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The Visible Thinking in the Museum Approach


How did the Visible Thinking in the Museum approach come about?

In 2011, I carried out research at the Tropenmuseum with teachers from international schools to find out what they wanted from museum visits. I conducted a series of focus groups and spoke to teachers with the aim of designing a new educational programme for primary school students that:

  • engaged students fully with objects in the museum⁠
  • encourage slow looking and careful observation
  • fostered group discussion and collaborative learning
  • enabled a teaching switch from the ‘sage on the stage’ approach to a ‘guide on the side’

In one of the focus groups, a teacher from the International School of Amsterdam, spoke about Visible Thinking and how she thought it could have wonderful possibilities within the museum environment (as it had already done within their classrooms). 

After that session I went away and read ‘Cultivating a Culture of Thinking in Museums’ by Ron Ritchhart (a must-read for anyone starting out with VTM). The more I dug deeper into Visible Thinking, the more I could see all the wonderful possibilities for application with art, objects, themes and ideas in the museum environment. ⁠

This led me to create my first pedagogical method combining some of the elements from Visible Thinking with museum education practices – it was called ‘Stop! Look! Think.’ and it was the teaching approach for my first programme using thinking routines called ‘Stories around the World’.

And out of that very first museum programme Stories around the World, the Visible Thinking in the Museum approach has emerged. It has evolved and grown over the past few years as I have used in a variety of different ways with different collections and different audiences. But the essence of the routine, the key reasons behind why I developed the method have stayed the same. 

What is Visible Thinking?

Visible Thinking has been developed over a number of years by researchers from Harvard’s Project Zero with teachers and students. Visible Thinking is essentially a ‘broad and flexible framework for enriching learning’ by fostering deep thinking and a better understanding of content. 

The central idea of Visible Thinking is simple: making thinking visible.

The vast majority of what we think is hidden – it stays in our heads or ‘under the bonnet’ as David Perkins likes to put it and we only articulate a small portion of it.

The key elements of Visible Thinking are:

  • Explaining and articulating thinking out loud
  • Listening to others articulating their thinking
  • Engaging in discussion whilst forming understanding

Visible Thinking includes a number of key ways of making thinking – and opportunities for thinking – much more visible in classrooms and other learning environments. By making thinking visible to yourself and to those around you, opportunities for learning expand. 

What is Visible Thinking in the Museum?

Whilst I knew that Visible Thinking worked well in the classroom, I knew that there were parts that would need to be adapted for use in informal learning. 

Therefore the Visible Thinking in the Museum approach (VTM) takes elements of a framework called Visible Thinking and combines them with museum education practices, facilitation techniques, questioning strategies and coaching tools.

VTM is an easy-to-follow framework that allows museum educators, guides, teachers and docents to confidently design and lead engaging discussion-based sessions with art, objects and ideas with any audience.

Who is Visible Thinking in the Museum for?

Practitioners working within museum/heritage learning and engagement teams and responsible for designing or facilitating tours and programmes for visitors.

Visible Thinking in the Museum can be used by museum educators, museum, heritage and tour guides, volunteers or museum docents, learning practitioners and teachers. 

It’s an approach that can be used by 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.

How does VTM work?

VTM is a flexible structure to explore and discuss a wide variety of materials – in particular museum and heritage collections and their stories. Educators can use thinking routines as the structure to their inquiry-led discussions and to engage their audience with certain skills, such as careful observation, thoughtful interpretation and understanding different viewpoints. The museum teacher, guide or educator facilitates and guides this process combining thinking routines with 8 specific practices.

It puts engagement front and centre. 


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

1. 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: ⁠⁠VTM is 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)?⁠⁠

These are the foundations upon which my Visible Thinking in the Museum method is built. ⁠⁠Any of these three would create engagement on their own, but the magic happens when you put them all together.


There are 8 practices associated with the method 


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 approach is a practice, a way of being when you’re with groups in the museum.

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

You also need to work on your questioning technique, employ facilitation skills, work multi-modally and encourage a collaborative culture. 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 the VTM approach so powerful.

I’ve trained hundreds of educators, guides and creatives in the Visible Thinking in the Museum approach since 2011. You can work with me as an individual or as a team, either online, in-person or hybrid.


Slow Looking at Art: The Visible Thinking in the Museum Approach

My book Slow Looking at Art: The Visible Thinking in the Museum Approach covers the 3 foundational elements of the method, plus the 8 practices.

You will learn how to give your discussions a flexible structure and substance using thinking routines; how to share information as a tool to engage your audience and how best to engage your group with facilitation skills, a sound questioning technique and more. You will learn how to use a variety of thinking routines for group, individual and personal use.

Full of practical steps & helpful advice, this book provides you with everything you need to create engaging discussions with art and objects in the museum.

Slow Looking at Art: The Visible Thinking in the Museum Approach will be published in 2023 as an e-book and a print edition too. Get on the waitlist to be the first to receive a copy.