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Three new thinking routines to try in your museum and gallery programmes

Three new thinking routines to try in your museum and gallery programmes

Are you tired of using the same old thinking routines in your museum and gallery programmes? If so, it’s time to shake things up and try something new. In this post, I’ll be sharing three exciting thinking routines that you can add to your repertoire.

Building a Repertoire of Thinking Routines

Before we dive into the new routines, let’s talk about the importance of building a repertoire of thinking routines that you use on a regular basis. Start with just one routine – such as See Think Wonder – and get to know that really well before you cast your net wider and add more routines. Eventually the plan is to have a selection of routines that you know so well that you can apply them flexibly and naturally to a wide variety of environments, with different artworks and audiences.

If you’re new to the Visible Thinking in the Museum (VTM) approach, I recommend first exploring 6 Essential Thinking Routines you Need in your Repertoire and How to Use See Think Wonder in your Art Discussions

Trying out New Thinking Routines

If you’ve done my VTMO course or one of my in-person training courses at a museum, then you will have become acquainted with a repertoire of thinking routines already. Maybe you’ve been using the same thinking routines for a while now and you’re pretty confident with how they work and importantly how they feel when you’re facilitating. 

At this stage you may be looking for some new routines to add to your toolbox. 

Learning new thinking routines at regular intervals is a great way to stay curious and inspired and to have a variety of thinking routines at your fingertips to use in a wide variety of situations too.

Today, I’m sharing 3 new routines for you to try out – one for looking closely and finding opportunity, one for distilling ideas and identifying emerging questions, and one thinking routine to help create space for learning.

1. Imagine If

Imagine If is a thinking routine from the Agency by Design project from Project Zero. It is a thinking routine for 

  • Looking closely
  • Finding opportunity
  • Pursuing new ideas

This thinking routine can be used to explore the possibilities of improving, tinkering with, or tweaking any object or system.

Imagine If asks you to imagine new ways to improve an object or a system by looking through four different lenses. Specifically, it asks in what ways can an object or system be made to be more effective, efficient, ethical, or beautiful. You can also come up with your own lenses too!


Choose an object or system:

Consider the parts, purposes, and people who interact with your object or system, and then ask:

In what ways could it be made to be more effective?

In what ways could it be made to be more efficient?

In what ways could it be made to be more ethical?

In what ways could it be made to be more beautiful?

It’s always worth pairing this thinking routine with an observation thinking routine or activity. You need to spend time looking at and thinking about an object before you start to imagine new ways to improve it.

Try pairing it with one of the 9 thinking routines for observation and description that I mention in Episode 59 – such as Looking Ten Times Two, Yes, And..or Colour Shape Line.

Or combine Imagine If with another useful Agency by Design thinking routine such as Parts Purposes Complexities or Parts Perspectives Me

I’ve used this thinking routine with all sorts of objects in the museum to encourage observation and brainstorm ideas about how that particular object might be improved. I  once used this thinking routine with over 500 people at the British Museum in a keynote speech that I was giving at a conference on objects.

Although it was a large group I didn’t want to give a lecture (you all know how I feel about lectures) and I wanted the group to experience the magic of thinking routines too.

So I asked them to turn to someone next to them. They then had to choose one object that they had with them. They had to spend some time looking at it really closely. They could pick it up turn it around and move any parts they wanted to. People chose all sorts of things – pens, notepads, earrings, shoes etc. I gave them 3-4 minutes to discuss together. It was great fun (and noisy too!).

Give Imagine If a go – use everyday objects, objects in your immediate vicinity, historical objects, design objects, and more and share ideas for how you might make them more effective, efficient, ethical and or beautiful. And have fun coming up with your own categories too. 

2. Take Note

Take Note is a routine from the Project Zero Connect project. It’s a routine for distilling ideas and identifying emerging questions. It is a useful routine for encouraging deeper thinking and reflection.

I use it for organising understanding of something – for example an artwork – and for capturing the heart of a discussion after it’s taken place. 

Here’s how Take Note works. After a discussion or at the end of a museum or gallery programme “take note” of ONE of the following:


After a discussion or at the end of a programme “take note” of ONE of the following:

  • What is the most important point?
  • What are you finding challenging, puzzling or difficult to understand?
  • What question would you most like to discuss?
  • What is something you found interesting?

Take Note engages participants to reflect on the key ideas, points and puzzles of what they have just been discussing. By reflecting on these, it can enhance learning and memory. In addition, it provides instant feedback for you as the facilitator too. 

Use it in the museum during or after any discussion. You can also use it at the end of your programme as an ‘exit ticket’ as part of your conclusion.

A strong conclusion as I talked about in How to End Well includes a chance to look inwards and turn outwards. Using a thinking routine like Take Note helps you to structure the looking inwards part. It gives you and your participants a chance to think about what has happened over the course of the programme (and why it matters). It also gives the group a chance to connect together one last time.

If you’re using it as an exit strategy you can choose whether you collect thoughts on post-it notes anonymously or ask everyone to make their thinking visible individually or in small groups. 

I’ve used this recently in my VTMO Intermediate course as a way of reflecting on what we’ve discovered together in our live classes but I can see how this thinking routine would work really well on guided tours and museum programmes too as an alternative to things like Headlines and I used to think… Now I think

3. Creating Space for Learning

This is a brand new thinking routine that I came across when I was updating my Ultimate Thinking Routine list recently. This thinking routine was developed as part of the ID Global, Reimagining Migration project at Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education. This thinking routine is essentially a grounding exercise that helps us to prepare for any programme, class or task. It actually can be used by anyone and anywhere, not just in the museum or classroom. You might want to think about using this before a big presentation or a speech that you have to give. 

I think that this thinking routine has huge potential for use at the start of a museum or gallery programme to facilitate the transition from wherever your participants have just come from (school, work, home) with whatever that has thrown at them (ie traffic jams, delays, stress, busyness) to where they are now in the museum space. This thinking routine could be used in your introduction or as a warm-up to get participants in the right frame of mind for what’s to come.

This routine could help to create a calm environment prior to a programme focusing on slow looking or one that deals with sensitive issues or difficult history. Taking a moment to notice what is on your mind, setting aside certain things and keeping others at the centre will help to make space for any new learning or discoveries to take place.

These sorts of mindful, grounding exercises are a helpful way to anchor your participants in the present, not in what just happened 10 minutes before they arrived. This particular routine is also a useful way to avoid getting overwhelmed or distracted by what’s on your mind by allowing us to focus on the present, what’s happening right now.  

Here’s how it works. Creating Space for Learning has 4 steps: Breathe, Notice, Set Aside and Keep at the Centre. 


Breathe: Find a comfortable posture and take your time to breathe three times deeply. 

Notice: What is on your mind and in your heart at this moment? Write or draw your inner thoughts and feelings inside the circle. 

Set aside: What feelings and thoughts might you need to set aside for now to learn today? Gently “move” these to the margin of the page. 

Keep at the centre: What feelings and thoughts might you want to keep or bring to your mind and heart as you prepare to learn today? Gently bring them to the centre. With these thoughts and feelings in mind, take a few final deep breaths and slowly turn to your learning

Depending on what the group needs you could choose to modify the steps of the routine to Breathe, Notice and Keep at the Centre. Or use this modification at the end of the programme to reflect on what has just happened. 


These three thinking routines can be useful additions to any museum or gallery program. They each offer unique benefits and can help your participants engage with objects and artwork at a deeper level. By incorporating these routines into your programmes, you can help to create a space for learning that encourages curiosity, reflection, and creativity. Which of these are you going to try out? Let me know I’d love to hear all about it and how you get on.

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