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6 core thinking routines to use with art now

6 core thinking routines to use with art now

Looking to get started using thinking routines in guided art discussions? Having trouble narrowing it down? Understandably – there are 90+ thinking routines to choose from..(I’ve listed them in my Ultimate Thinking Routine list which you can get here).

Help is at hand. Here are 6 core thinking routines you can use with art or artefacts right now to start engaging your audience.

See Think Wonder

See-Think-Wonder is one of the most popular and well-known thinking routines. It’s the thinking routine that most people know when they come to me for Visible Thinking in the Museum training and also the one I like to teach people first. 

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 educational programme.
One of the reasons why See-Think-Wonder is a great place to start with VTM is because the 3 stages of the routine mirror the stages of a balanced discussion – we start with observation, move on to interpretation before finishing with wondering and questioning.
There are 3 questions:  ‘What do you see?’  ‘What do you think is going on?’  ‘What are you wondering about?’
By separating the two questions, What do you see? and What do you think is going on?, See-Think-Wonder 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.
This routine can be used with a huge variety of materials and works well individually, in small groups or with whole group discussions. It’s straightforward and easy to use and naturally leads to open-ended inquiry. 
Finally, it always works brilliantly and be applied to a variety of situations, circumstances and environments.


Colour-Shape-Line helps people make detailed observations by drawing their attention to the formal aspects of an artwork or artefact – colours, shapes and lines – and giving them specific categories of things to look for.
It can easily be used on its own or combined with another thinking routine. It works really well with abstract or conceptual art by giving participants an entry point into the artwork. I often hear participants remark at the end of a discussion with CSL, that it helped them to demystify and discuss something that they may not have ordinarily given a second glance to.
You can ask the group to work individually or in small groups – each one discussing a different category. If time is short, you can focus on just one or two of the categories or add your own to the routine.
An extension to the routine can be to ask the group to pick one of the elements (one colour, one type of line or shape) and to then focus on thinking about how that element contributes to how the artwork feels and how it looks. Or to think about how it contributes to the ‘story’ or the ‘power’ of the artwork. We then share their discussions with the group as a whole.

Step Inside

Step Inside is a great thinking routine to use once you have got used to working with some of the more straightforward routines – such as See-Think-Wonder and Colour-Shape-Line. This routine helps participants to explore different perspectives and to imagine things – events, problems, or issues differently.
Step Inside works well in combination with a routine that encourages observation (remember: good observation stops hasty judgements and interpretations and gives the group time to really focus and warm-up before moving on to ‘deeper’ questions). I like combining with thinking routine ‘Looking Ten Times Two’ (see below) or ‘Name, Describe, Act’
After a thorough observation of the object or artwork, I like to divide participants into 3 smaller groups and have participants discuss the 3 questions as a group (if you’re doing this online use breakout rooms). You could also divide into 3 and give each group a separate question to think about. The questions literally ask you to ‘step inside the shoes’ of a figure or object in the artwork and imagine things from their perspective. I often round up by asking each group to present their person or object from a first-person perspective, acting out their role!

Looking Ten Times Two

The ‘Looking Ten Times Two (10×2) Visible Thinking routine helps participants slow down and make careful, detailed observations. By repeating the exercise twice, it encourages participants to push beyond first impressions and anything that is obvious.
On tours or educational programmes, where time is often at a premium, I frequently shorten the routine to 5×2.
It is an excellent thinking routine to use to focus on observation and description. It also combines well with other routines – 5×2 and Step Inside is one of my favourite combinations. You can vary the way you work with this routine – either individually or in pairs or even in small groups. You can be creative with the way you set up the routine too – for example, setting a timer for completion of each list or asking younger participants to draw what they see instead of write. 
I like to hand out post-it notes for participants to jot down their lists or, if working online, have participants enter their lists one-by-one in the chat, crossing off anything that has already been said (just like bingo 😀). If you have the space, these can then be added to a portable whiteboard to create a full description of what you’ve all been looking at!

Peel the Fruit

Once you start to feel more confident using thinking routines with artworks, you need to think about structure. You want to choose a combination of thinking routines that provide a well-rounded discussion for your participants with a recognisable beginning/middle/end at each artwork. You definitely DON’T want your carefully crafted open-ended questions to tumble out in any old order.
I follow this basic structure based on the ‘Peeling the Fruit’ thinking routine. If you think about the structure of a well-balanced discussion, you start with the ‘outer layer’ of the fruit, the observation and description, before moving on to the ‘substance’, the interpretation, whilst considering any questions or puzzles your group has. Throughout the discussion you encourage reasoning with evidence too (‘What do you see that makes you say that?’). Finally, you finish your discussion by capturing the core or forming conclusions. I go into this routine in more detail here

Creative Questions

As you no doubt know, questioning is THE skill to master when you want to create engaging discussions & dialogue around art and objects. It takes practice and effort, but over time we can all develop the ability to formulate better questions that get good responses. I use the Creative Questions thinking routine (also called Question Starts) frequently to generate a list of interesting questions for new objects, images or themes that I would like to use in a guided art discussion or as part of a new educational programme.
This routine encourages you to really observe and get to know the artwork or artefact you are researching. It provokes your curiosity to find out more and gently pushes you to push beyond questions about information. Brainstorming a list allows you to flow through your first ideas, and then go beyond to deeper or more generative questions.
This thinking routine asks you to brainstorm a list of at least 12 questions – there are a few question starts provided to get you started with the process of phrasing interesting questions:
  • What would it be like if…
  • How would it be different if…
  • What would change if…
  • How would it look differently if…
  • Suppose that…
After you’ve come up with a list of at least 12 generative questions, you are then asked to place a star next to the most interesting ones. You can then take time to discuss one or all of these – either on your own if you’re doing the exercise individually or with a few colleagues. Working through the steps of this thinking routine with others, also helps to generate a list with a variety of perspectives other than that of your own. 
You can also choose to explore your question more imaginatively too – by playing out some of its possibilities – writing a short paragraph, drawing a picture, imagining a dialogue or interview answer. Explore it by imaginatively playing out its possibilities. What new ideas do you have about the topic, concept, or object that you didn’t have before?
So, these are my 6 core thinking routines that you can use RIGHT NOW with artworks. If you’d like to learn how to use all of these thinking routines and lots more to create engaging discussions around art and artworks, you should join my Visible Thinking in the Museum Online course, which is taught live 4 times a year by myself and only available in the Visible Thinking Membership. Find out more: