I found out 10 years ago that many museum educators and guides were struggling to meet the demands of leading inquiry-based programmes – sometimes the training was too brief, too confusing, or just too complicated. I wanted to simplify the process and increase the engagement factor for both facilitator and audience. In 2011, I discovered the magic of Visible Thinking and have since developed ‘Visible Thinking in the Museum‘ – a method that uses thinking routines to help question formulation and structure, along with facilitation techniques, collaborative learning and museum education practices. The result is ‘inquiry made simple’. A easy-to-follow process that allows you to confidently design, lead and manage engaging inquiry-led sessions with art and artefacts.
Read on to find out WHAT Visible Thinking in the Museum (VTM) is, HOW it came about and WHAT you can do with it…

What is ‘Visible Thinking in the Museum’?

Over the past few years, savvy museum educators and heritage professionals have started to adapt elements of Visible Thinking for use in the museum/heritage environment with groups of all ages. These trailblazers knew that thinking routines could help visitors make sense of art and museum objects in a memorable and engaging way.

I saw the benefits of using Visible Thinking in the museum environment back in 2011, when I spent a year developing a new educational 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 method of using Visible Thinking with art and museum objects. Called ‘Visible Thinking in the Museum’ or VTM, for short, four elements have been key to the success of this approach and have evolved over the course of the past 9 years:

  1. Using thinking routines with open-ended questions.
  2. Good facilitation skills.
  3. Documenting the process.
  4. Encouraging collaborative learning.

‘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) that foster curiosity, creative and critical thinking. The method is a flexible structure personal and collective around which to explore museum and heritage collections and their stories.

Educators can use thinking routines as the structure to their inquiry-led discussions and to engage their audience with 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.

Who is VTM for?

Practitioners working within museum/heritage learning and engagement teams and responsible for designing or facilitating tours and programmes 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 a inquiry-led discussion of the artwork or object. The questions of the routine are carefully worded to allow for multiple interpretations and to open up discussions.

Educators 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 you then to format your own open-ended questions.

The routines also allow for the inclusion of information at appropriate moments, so that you can use your knowledge to make the discussion go further.

Thinking routines are short, easy to remember and easy to use with little training required. Using documentation helps you to 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 also allows you 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.
  • The thinking routines 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 educators (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 ‘Visible Thinking in the Museum’ 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.

Visible Thinking in the Museum Online

Learn how to use the VTM method
 Individuals and teams can sign up for my 8 module online course Visible Thinking in the Museum Online (VTMO).
VTMO offers a combination of self-directed study and live classes over a period of 10 weeks.. By completing this course, you will learn how to:
– Give your discussions a flexible structure and substance using thinking routines.
– Best engage your group by employing facilitation skills, good questioning skills and the techniques of collaborative learning
– Handle information strategically and productively
– Use 22+ thinking routines for group, individual and personal use
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