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11 Tips for Getting Started with Thinking Routines

11 Tips for Getting Started with Thinking Routines

Interested in getting started with using Visible Thinking with audiences, art and artefacts, but not sure of your first steps? One of the best ways to get started is by focusing on thinking routines. Here are my 11 top tips for getting started with thinking routines.


1. Follow the steps 

Do the routines exactly as they are written initially without trying to change them. Wait to see what you learn from them before you make any changes or adaptations. Once you are happy and comfortable with how the routine works, you can try the routine in a variety of ways (and there are lots of variations out there – e.g. See-Think-Wonder has 10+ variations).

2. Allow time for looking at the art

Don’t go straight in with a question until the group have had a chance to properly look at the object or image. Allow at least 20 seconds of looking time before you ask the first question. Let your eyes wander!

3. Allow thinking time 

Ask the question and then wait. Give everyone the chance to respond to your question.  If necessary, count to 5 in your head before even thinking about saying anything. Be patient and comfortable with the silence. Think of it as thinking time!

4. The thinking routine  is the ‘vehicle’ for exploring the content

Enjoy the process – the routine is not the content itself, it is the way you explore the content. Each object or image has multiple interpretations waiting to be discovered by the participants – the routine gently assists participants with a structure to get there.

5. Make it participant-centred 

Your role is to help facilitate or orchestrate the discussion. You  are helping participants to discover information for themselves. This is not about providing content and facts. Don’t forget that you are the ‘guide-on-the-side’ rather than the ‘sage-on-the-stage’. If you find yourself oversharing or monologuing (and we’ve all been there!), ask yourself the question ‘Could the group discover this for themselves if I asked the right questions? 

6. Use thinking words  

As the facilitator, you should model the language of thinking (more on this here) and encourage its use within the group by naming participants actions ‘I see you made a connection‘We have a variety of theories here’. Words like guess, hypothesis, conclude, investigate, believe, claim, reason, justify, reflect, evidence, question, doubt, interpret – these are all words that have to do with thinking, and the more specific the word is, the more it tells you something about the type of thinking you have done. Regular and repeated use of thinking routines has been shown to help build this language of thinking and help people to externalise their thoughts more clearly. Over time and with repeated use, you will find yourself (and your participants) adopting the language ‘I have a theory’ ‘I’m wondering…’Over time, students will adopt the language (‘I’m thinking’ ’I’m wondering..’

7. Remember there are no ‘right’ answers

Routines are based on questions to create discussions, look for connections and expand knowledge. Thinking routines encourage multiple interpretations of the source material whether it’s an artwork, artefact or newspaper article. 

8. Expect the best

Participants will surprise you with the connections, ideas and thoughts that they make throughout the discussion. Remember this when you are planning a session and you have doubts about the artwork or thinking routine you’ve chosen (that little voice saying ‘I’m not sure this will work’) – you will be continually surprised by what participants are thinking. You will notice new things that you haven’t seen or thought of yourself before!

9. Learning is a collaborative process 

When you incorporate See-Think-Wonder into your practice, you are taking full advantage of the benefits of group work where ideas are explored through group discussion and dialogue. 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.

10. There may not be an end-point

You may not arrive at a final, definitive interpretationThat’s OK. Embrace the process of the routine and the rich discussion that follows. The process of thinking is more important than the destination.

11. AND FINALLY…Trust the routine

Trust the routine and give it time, even if you’re unsure of the direction the discussion will go in. It always worksI often hear people who are new to Visible Thinking in the Museum saying that they are not sure whether a certain artwork or thinking routine will ‘work’. It may not work in the way you thought it would but it will still work. And if parts don’t go as expected, then note down your reflections for next time. Changing to a new method of working takes time and practice, but it is ultimately far more rewarding for you as an educator and for the participants too. 

Learn how to use thinking routines to engage your audience with art and ideas in the Visible Thinking Membership. 

All membership benefits at a glance

  • Visible Thinking in the Museum Online (VTMO) course taught live 3 times a year

  • Expert monthly masterclasses on specialist subjects

  • ‘Image of the Month’ paired with a thinking routine

  • Specialist thinking routine classes

  • Dedicated private FB Group – community Support

  • Practice & coaching groups