In 2011, I discovered the magic of Visible Thinking and starting developing Visible Thinking in the Museum – an approach that takes elements of a framework called Visible Thinking and combines them with museum education practices, facilitation techniques, questioning strategies and coaching tools.
Visible Thinking in the Museum is an easy-to-follow approach that allows educators to confidently design, lead and manage engaging inquiry-led sessions with art, objects and ideas for any audience. But how did it come about? And why should you use it?
How did Visible Thinking in the Museum start?
In 2011, I carried out research at the Tropenmuseum with teachers from international schools to find out what they wanted from museum visits. I conducted a series of focus groups and spoke to a lot ot teachers with the aim of designing a new educational programme for primary school students that:
✔️engaged students fully with objects in the museum
✔️encouraged slow-looking and careful observation
✔️fostered group discussion and collaborative learning
✔️involved a teaching switch from ‘sage-on-the-stage’ to ‘guide-on-the-side’
In one of the focus groups, Melanie Smith, a teacher from the International School of Amsterdam, spoke about Visible Thinking and how she thought it could have wonderful possibilities within the museum environment (as it had already done within their classrooms).
After that session I went away and read ‘Cultivating a Culture of Thinking in Museums’ by Ron Ritchhart. The more I dug deeper into Visible Thinking, the more I could see all the wonderful possibilities for application with art, objects, themes and ideas.
This led me to create my first method using elements from Visible Thinking combined with museum education practices – it was called ‘Stop! Look! Think.’ and it was the pedagogical method for my first programme using thinking routines called ‘Stories around the World’.
Stop. Look. Think! and ‘Stories Around the World’
‘Stories around the World’ explores the theme of stories and storytelling by looking at and connecting with a series of carefully chosen objects around the museum. In this programme for international primary schools, students look at the way objects can tell stories about people, ideas and the objects themselves. To mirror the innovative approaches in use in international schools, I felt it was important to create a new teaching method for the new programme.
I called this new teaching approach Stop. Look. Think! It was composed of five principles that aimed to encapsulate everything that ‘Stories Around the World’ represents. These included the slow, careful exploration of objects using open-ended questions, the development of key critical thinking skills (e.g. observation, reasoning) and the fostering of a community of learners who all feel happy, willing and able to contribute to the discussion taking place.
‘Stories Around the World’ was the first museum programme in the Netherlands to use Visible Thinking and specifically, thinking routines. Originally designed for the classroom, these flexible, easy to use, mini-strategies were adapted for use in the Tropenmuseum. They provided a structure for student-led discussions and encouraged the exploration of ideas. They also helped to spark curiosity and provoke debate about the Tropenmuseum’s collection. The Stop. Look. Think! principles embraced a new way of thinking and learning in the Tropenmuseum.
After I left the Tropenmuseum, I decided to develop the ideas in the method further which eventually became the Visible Thinking in the Museum approach.
What is Visible Thinking in the Museum?
Whilst I knew that Visible Thinking worked well in the classroom, I knew that there were parts that would need to be adapted for use in informal learning.
Therefore the Visible Thinking in the Museum approach (VTM) takes some of the key elements from Visible Thinking and combines them with museum education practices, facilitation techniques, questioning strategies and coaching tools.
VTM is an easy-to-follow framework that allows museum educators, guides, teachers and docents to confidently design and lead engaging discussion-based sessions with art, objects and ideas with any audience.
VTM is a flexible structure to explore and discuss a wide variety of materials – in particular 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 thinking routines with 8 specific practices.
Why use the Visible Thinking in the Museum method?
Over the past 20 years, I’ve seen first-hand how many educators (museum & heritage educators and all kinds of guides) have struggled to meet the demands of leading inquiry-based, discussion-led, interactive programmes – some key struggles were:
- There’s no script in my head to fall back on
- How do I know what questions to ask? How do I know what questions are good ones?
- When will I share my knowledge?
- What will happen if I hand over control to the participants?
- What if no-one says anything?
- What if someone asks a question I don’t know the answer to?
- How do I structure a discussion-based programme?
I wanted to simplify the process of leading engaging discussion-led programmes around art and objects. I wanted to develop a method that engaged both the educator (renamed as the facilitator) and the participants (aka the audience). I wanted to get rid of the confusion surrounding inquiry-led programmes and develop a flexible process that made sense to educators.
Visible Thinking in the Museum as an approach uses thinking routines to help educators formulate ‘better’ questions and provide a flexible structure for the discussion. VTM also teaches facilitation techniques and collaborative learning practices so that you know how to create an environment where participants feel happy to contribute and stay engaged throughout.
VTM is ‘inquiry made simple’. It’s an easy-to-follow process that allows you to confidently design, lead and manage engaging inquiry-led sessions with art and artefacts with any audience. It helps you to design and structure your programmes, facilitate and manage discussions and really engage any audience with the art, artefact or idea you’re discussing.
It’s a simple but transformative method and it will really change the way you work.
What the benefits of using the Visible Thinking in the Museum approach?
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 next. 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.
IMPROVE QUESTIONING SKILLS
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 educators format their own open-ended questions.
ADDING CONTEXTUAL INFORMATION WHERE NECESSARY
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 can be combined – e.g. Looking Ten Times Two (observation) + Step Inside (perspective-taking). A selection of different thinking routines can be used throughout a programme to target different areas of thinking and keep the programme lively.
Thinking routines are intended for repeated use, which enables both the facilitator AND participants to remember them and use them independently in no time at all
VARIETY OF CONTEXTS
The diversity and flexibility of thinking routines makes them ideal for exploring ideas, sparking curiosity and provoking debates in a huge variety of contexts and environments. I’ve worked with individuals and teams in all types of museums (art, history, ethnographic, science, etc), historic houses, nature and conversation, dance and opera and so on. I’ve taught them the VTM approach so that they can lead engaging discussions about their own specific collections and environments with their own unique audiences.
Visible Thinking in the Museum Online
Interested in learning how to use the VTM approach? Individuals and teams can also sign up for my online course Visible Thinking in the Museum Online (VTMO). Teams can book a 1, 2 or 3 day in-person training to learn how to use the approach with their collection and audiences.
SLOW LOOKING AT ART: THE VISIBLE THINKING IN THE MUSEUM APPROACH
My book Slow Looking at Art: The Visible Thinking in the Museum Approach covers the 3 foundational elements of the method, plus the 8 practices.
Full of practical steps & helpful advice, this book provides you with everything you need to create engaging discussions with art and objects in the museum.
Slow Looking at Art: The Visible Thinking in the Museum Approach will be published in 2023. Get on the waitlist to be the first to receive a copy.