visible thinking and meI remember the first time I heard the words ‘Visible Thinking’ very clearly. I was chairing a focus group at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam for teachers from international schools. We wanted to find out what they wanted from a museum visit and what they would like in an ideal world. This focus group was intended to help narrow down the choice of themes, method of approach, style and format of a new international school programme in English at the Tropenmuseum.

We were in the middle of discussing questions and all of the teachers agreed that they should ideally be open-ended, with the answers varying depending on how the student experienced it for themselves. Then a teacher from the International School of Amsterdam said:

‘We have done a lot of work with Visible Thinking, getting children to look at the way they think. Thinking routines – it might be worth you having a look at them…. Thinking routines would work very well in a museum setting as they make you look at things for a very long time. Children are so used to skimming and looking at things quickly. It would be great to have the time to study something. I like the idea of having small groups to work on fewer objects – you would hope that they would come back with their parents or go to any museum and know how to look at objects and teach their parents”
My interest was immediately piqued. What was this mysterious ‘Visible Thinking’ and what possible use and application could it have in the museum environment? Luckily, I like research and spent the new few months thinking about thinking (literally), reading up about thinking skills and dispositions and innovative teaching methods and skills-centred programmes in museums.

The resulting programme, Stories Around the World, uses thinking routines from Visible Thinking to provide a structure for student-led discussions and encourage the exploration of ideas. They also help to spark curiosity and provoke debate about the Tropenmuseum’s collection. As Visible Thinking was originally developed for classroom-use, I adapted elements of the method for use in the museum. I felt that in order to fully immerse yourself in using Visible Thinking in the museum, attention needed to be paid not only to the thinking routines themselves but also to documentation, the language of thinking and group work.

I’ve since become freelance and Visible Thinking informs most of my work. I founded Thinking Museum in 2013 and design educational programmes for children, families and adults that are engaging, fun and educational. Our museum programmes are not traditional museum tours: I want visitors to be engaged in conversation in the museum and to think about the works of art or objects they are exploring. I use thinking routines flexibly and liberally when designing programmes to encourage slow, careful exploration of museum objects and to spark curiosity and fire the imagination.

The questions in the thinking routines are carefully worded to inspire creative answers from groups of all ages and encourage people to share input in order to learn together. Whereas in the past, a museum guide would tell the group the information he/she wished to impart, museum teachers using Visible Thinking in the museum are encouraged to layer content into the group discussion to enhance and deepen group learning. We have a no-lecture policy! As a museum educator, I want to create a community, albeit a temporary one, of people who all feel happy, willing and able to contribute to the discussion for the duration of their time in the museum.

I also regularly train museum docents in using Visible Thinking in the museum and host quarterly open workshops where we train teachers, educators, parents and business people (amongst many others) how they can use Visible Thinking in the museum with art and museum objects. We teach participants that good facilitation skills are a key part of working with Visible Thinking in the museum. It’s not just about the thinking routines!

My aim is to continue developing and exploring using Visible Thinking in the museum with groups of all ages. We are currently building an active community of people working in this way, sharing examples of our ideas and experiments. As a museum educator, I can think of no better way of working – no two days are the same, every discussion is different, and I get to see children, teens and adults really engaging with works of art and historical objects in a museum. What more could you want?