Skip to content

6 Essential Thinking Routines you Need in your Repertoire

6 Essential Thinking Routines you Need in your Repertoire
In this episode, I’m discussing 6 essential thinking routines you should have in your educator repertoire. These are thinking routines that you can use to create engaging discussions with art or artefacts or routines that will help you develop and grow in your work as an educator. I’ve found it really hard to select just 6 thinking routine out of the 100+ routines out there, but I’ve come up with a list that every educator should have in their repertoire to draw upon in different situations or for different purposes. I’ve chosen:
  • An all-rounder thinking routine
  • A thinking routine to focus on observation and description
  • A thinking routine for perspective-taking & opening up thinking
  • A routine to help capture the heart and summarise
  • A thinking routine for formulating and sorting questions
  • A thinking routine that will foster meaningful reflection


The Ultimate Thinking Routine List 

See Think Wonder

Looking Ten Times Two 

Step Inside

Creative Questions 


So, let’s start with number 1 of my 6 thinking routines that you should have in your repertoire. 


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 programme or session. 
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, SEE THINK WONDER always works brilliantly and can be applied to a variety of situations, circumstances and environments.
There are many, many variations of See Think Wonder too – you can include the senses with
Or you might want to start with touch (and put an object in a bag or under a cloth) and have your group feel the object and describe what they are feeling before you move on to observation. 
There are also other variations of See Think Wonder that you might want to try out once you get used to it in it’s original format. For the more experienced, think about trying:
And there are two really good routines that are spin-offs from See -Think -wonder that I use frequently: 
See-Wonder-Connect which was developed by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and 
See-Think-We-Me which is a new thinking routine I’ve added to the Ultimate thinking Routine list THIS WEEK and was developed as part of Project Zero’s Art as Civic Commons project.
Both are well worth a look too!


The ‘Looking Ten Times Two (10×2) Thinking routine helps participants slow down and make careful, detailed observations. I’ve included this routine as it’s incredibly useful to use to make a list or inventory of what people are observing at the start of a discussion. It is an excellent thinking routine to use to focus on observation and description.
As you may know, observation is a key part of the Visible Thinking in the Museum method. It is important to observe first when starting discussions with objects or artworks BEFORE moving on to interpretation. This allows participants to see the whole picture and to avoid jumping to hasty conclusions or knee-jerk reactions – those that are sometimes based on emotion or feeling (I just don’t like it, I just don’t get it). Observation is always the first step and should never be skipped. However, some thinking routines do not include an observation and describing step and therefore this routine is SO HANDY to have in your repertoire to combine with another thinking routine. It combines well with routines such as Step Inside, Beginning Middle End, Main Side Hidden and more. 
The first step of this routine asks you to look carefully for at least 30 seconds. Then you are asked to make a list of 10 words or phrases that you see in the image or object. You are then asked to repeat the exercise and find 10 more words or phrases. 
Why do we do it twice? By repeating the exercise twice, it encourages participants to push beyond first impressions and anything that is obvious. On the second time, you notice new things that you may not have seen before. 
You can share the observations in-between the first and second step or you can share all the observations at the end. 
A side note here, on tours or educational programmes, where time is often at a premium, I frequently shorten the routine to 5×2 asking for two lists of 5 words or phrases. 
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!


Our third essential thinking routine to have in your repertoire is Step Inside. This is a wonderful routine to use to explore different perspectives and viewpoints and imagine things, events, problems, or issues differently.
This routine works well in combination with a routine that encourages observation. Remember: good observation stops hasty judgements and interpretations! I like combining Step Inside with thinking routine ‘Looking Ten Times Two’.
It can be used with any kind of visual art, also photo journalism, objects or text and you can use Step Inside to bring abstract concepts, pictures or events to life. This routine magically encourages empathic thinking – helping participants to make a more personal connection to a theme, artwork or object. 
This routine used to be called Perceive, Know, Care about and you can see this from the three questions: the first question is
  1. What can the person or thing perceive
  2. What might this person or thing know
  3. What might the person or thing care about ?
In the past I’ve noticed some groups struggle with the words used and therefore sometimes offer synonyms for the words to spark ideas – for perceive -see, observe or notice for What might this person or thing know, I add understand or believe and for the last question which asks What might the person or thing care about, I add value, hold dear. I sometimes use a graphic organiser to help participants think about each of these questions too and bring in the senses asking what do I see or notice? What do I hear, taste or smell? And Maybe also emotions with the question ‘what do I feel’ All of these additions help participants to really step into the shoes of the person or thing that you’re discussing. If we have time we discuss wonderings and puzzles too!
As I’ve said, we start this thinking routine with  a thorough observation of the object or artwork, as this sparks ideas, curiosity and stops participants going into the perspective-taking ‘cold’, it helps to get them thinking about it first. 
I then like to divide into 3 smaller groups and have participants discuss the 3 questions as a smaller group. 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 the object or artwork and imagine things from their perspective. We often round up by asking each group to present their person or object from a first-person perspective, acting out their role! 


My next routine that you should have in your repertoire is called HEADLINES.
This routine helps capture the essence or heart of an idea being discussed. It is also used for summarising and synthesising ideas.
It is composed of just ONE albeit fairly lengthy question that asks:
‘If you were to write a headline for this topic or issue right now that captured the most important aspect that should be remembered, what would that headline be?’
This routine works well at the end of a discussion and in combination with other routines (such as 10×2+Step Inside + Headlines). It’s a good way of rounding up & concluding a discussion before moving on to the next object or artwork.
I’ve also had fun using it at the start of a discussion and then again at the end. You can ask participants to write down their headlines so that they can refer to them after they have written their second headline. They can then compare. I often also add the question for discussion ‘How has your headline changed during today’s discussion? How does it differ from what you said at the start?’
You can have your group create their headlines individually, in pairs or in small groups. Sometimes participants feel more comfortable creating and sharing their headlines in a pair or a group.
You can also combine with a think-pair-share and ask everyone to share their headline with a neighbour. Afterwards you can ask the question “Who heard a headline from someone else that they thought was particularly good at summing up what we discussed about this object/artwork?” to extend the discussion further.
I’ve also used variations of this thinking routine with different age groups – such as ‘TITLE’ (works well with artworks) and ‘ONE WORD’ (for younger age groups).


As we talked about in Episode 4 The 5 Golden Rules for Asking Brilliant Questions, 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 of questions allows you to flow through your first ideas, and then go beyond to deeper or more generative questions. Brainstorming questions is a great regular practice to get into as it makes you feel more comfortable and adept at forming questions and helps you think about something in a fresh way. Maybe there’s an artwork or object that you would like to include in a programme or session but you’re not sure how it would work, whether it’s interesting enough, or whether you’re not sure how to narrow down the options of themes to talk about with a particular artwork or object – brainstorming questions will help with this! I definitely recommend this as part of your educator toolkit. 
So, creative questions 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. The final question of the thinking routine asks you to think about What new ideas you have about the topic, concept, or object that you didn’t have before?
Give Creative Questions a go and let me know how you get on. I know members in my Visible Thinking Membership have found it an incredibly useful thinking routine for their practice, maybe you will too!

6. ESP+I

And our final thinking routine in our list. This is a new routine called ESP+I and it is featured in the new book The Power of Making Thinking Visible that came out last year. It’s a thinking routine that can be used as a tool for reflecting. 
There are a variety of thinking routines that are excellent tools for reflecting (e.g.such as  I used to think…Now I think.., Chalk Talk, Ladder of Feedback, Connect-Extend-Challenge) but recently I’ve been using ESP+i and I’m really enjoying using it. . 
This routine looks at the key areas of meaningful reflection and focuses on 4 categories: Experience, Struggles, Puzzles, +Insights.


Experience: What were some of the key actions or activities that moved your thinking and learning ahead?
Struggles: What were some of the things you struggled with or found challenging and had to overcome?
Puzzles: What new questions came up for you along the way about your topic or area of focus?
+Insights: At this point, what additional or new insights do you have on the topic or process?
Reflection is woven throughout my Visible Thinking in the Museum Online course but I use this thinking routine at the end of my to reflect on the entire experience. We use it during  a class that devotes a whole 90 mins to wrap up, reflection and next steps. 
Using ESP+I allows course participants the chance to step back from the course and to analyse what they have learned up to a certain point and to assess how far they have come from their original goals or from the start of the course. 
Learning to reflect on their experiences helps participants to become more aware of their challenges or puzzles, whilst also giving them the time to recognise their development and successes
This is ALSO a really useful routine for ME to use generally for reflection – I’ve used it to reflect on courses and classes I’ve created and other aspects of my work and practice. It helps me to learn more about myself and how I create educational and learning content and experiences. 
So that’s it, that’s my round up of 6 thinking routines that I think you should have in your repertoire. But I’m interested to hear from you. Are there any that I’ve missed out? What others would you add? 

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. Get inspired!

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