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6 benefits of using thinking routines in the museum

6 benefits of using thinking routines with art and objects


I know thinking routines are a huge crowd pleaser.

I’m their biggest fan too – they have fundamentally changed the way I lead discussions around art and object

Used in combination with the other 7  practices of the VTM approach such as  good questions, a range of facilitation skills, slow looking  and more, you can create wonderfully engaging discussions in the museum about art and objects.

Used as part of a holistic approach, thinking routines will transform the way you work with objects and with audiences in the museum.

Thinking routines have wonderful benefits for the participants in your guided tours and educational programmes. They encourage deeper learning, provoke the imagination and curiosity and foster the open exploration of ideas about art and objects. 

But I also believe thinking routines are incredibly useful and beneficial tools for you too – as a museum educator, guide, docent or teacher.  

And so today I’m going to focus on you – and I’m going to share some 6 key  benefits you’ll get  from working with these magical structures in the museum. 

I going to talk about why routines are beneficial, the importance of structure, the flexibility of routines, how they help you to master sharing information and improve your questioning technique. And finally I’m ending with probably the biggest benefit of all – so stay tuned for that one!

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There’s a reason that they are called routines. Like brushing our teeth or any other daily routine, thinking routines are structures that get used regularly.

In general, having routines helps us to do things well, to be creative and productive. 

Once you’ve done any routine for a certain amount of time, it becomes ‘routine’ for you. It becomes part of the way you do things, the infrastructure of your educational programmes if you like.

And this is very freeing. 

The same is true with thinking routines. They are not one-off activities.

These short, memorable routines with a few simple questions or a series of steps are easy to use and easy to recall.

Even after using only a handful of times they are quickly memorised. With regular use,  you will sharpen your awareness for opportunities to use that thinking routine and you’ll see opportunities to use that thinking routine in other contexts too. 

They are specifically designed to help, support and guide mental processes or thinking.

Having a routine ‘internalised’ frees up time and head space to be more creative with your groups and gives you more mental energy to really focus on what the participants are saying. 

Thinking routines give you more headspace when you’re in the museum with visitors. They basically eliminate that constant decision-making about what to do next in a discussion. And this brings us on nicely to structure.


 I often say that thinking routines are like the backbone of your discussion – they provide a loose, flexible structure around which to base the discussion of an artwork or object.

They provide a structure for you to follow and a structure for your participant’s thinking too. This flexible structure organises thoughts and the stages of the thinking routine structure the conversation for both the educator and the participant. As a result, everyone knows what to expect.

You plan what you’re going to do in advance, think about the type of thinking that you would like participants to be engaging in, what your goal is for your programme, tour or session, and then select the thinking routine or routines that will encourage that type of thinking and follow the steps.

When you first start to use thinking routines as part of the VTM approach, it’s worth using the thinking routines as they are written. Your approach here will be quite deliberate and planned.

Once you’ve used that routine regularly, you start to feel more confident and comfortable with the routine and you may start to have ideas about applying the same routine to a variety of different artworks or objects.

When you’re very experienced with using thinking routines, as I have become over the past years, you start to feel a natural fluidity to using the routines. They become one with your practice.

It’s almost seamless, you’re not really aware of the individual steps, more of the whole. You feel happy to adapt, combine and even create your own routines. The structure is still there, but you don’t notice it. 

See this post for ideas on how to be creative with thinking routines.

Thinking routines help your discussion to become a rounded whole, rather than a loose muddle of open-ended questions. The steps in each routine are layered so that each question builds upon the last. This is a natural scaffold – that leads participants towards more sophisticated or higher level thinking. You’ll find that the structure of the routines leads to deeper conversations and deeper engagements with whatever you’re exploring with your groups. 


Thinking routines loosely guide the exploration of art and objects. They are not rigid inflexible structures. They can bend and stretch with you.  with such a wide variety of routines to choose from, currently over 100, you can vary the way you work depending on the goals of your programme or class. A selection of different thinking routines can be used throughout a programme to target different areas of thinking and keep the programme lively – unlike with Visual Thinking Strategies, you are not using the same routine at every stop. 

Again, it’s important to think about what pattern of behaviour or thinking you want your participants to engage in and then thinking about which thinking routine will best serve that purpose. 

Thinking routines can also be adapted or modified to suit the needs of the group or educators can even create their own routines based on the Visible Thinking ones. I really recommend episode as I mentioned earlier if you want to get into being creative. But remember, do the routines as they are at the beginning. You will then progress and develop and start to feel more confident using the routine. Once you start having ideas about how to use the thinking routine in different ways – this is a sign that you’re ready to be creative. It comes from using that routine regularly. So do be prepared to use it over and over again with all sorts of different groups and different artworks and objects before you start to be creative with it. 

The diversity and flexibility of thinking routines makes them ideal for exploring ideas, sparking curiosity and provoking debates in a huge variety of contexts and environments – e.g. in all types of museums (art, history, ethnographic, science, etc), historic houses, in nature and conversation, zoos, theatre and dance and so on.

And you’ll know if you’ve been listening to this podcast for a long time that I am a HUGE advocate for using thinking routines in your personal practice too – to develop your questioning technique, to brainstorm ideas for ways to work with an artwork or object or to reflect on your practice. They have huge benefits for YOU personally too. 

4. master how to add information

Because of the way they are structured, thinking routines allow information to be shared with your group in small amounts and at appropriate times, rather than as a lecture by the educator or guide. The structure of the routine helps you to avoid the big information dump. 

Having selected your thinking routines before you start, you know in advance what the structure of the discussion is going to be. You can then plan what information you’re going to share and when.

You can plan how much information you’re going to share at each point. You can decide whether you want to share a little bit of information at the start to place the artwork or object in context or whether you want to leave that information until later in the discussion – perhaps at the wondering stage or in response to questions from your participants. 

You can play with information as a tool. You’ll start to notice what effect information has on the group and remember the stage you shared it because it was in-between two steps of a thinking routine or in response to an interpretation someone shared. You can note down what happened when you shared information at the start or in the middle compared to when you shared it at the end. It helps you to view information as a tool to engage your audience and keep them actively learning and discovering with you. 

The structure of the thinking routine helps to really think about what information you’re sharing, how you are going to share your knowledge and when you are going to share it. 


I like to think of as a small side benefit of using thinking routines. And something I’ve noticed over the years as I’ve used thinking routines on a regular basis. They have helped to improve my questioning technique.

Questioning is THE skill to master when you want to create engaging discussions & dialogue around art and objects. 

The questions in a thinking routine are carefully worded to allow for multiple interpretations and to open up discussions. 

Over time, the use of thinking routines will help you to improve your own questioning technique. You will automatically start to word questions in the same way. You will become familiar with some of the questions and some of the question stems and use them at other moments during your guided tours and programmes. Using thinking routines regularly with participants helps you to phrase better questions and to formulate more OPEN questions on the spot. They really do help you to formulate questions on the fly – and that is a wonderful bonus. 

Secondly, you can use thinking routines to work on your questioning technique. I strongly recommend you use the thinking routine Creative Questions or Question Sorts to brainstorm questions about any artwork or object. This can be an artwork or object you’re worked with many many times and you’re looking for new ideas or something completely new that you’d like to brainstorm some ideas around. Or it can be something that you’ve always walked past and never considered using on a tour or in a programme. Use these thinking routines to help you come up with questions that you have! Use Creative questions for brainstorming and Question Sorts to then sort your questions.

In summary, The more you use the routines, the more they become second-nature. The more they become second-nature, the easier it is for you to word your questions in the same way. Thinking routines provide a good scaffold for ‘good’ questions.  

Here are some links I’ve written about using thinking routines to improve your questioning technique:

Using Thinking Routines to Formulate Better Questions

Quick Ways to Improve your Questioning Technique


And finally, the last benefit I’m going to share with you today. And this is a sneaky one because it’s all about what thinking routines do for your participants.

Using thinking routines with participants on your programmes in the museum will ultimately transform your practice.

But it will also have a huge impact on your participants too.

You will never find yourself in the same place at the same time saying the same thing. Every discussion you have with a thinking routine will be different.

Participants will surprise you with what they discover in an artwork. They 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!

Trust the thinking routine!

 Thinking routines allow people to contribute and participate in different ways and are flexible and adaptable, making them effective with a variety of audiences within museums. These routines loosely guide the analysis of a wide variety of materials such as artworks, photographs, documents, newspaper articles, museum objects and so on.

Changing to a new approach, a new practice takes time and practice, but using thinking routines as part of the VTM approach is ultimately far more rewarding for you as an educator and for the participants too.

If you’re interested in using thinking routines, I’ve just updated my Ultimate Thinking Routine List. There are now over 120 thinking routines on the list. You can get it via the button below!