Skip to content

13 Tips for Getting Started with Thinking Routines

13 Tips for Getting Started with Thinking Routines



In the past week I’ve just started teaching my Visible Thinking in the Museum Online course (VTMO) to a group of international educators excited to start confidently leading discussions around art and objects.
There’s always a buzz when we get going and an enthusiasm to learn as much as you can as quickly as possible.
But I always try to slow down participants, so that they can take it one step at a time and build up their practice (and confidence) slowly.
So this week’s episode is for all the new VTMO-ers and for anyone who has just started out using thinking routines to engage their audiences with art. Here are my top 13 tips for getting started!


Although I have a list of over 100 thinking routines on my Ultimate Thinking Routine list, I don’t advise trying to get to know all the thinking routines at once. I recommend starting with one thinking routine – something fairly straightforward like See Think Wonder or See Wonder Connect to start with. Use this thinking routine over and over again until you feel comfortable with it.
Use it with different groups of people, in different circumstances and with a variety of materials – different artworks (abstract, portraits, landscapes, photography) or objects – until you know it like the back of your hand. Get to know it really well. Make notes on what worked and what didn’t work. What you need to work on for next time.
The whole point of a thinking routine is regular repeated use. So, keep using this one routine until you are entirely happy and confident using it. Then and only then can you start to introduce more thinking routines into your repertoire. Don’t rush ahead, one step at a time. 


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 – you can play with the order of the questions – moving from See Think Wonder to perhaps trying Wonder See Think – and or combine thinking routines together. There are also variations on how you ask the questions – go back to Episode 16 on How to use See Think Wonder in your Art Discussions to hear about all the different variations there are for this routine. This is a great routine to get started with! 


So, a question I asked participants on my Art of Engagement challenge to think about was
Do I regularly make space for slow looking or do I start telling my group what they are looking at?
I also asked them to think about whether they started asking for interpretations straight away when they arrived at an artwork or object and whether they actually gave the group long enough to look before they started talking.
These are all things that I have observed over the years watching gallery teaching and guiding in action.
It’s important to allow time for looking at the art or object.
Make space and time for looking at the start of every art or object discussion to get your participants focused, keen to participate and curious to start the discussion. This can be done silently or in pairs or you can ‘guide’ the observation using words to direct the gaze of your participants to certain colours, shapes or lines. Starting with a period of looking before moving on to stating what we see and describing what’s in front of us:
  • allows us to see the ‘whole picture’ and leads to insights and connections
  • makes everyone feel a part of the discovery process
  • offers a ‘level playing field’ on which to start a discussion – everyone can take part and no prior knowledge is required
  • fires up wonder and curiosity
Equally, 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. You can guide the looking with a guided observation, let the group look in pairs or do a silent observation. You are basically allowing time for the group to observe and think BEFORE you ask any questions. Let them look first!


This can be quite scary for those moving from a more traditional approach to a discussion-based one.
Ask the question in the thinking routine and then wait. That silence can be deafening and your natural response is to fill the void with more words. But hold off and wait.
You need to give everyone the chance to respond to your question. You need to give everyone the chance to look and think about your question. Open-ended questions naturally lead to more thoughtful responses and these aren’t instant answers. Sometimes they take time to formulate in your participant’s heads!
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!


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 and a set of carefully crafted questions to get there.
As you progress, You may need and WANT to add your own open-ended questions, clarifying questions, follow up questions to it but the thinking routine provides a flexible structure around which you explore the content.


I was once told about a museum educator at a very famous museum who had taken part in one of my trainings and had then gone to their museum and told their guide team to just throw in a thinking routine or two into a guided tour when it was necessary as an activity. However, thinking routines are not just an ‘ad-hoc’ strategy to add to your sessions or tours to inject a little more participation or enliven a dull programme. ⁠ ⁠ It’s the combination of practices together that make the Visible Thinking in the Museum method so powerful.⁠
It’s the combination of slow looking, questioning skills, facilitation techniques, collaborative learning, practice, coaching, reflection AND thinking routines that makes this way of working so successful.


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?’


As the facilitator, you should model the language of thinking 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 that has taken place.
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 of thinking.


Thinking 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.
Remind yourself and your groups often that you’re not looking for the ‘right’ answer, you’re looking for a wide variety of ideas, hypotheses, interpretations and inferences.


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!


When you incorporate thinking routines 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 ‘collective intelligence’ of the group as individuals are able to use and build upon other’s experience and interpretations. The group reasons together out loud, puts forward new ideas, responds to and builds on the ideas of others and generates further questions together.
Over time and with repeated use, you will find yourself (and your participants) adopting the language of thinking.


You may not arrive at a final, definitive interpretation or an end point to your discussion. That’s OK. Embrace the process of the routine and the rich discussion that follows. The process of thinking is more important than the destination.


Trust the routine and give it time, even if you’re unsure of the direction the discussion will go in.
I 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’s worth switching our thinking here and changing from ‘I’m not sure this will work’ to ‘how can I make this work?’ Spending time going through a routine and thinking about each question yourself and noting down thoughts, ideas and questions is a great way to inspire you with new ideas of how you could use it. 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.

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.