  • When used repeatedly, participants begin to use in other contexts. I have had school children teaching See-Think-Wonder to their parents after a museum visit where we explored several objects using the routine. I’ve also had a group of IT managers using See-Think-Wonder during a breakfast meeting to structure their thoughts, inspired by the previous evening’s art museum workshop using thinking routines – See-Think-Wonder being the most versatile and memorable!
  • It never, EVER fails in any situation, circumstances or environment. Trust the routine. It always works – follow my tips below to get started right away!

The Ultimate Thinking Routine List

I’ve been working on an ultimate list of ALL 90+ thinking routines as a handy instant reference guide for educators, guides and creatives working with Visible Thinking. Get inspired!

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