WHAT IS VISIBLE THINKING IN THE MUSEUM (AND HOW CAN IT HELP ME TO ENGAGE MY AUDIENCE?)

Way back in 2011, I discovered the magic of thinking routines and Visible Thinking whilst working at a museum in Amsterdam.
It was at this point that I started developing a new approach for educators, what became Visible Thinking in the Museum or VTM for short.
Visible Thinking in the Museum is an easy-to-follow method that allows educators like you to confidently design and lead engaging inquiry-led sessions with art, objects and ideas for any audience. 
But what’s it all about? And why should you use it? Today we’re talking about the foundations, principles and practices of the VTM method and 8 ways it can help you to engage your audiences.

INTRODUCTION

I’ve talked before about how my Visible Thinking in the Museum (VTM) method came about when I was developing a new programme at the Tropenmuseum in 2011, but I haven’t spent much time talking about the foundations, principles, practices and key ideas behind it.

Or the ways in which in can help you as an educator to engage your audience with art, objects and ideas and to connect with your participants too.

It’s important to mention here too that VTM is something that I’ve been actively developing through my practice over the last 11 years – it’s been constantly evolving and growing as I grow too. So, the VTM that was around 10 years ago is a little bit different to the method I’m talking about today.

WHO IS VTM FOR?

Visible Thinking in the Museum (VTM) can be used by museum educators, museum, heritage and tour guides, volunteers or museum docents, learning practitioners and teachers in all sectors of education who want to incorporate visual art into their teaching.

It’s also been used by creatives and entrepreneurs, freelancers, therapists and mindfulness practitioners. The wide variety of people who use it and have taken my courses shows just how flexible this method really is!

HOW DOES IT WORK?

The Visible Thinking in the Museum (VTM) method  is a flexible structure around which to explore and discuss a wide variety of materials – in particular museum and heritage collections and their stories – the method puts engagement front and centre. 

8 PRACTICES

There are 8 practices associated with the method 

  1. slow looking
  2. thinking routines
  3. questioning skills
  4. facilitation skills
  5. collaborative learning
  6. multimodality
  7. practice and coaching
  8. reflective practice

Each of these practices plays a crucial role in the method.

I always say that it’s not just about the thinking routines, it’s the combination of practices that make this such a powerful method. It’s not just a strategy, the VTM method is a practice, a way of being or a state, you could say.

Whilst I love thinking routines – their structure, flexibility and variety, the way they foster thinking – I know it takes MORE to create an engaging and memorable discussion around art and objects.

You also need to work on your questioning technique, employ facilitation skills, work in a variety of different ways and encourage collaborative learning. You need to practice, practice, practice. You need to get coached and receive feedback and you need to develop a truly reflective practice. 

It’s the combination of all these 8 practices TOGETHER that make VTM so powerful.

These practices are the foundation for the method – which is why so many episodes in this podcast have been about subjects related to all of these. That’s why I keep talking about questions, facilitation, coaching, reflection and more.

INQUIRY MADE SIMPLE

The VTM method seeks to simplify the demands of leading inquiry-based, discussion-led interactive programmes. It addresses some of the key concerns that educators have shared with me over the past 11 years – such as:

  • How do I know what questions to ask? How do I know what questions are ‘good’ questions?
  • What if someone asks me a question I don’t know the answer to?⁠
  • How, when and where will I share all my wonderful art historical, historical or technical knowledge? ⁠
  • What will happen if I hand over control⁠ to the participants?
  • What if no-one says anything?⁠
  • How do I structure a discussion-based programme? What if we go off-topic or off on tangents?

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.

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. ⁠

3 FOUNDATIONS

Engagement is at the heart of VTM. The method is based around the idea that true engagement with objects involves 3 basic ingredients: 

#1 SUSTAINED OR SLOW LOOKING

This allows us to see the ‘whole picture’ and helps us to avoid hasty interpretations. Make time for connections to happen.⁠⁠

#2 SHARED VISUAL INQUIRY

We reason together out loud, put forward new ideas, respond to and build on the ideas of others & generates further questions. ⁠⁠

#3 PERSONAL DISCOVERY

Museum experiences and experiences with art and objects makes you think. ⁠They allow you to draw on your emotions, pull from personal experiences and make connections. ⁠

Talking about your personal connections to a work of art helps you to construct meaning and articulate your thoughts about what you are seeing, feeling and thinking. ⁠

It’s about you and the artwork – not curators, wall labels, books and more. What does that work of art mean to you (and, perhaps, just you)?⁠⁠

Any of these three would create engagement on their own, but put them all together as that’s when the magic happens 💫⁠⁠

CORE PRINCIPLES

On top of that there are some core principles that are essential to VTM:

1. Shared visual inquiry⁠

2. Creating memorable experiences⁠

3. Moving participants from a passive role into an active one ⁠

4. Changing the role of the guide/educator from ‘expert’ to facilitator⁠

5. Developing thinking dispositions⁠

6. Cultivating engagement – with us, with others, with art, objects and ideas

8 WAYS IT CAN HELP YOU TO ENGAGE YOUR AUDIENCES WITH ART AND OBJECTS

#1 FLEXIBLE STRUCTURE

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 you should be able to easily recall where you are in the discussion.

#2 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. By using thinking routines on a regular basis, it actually improves your question formulation skills.

The method also teaches you to notice and be aware of how a carefully placed or well formulated question can change everything.

#3 KNOW HOW, WHEN AND IF TO ADD INFO

With this method, you learn how to use your knowledge in a productive and strategic way.

You’ll learn to be aware of the power of information and how you can use to engage the group and further inquiry (not bore them to tears with endless facts).

Think: Does your information provide a jumping-off point for group dialogue or actually shut down new insights from the participants?

You’ll learn how to drip-feed information in small amounts and at appropriate times. Factual or supplemental information can be added as and when required with VTM or not at all.

#4 IT’S SO, SO FLEXIBLE

This is not a one-sized fits all or ‘my way or the highway’ approach.

Thinking routines are intended to be flexible structures. So, once you get used to using them, they can also be adapted or modified to suit the needs of the group. You can even create your own routines based too!

Thinking routines can also 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.

It’s your method – I teach you how it works and then you make it your own to fit into your toolbox and use in your unique way as a facilitator.

#5 DESIGN AND LEAD MEMORABLE EXPERIENCES

This way of working is so so rewarding. You will be able to witness first hand what happens when a group of participants are truly engaged with an artwork or object and connecting with each other and you. You’ll see the wow moments and the oohs and aahs and you’ll hear their questions, theories and suggestions.

#6 USE IN A VARIETY OF DIFFERENT CONTEXTS

You can use VTM in a huge variety of contexts and environments. It’s not just for art museums. 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 method so that they can lead engaging discussions about their own specific collections and environments with their own unique audiences.

#7 EMPHASIS ON CONNECTION BEFORE CONTENT 

CONNECTION Before CONTENT is a mantra for VTM.

You want to connect people to purpose, You want to connect people to each other and to you the facilitator and You want to create a space where people can talk and converse freely

#8 FEEL CONFIDENT WITH INQUIRY-BASED, INTERACTIVE PROGRAMMES 

This is a big one – because inquiry can feel scary to start with. And if you’re about to take your first steps, it might seem really daunting.

The method helps you to take it one step at a time – we start with See Think Wonder and basic concepts.

And in order to really embed a new way of working you need to make sure you practice consistently too.⁠

So practice and coaching are both big components of the method. It looks easy when you see a skilled facilitator leading a VTM discussion but it takes time to develop these swan-like skills. So, when learning VTM we take time for regular practise.

The more you practise and gain experience, the more you will grow in confidence. Before long, you will be wondering what on earth you were worried about in the first place!

VTMO TASTER SESSION

If you’d like to learn more about VTM, then a look at the FREE TASTER SESSION  that I ran recently. 

In this free 60 minute event, you will:

  • be introduced you to the principles of my Visible Thinking in the Museum (VTM) method and how it can be applied in the museum or heritage environment with collections. ⁠
  • experience a mini art inquiry with thinking routine See Think Me We. ⁠
  • get an introduction to my VTMO course – what to expect and how it works.

VTMO

And if you want to learn how to use the VTM method, you can join the next cohort of my VTMO course.

You’ll get to update your skills – we all need to update our ‘toolbox’ on a regular basis to keep up-to-date with the latest methods and techniques and this includes learning new thinking routines and perfecting your facilitation techniques too.

You’ll become part of a community – it’s much easier to be creative in your practice when you’re learning alongside like-minded people.

You’ll also make friends and future collaborators – you’ll get new ideas and inspiration too.

Finally, if I haven’t persuaded you yet, it will TRANSFORM the way you work with art, objects and participants in the museum forever. Take a look at my VTMO page on my website.

VTMO