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7 Ways to Be Creative with Thinking Routines

Bitesize: 7 Ways to Be Creative with Thinking Routines


I have a golden rule when I introduce participants on my team trainings and in my VTMO course to thinking routines for the first time.  This that you should get to know one thinking routine really, really well before you learn any more. This is usually See Think Wonder  – probably the most well-known and famous thinking routine of them all  I tell participants to get to know the routine as it is written before they start to add in any variations. Try it out with a variety of different artworks and objects and different groups of all ages. See what works and what doesn’t. Get a feel for the routine.  Then you can get to know a repertoire of thinking routines to have in your back pocket as an educator. In Episode 6 I share 6 essential thinking routines that you should know. Get to know these really well so that you can use them in a variety of situations. Once you’ve mastered STW and you have your repertoire and are confident and comfortable with thinking routines, then you can start to be more creative and experiment with them. Yes, when you get started, it’s worth getting to know a small handful of routines and using them repeatedly until you feel comfortable and confident using them. But once you have that confidence, something magical starts to happen. And this is where we can be more creative with thinking routines.  Thinking routines are not rigid, inflexible structures. Unlike some protocols, You don’t have to use them exactly as they are written, without any room for creativity.  Think of thinking routines as flexible and malleable structures that you can use creatively to guide conversations around art and objects. As they are meant to be used repeatedly, you will find yourself wanting to be creative and inventive with them too.  So, In today’s episode I’m sharing 7 ways you can be creative with thinking routines.



Some of the more well-known thinking routines such as See Think Wonder have a lot of variations that you can play with in your programmes. For example with See Think Wonder, there is a whole variation of the routine based on the senses:

Hear-Think-Wonder Taste-Think-Wonder Touch-Think-Wonder Smell-Think-Wonder

I’ve done Touch-See-Think-Wonder many times with an object in a bag and it works really well too! And of course Looking Ten Times Two is also Listening Ten Times Two as well.  Finally, there are routines that are based on STW, such as: 

See-Wonder-Connect See-Think-Me-We

So, what variations could you think of with other thinking routines that you know well? Could you make up your own? We’ll talk about this later on!


You could also combine 2 or more thinking routines. There are many reasons why you might want to do this – say, for example the thinking routine you have chosen doesn’t have an observation question at the start like Step Inside.  As you know, we always always start with observation as the first step in any art discussion. We don’t jump straight into interpretations. We take the time to observe carefully before we move on to interpretations. Therefore with Step Inside, you might like to add an observation thinking routine like Looking Ten Times Two or Colour Shape Line so that the group has a chance to fully observe the image or object BEFORE you try to step inside it.  When you think about discussions, try to have the arc of the discussion in mind: 


In your discussion, You may want to add a thinking routine that brings the discussion of an artwork to a close like Headlines or I used to Think Or two routines that together create more time for interpretation – like Step Inside and the 3 Y’s.  When combining thinking routines, keep the discussion arc in mind and your goal for the discussion. What do you want your group to go away with? This will help you to select which routines you can play with. Using a combination of thinking routines will also free up head space to allow you to be more creative with your groups and will give you more energy to focus on what they are saying too.


As mentioned earlier in the See Think Wonder Variations example. You can also change the order of the questions in some routines. Like for example, Wonder See Think or instead of See Think Me We,  try See Think We Me (that’s how I always say it anyway as I get the order wrong every time!). And you vary the order of the questions too – so, instead of See-Think-Wonder, what about: Wonder-See-Think See-Wonder-Think


So I’ve also seen extra steps added to thinking routines – particularly See Think Wonder as this is the most well known routine, but you could try this with any thinking routine depending on what your goal is for your discussion. For example, I’ve used: 

See-Think-Wonder-Feel See-Think-Wonder-Write

What can you add to a thinking routine? Is something missing? Think about adding an extra step.


You can also think about whether you need to include all of the parts of a routine. Maybe you don’t want to focus on Colour, Shape and Line today? And instead just focus on Colour. You could then add in some extension questions thinking about the role of that colour in the artwork or how it contributes to the mood of the work. Or maybe for Beauty and Truth, you just want to focus on one aspect such as beauty and combine this with Colour Shape line to observe. Of course there is one rule with this: the only step you should never skip is observation!


Within each thinking routine there is flexibility for how you ask the questions. You will not get points deducted for not asking the question exactly as it is written with my VTM Method.  Take for example the think question in See Think Wonder. It is written as

‘What do you think is going on here?’ 

But equally you could ask:

What do you think is the story here?  What are you thinking about as you look at this image? What do you think might be happening in this painting? Who do you think the people could be? What do you think about that? What does it make you think about? What do you think about what you see?

Keep your variation of the question open-ended. Think about what your goal is for the discussion and use this to inspire how you might vary the questions in a routine to fit the purpose of your discussion and be more specific about the ‘thinking’ part. 


And finally, have you thought about creating your own thinking routines? I’ve certainly played around with a few ideas of my own. Think about See Wonder Connect which was created by the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and inspired by Sre Think Wonder. I also see See Think Me We as a sister routine or relative of STW wonder.  There are many thinking routines that have been created by other projects in Project Zero and others that have been created outside of Harvard too. I have tried to compile as many of these as I can on my Ultimate Thinking routines list What thinking routine could you create? Would you be inspired by an existing routine or would you create something from scratch inspired by a particular artwork or a particular theme you’re working with or a skill you’d like to develop. Be creative and see what you come up with. Test it out time and again. Re-work and iterate. See what you can create!


And don’t forget my FREE new Facebook group The Slow Looking Club created especially for podcast listeners. It’s a place for conversation and discussion about engaging with art, objects and life slowly. I’ll share resources, ideas and tips for anyone interested in looking at art – whether it’s for your personal enjoyment or your practice as a cultural educator. And we’ll have regular slow looking moments together too!