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The magic of thinking routines: what are they and how can you use them?

The Magic of Thinking Routines

Thinking routines are an essential part of the Visible Thinking in the Museum approach.

They have been a magical ingredient in helping me to confidently create engaging discussions around objects and artworks over the past 10 years.

They’ve also been a great way to engage audiences to get them really interested in art and objects, making them curious and asking questions and, of course, getting them thinking.

But what are thinking routines and how can you use them? And where does the magic happen? That’s what we’re exploring today.

What are routines?

A routine generally as a sequence of actions or pattern of behaviour that is regularly followed or rehearsed. – for example, routines you have in your everyday life – like brushing your teeth or going for a run every day.

These are actions or behaviours that you do regularly and once you’ve done them for a certain period of time, they become part of your routine. 

What are thinking routines?

Thinking Routines originated in Project Zero’s Visible Thinking research initiative. They are tools specifically designed to help, support and guide mental processes or thinking.

Thinking routines contain a set of questions or a brief sequence of steps that can be used to scaffold and support thinking. And contain easy to teach steps that get used in a regular fashion.

Thinking routines are typically short and memorable with only a few steps based on carefully crafted questions – for example in See-Think-Wonder the 3 questions are: ‘What do you see?’ ‘What do you think about that?’ ‘What does it make you wonder?’

These routines loosely guide the analysis of a wide variety of materials such as artworks, photographs, documents, newspaper articles, museum objects and so on.

They have catchy and appealing names too – See-Think-Wonder or Think-Puzzle-Explore – to help learn them by heart and recall them independently when required.

Where can you use them?

Thinking routines can be used across a variety of contexts and environments from schools (where they were developed), universities, private institutions and corporations and, of course, museums, heritage and cultural organisations

I have been using thinking routines for the past 12+ years to explore and discuss art and objects in museum collections.

Thinking routines are also not subject-specific either – so they have a wide appeal and application across a variety of disciplines including arts, history, maths and science contexts

Their flexibility means that they can be used on an individual as well as a group basis.

How many thinking routines are there?

As I mentioned earlier, thinking routines originated in the Visible Thinking research project at Harvard’s Project Zero. 

And over the years, researchers have enhanced and expanded upon the original thinking routines, and new projects have developed new routines. 

There are currently 100+ thinking routines that I’ve collated in a single guide called The Ultimate Thinking Routine List.

The majority of the Visible Thinking routines are in the two books – Making Thinking Visible from 2011 and The Power of Making Thinking Visible which came out last year – although there are thinking routines that are from other Project Zero projects – Artful Thinking, Agency by Design and Out of Eden Learn PZ projects too. 

There are also thinking routines that have been developed by teachers, researchers and museum educators that are not listed in either the Project Zero books or on the PZ website.

How do I choose a thinking routine to use?

  • Each routine encourages certain types of thinking and the name of the routine helps to guide you towards the type of thinking required – for example, observing closely and describing, reasoning with evidence, making connections, perspective taking etc.
  • In order to be effective, it is first important to establish the type of thinking that you would like to elicit and then choose the correct thinking routine for that task. 
  • It is not all about the routine – it’s about the thinking you want your participants to be doing. The thinking routine is the scaffold for that thinking, not a rigid frame. 
  • One of the many powers of thinking routines is their flexibility – with such a wide variety of routines to choose from, you can vary the way you work depending on the goals of your programme or class.
  • Again, it’s important to think about what pattern of behaviour or thinking you want your participants to engage in and then think about which tool or thinking routine will best serve that purpose. 

So, why are thinking routines useful in the museum? 

  • Having routines helps us to do things well, to be creative and productive. A good routine can be very freeing as it will allow headspace and get rid of constant decision-making about what to do next. 
  • As a museum educator, guide or creative you can use thinking routines to structure discussions and conversations around artworks or objects.
  • For the participants of your session or programme, or guided tour, the thinking routines help them to make sense of the artwork you’re discussing in an engaging and memorable way
  • The stages of the thinking routine structure the conversation for both the educator and the participant. As a result, everyone knows what to expect.
  • For the educator 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 . It helps you to know what to expect.  No need for constant decision-making about what questions you might want to ask next or where the discussion is going to go – you plan what you’re going to do in advance, think about the type of thinking that you would like participants to be doing, what your goal is for your programme, tour or session, and then select the thinking routines and follow the steps.
  • Thinking routines help the discussion to become a rounded whole rather than a loose muddle of open-ended questions. 
  • Having a routine ‘internalised’ frees up time and head space to be more creative with your groups and gives you more mental energy to really focus on what the participants are saying.

Thinking routines improve your questioning skills

Developing better questioning skills is something we can all work on.

We know it takes practice and effort, but over time we can all develop the ability to formulate better questions that get good responses. 

The questions of each thinking routine are carefully worded to allow for multiple interpretations and to open up discussions. 

The wording of the questions in these routines also helps guides or educators format their own open-ended questions. With repeated use, you will find yourself automatically phrasing questions in the same way as the questions in the thinking routines

Thinking routines help master how to share information

Using thinking routines will really help you to master how and when to add information in your discussions

Because of the way they are structured, Thinking routines allow information to be shared with your group in small amounts and at appropriate times, rather than as a lecture or as a big information dump by the educator or guide. 

Some of the routines, like See-Think-Wonder, for example, allow for participant questions during the ‘wondering’ part which is the last question (what are you wondering about). You can answer these questions at any point during the discussion or you can also flip the routine as Wonder-See-Think to get a list of things that participants are curious about right from the start. Think-Puzzle-Explore, The Explanation Game and Layers, also work well as routines through which you could selectively add information at key points. 

Thinking routines are flexible

Thinking routines are incredibly flexible. There are over 100 thinking routines.

They 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. 

A selection of different thinking routines can be used throughout a programme to target different areas of thinking and keep the programme lively – unlike with Visual Thinking Strategies, you are not using the same routine at every stop. 

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 – e.g. in all types of museums (art, history, ethnographic, science, etc), historic houses, in nature and conversation, zoos, theatre and dance and so on.

Thinking routines are more than just a strategy; in my Visible thinking in the Museum approach they are just one part of a whole framework. 

They provide a structure for making meaning and give all participants – young or old – a chance to participate and interact in discussions around art, objects and ideas. 

The diversity and flexibility of thinking Routines makes them ideal for exploring ideas, sparking curiosity and provoking debates in a variety of museum contexts and environments.

Making Thinking Visible : How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners By Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison
The Power of Making Thinking Visible: Practices to Engage and Empower All Learners by Ron RitchhartMark Church
Artful Thinking
Agency by Design
Out of Eden Learn

The Ultimate Thinking Routine List

I’ve been working on an ultimate list of ALL 100+ thinking routines as a handy instant reference guide for educators, guides and creatives working with Visible Thinking. Get inspired!

If you’d like to receive a free copy, then click here.