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9 thinking routines to improve your powers of observation

9 thinking routines to improve your Powers of Observation


In today’s solo episode, I’m talking about observation skills – why they are important and I’m sharing 9 thinking routines that you can use to boost your observation and description skills.


So, observation skills. As you’ll know from previous episodes, I’m really fascinated by observation and really interested in developing my skills in this area (I have LOADS of  books on this subject!)

Most of the time we are observing passively – missing out on a wide range of life that we simply don’t notice. 

The act of looking requires some work to improve it – but like a muscle we can train it to work better. 

So in this week’s episode we’ll talk first about why improving our observation skills is important before I move on to share a variety of thinking routines that focus specifically on this skill, which you can use to either improve or boost your own observation skills or that you can use with groups in your guided tours and programmes.

I highly recommend you work on your own observational skills to start with. The more we notice and observe, the better we are at encouraging our group members and participants to do the same. 


Observation is defined as ‘the action or process of closely observing or monitoring something or someone’ in the dictionary. 

I also found other definitions on the internet, such as:

Observation is the active acquisition of information from a primary source


Observation skills refer to the ability to use all five of your senses to recogniSe, analyse and recall your surroundings”.


  • First of all, being able to observe and gather information about our surroundings is important because it’s the basis of good communication. It’s a way of gathering information. When you hone your observation skills, you are able to interact with people better – you are using more than just your listening skills, but being aware of what else is going around you. 
  • Improving your observation skills allows you to tune into the bigger picture and therefore helps us to make better decisions. Remember Episode 42 on How to Read A Group? Being observant about what is happening in a group is a great way for us to ensure that everyone is still engaged, whether they are enjoying the programme, following along or even whether they are even listening. It’s a way of gaining knowledge about the world and helps us to uncover complexities. Being observant allows you to notice the minute details or information that others may miss. 
  • In addition, having great observation skills encourages you to be present and aware of the details of your daily life. There are links to  mindfulness too. Researchers from the University of Amsterdam found a link between various aspects of mindfulness, such as observation skills, and other factors that are key drivers for creativity. Their Results showed that strong observation skills were linked to greater creativity, originality, and flexible thinking
  • Having great powers of observation also helps your ability to interact with others and to respond to them in an appropriate manner. Both are important for work and home life.  
  • Honing our looking skills also leads us to unexpected discoveries that pique our interest and curiosity, which may lead to new insights. 
  • Finally, having great powers of observation will help you to find  more joy and meaning and add so much value to your life by observing things that you would otherwise overlook.

And the list could go on, but I hope that I’ve already convinced you that it’s worth devoting some time to training our brains to see more and to observe more accurately! 

So let’s now move on to discussing some handy thinking routines that are focused exclusively on observation. Use these with groups with artworks and objects or use them yourself to see if you can improve your observation skills. You can pick and choose which ones take your fancy!


I included this thinking routine in Episode 6 – 6 essential thinking routines to have in your repertoire. And there’s a reason that it’s an essential thinking routine!

The Looking Ten Times Two (10×2) Thinking routine helps participants slow down and make careful, detailed observations. This thinking routine helps you make a list or inventory of what people are observing. 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 or VTM method. 

It is vital 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 spark curiosity. It helps to slow down the knee-jerk reaction to want to interpret right away.  

So, observation is always the first step for me in any art or object inquiry. 

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. 


This thinking routine encourages you to look carefully at details.

It challenges you to develop elaborate and imaginative verbal descriptions.

A key part of this routine is that It also encourages us to distinguish between observations and interpretations. It asks us to withhold our ideas about what we’re looking at – their interpretations – until the end of the routine.

This in turn strengthens our ability to reason carefully, because it gives us practice making sustained observations before jumping into judgment. And we know from previous episodes that this is very important to avoid those hasty interpretations that can so often happen.

The Elaboration Game also helps develop a detailed descriptive vocabulary and provides a chance to practice effective listening and building shared knowledge. It reinforces the value of going beyond a quick glance and revisiting an object to learn more.

Here’s how it works:

One person identifies a specific section of an artwork or object and describes what they see
Another person elaborates on the first person’s observations by adding more detail about the section
A third person elaborates further by adding yet more detail, and a fourth person adds yet more
Then we identify a new section of the artwork and the process starts over

It can be an individual, small group or whole group exercise and you can choose the sections as the facilitator or let the group choose the sections to observe and describe.

Give it a go – it’s a really engaging way to observe and describe and get the whole group involved.

In some respects it’s similar to ‘Yes, and…’ which I’ve been using as a warm-up and observation activity for years. This routine is borrowed from improv.

‘Yes, and..’ asks us to go around in a group and make observations about an artwork using the following framework:

The first person says: ‘I see X”

Next person “Yes, you see X and I see Y’

Next person “Yes, you see Y and I see Z”


In episode 28, I talked about how to engage with colour in art discussions and we explore Colour Shape Line which is one of my favourite thinking routines to use to start a discussion about an artwork or object is Colour Shape Line. 

This thinking routine asks you to observe the artwork in 3 different categories, all elements of art. This thinking routine starts with colour and asks the group to describe what colours they see. It then moves on to Shapes and Lines. 

That sounds simple enough. And it is – it’s an easy entry point into an artwork and works wonderfully with abstract or conceptual art that may be more challenging for audiences to engage with (or even know where to start). 

I quite often ask the group to be as specific as possible when describing the colours or the shapes or the lines – so, instead of just saying red, they might suggest blood red or postbox red or cherry red. They might say wiggly lines or natural shapes. This encourages descriptive language and you could even collect up the responses – or make them visible on a portable whiteboard and create poetry out of them afterwards. 

Similar to this thinking routines, that asks you to observe in categories is another one – Nouns Adjectives Verbs.

This thinking routine helps us to slow down and make careful observations about an object. We categorise our descriptions into parts of speech. It helps us to think carefully about the words or phrases that we use to describe what we’re looking at and really makes us push beyond first glances too. 

It asks us to look at an object for a while and then:

  1. On your own, list five nouns 

  2. Look again and list five adjectives 

  3. Look a third time and list five verbs you see.

  4. Share a new observation..

Name Describe Act is similar to this thinking routine and is from the 2019 book The Power of Making Thinking Visible. This routine also helps with careful observation & close-looking. It too asks us to describe in increasing layers of detail and helps us to enhance our vocabulary. The key difference with this thinking routine is that we are asked to do it from memory with Name Describe Act.

Here’s how it works:

  • Look at an image for 1-2 minutes and then remove it from sight. 

  • Now working from memory:

  • Name: Make a list of all the parts or features that you can remember. These will  most likely be nouns, things you can point to and name

  • Describe: For each of the things you’ve named, add a description. What adjectives could you add to the nouns you have listed?

  • Act: For each of the things you’ve named, tell how they act. What are they doing? What is their function? How do they add or contribute to the whole? How are they related to other things you have named. These may be, but are not limited to, verbs.


And this brings me on to Memory Draw and Slow Complexity Capture. The last two thinking routines I’m going to mention today.

So, let’s start with Memory Draw. 

Memory Draw is a thinking routine that  can be used to explore images and objects from memory. It helps us to avoid the hasty quick glance and makes us look more deeply. 

This routine asks you to spend some time looking before you are asked to draw everything you remember from memory as best as you can. Imagine your mind is a photocopier and try to reproduce an image as accurately as possible. 

We then spend some time comparing our drawings to the original and discuss questions such as:

    • What seems to match up when you compare your version to the original? 

    • What seems very different? 

    • What’s not present at all in your version?

Another drawing routine is Slow Complexity Capture that asks you to Find, Capture, Explain and Wonder about an object through drawing. Both this routine, Memory Draw and Parts Purpose Complexities are covered in detail in Episode 25 – 3 Thinking Routines for Slow Looking and Drawing.

So, that’s it, we’ve spent some time thinking about why observation is important and then I’ve introduced you to a wide variety of thinking routines that you can use to observe and describe. Use them on your own to improve your observation and description skills or use them with groups to create engaging discussions about art and objects. 

Have fun – and don’t forget to download the free resource that accompanies this episode below!


Download my FREE thinking routines for observation cheatsheet bundle containing 9 thinking routines that you can use to observe and describe artworks and objects.

You can get your copy here.