Visible Thinking Routines (VTRs) are a series of steps that make complex thinking processes accessible to students through the use of Visual Thinking, “the process of thinking through visualization.”1 VTRs are effective because humans, by nature, are visual thinkers; our minds are hardwired to rapidly process and remember visual input.2 According to the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, “A well-designed visual image can yield a much more powerful and memorable learning experience than a mere verbal or textual description.”3
All ages and types of students, including those specified as visual learners—believed to make up approximately 65% of the population4— can benefit from the use of VTRs in the classroom.
Read on to explore how Visible Thinking Routines can benefit your students.
A Brief History of VTRs
VTRs were created by Project Zero, a Harvard Graduate School of Education initiative launched in 1967 by philosopher Nelson Goodman.5 As part of its research into how students learn, Project Zero noticed highly capable thinkers employ Visual Thinking Strategies, or thinking approaches, through established habits of, “observation, analysis, and questioning”6
Using these findings, Project Zero created VTRs to encourage all students to use Visual Thinking skills in order to “think better," by:
- Becoming observers
- Organizing their ideas
- Reasoning carefully
- Reflecting on how they are making sense of things7
VTRs are great for classroom use because they:
- Do not require previous experience
- Make complex concepts highly accessible to all learners
- Are easy to remember and easy to use
- Help users develop positive mental habits that can be used in class and in the world around them.
- Help users dig deeper
- Encourage critical thinking and the exploration of different perspectives
- Help groups develop group thinking skills6,7
Today’s global classrooms are finding Visual Thinking exercises an especially constructive classroom tool that can help boost students’ critical thinking, literacy, observation, and evidentiary skills.8
Best VTRs for the Classroom
We’ve compiled this shortlist of VTRs from a comprehensive Project Zero database9 of VTRs. Give more than a few a try! Be encouraged to use more than one VTR per lesson. You can also share your classroom experiences with other educators to share the educational outcomes of using VTRs.
Think, Pair, Share
Best for: paired assignments, idea exploration, peer collaboration
Boost your students’ active reasoning and explanatory skills with this simple and effective VTR. Think, Pair, Share encourages students to collaborate in order to understand more than one perspective. In this Thinking Routine, students engage in both listening and speaking as they think about the topic you address, pair themselves with a student partner or team, and share their ideas about that chosen topic.
Example activity: Have your students complete an assigned reading, ponder a point from that reading, and individually take notes on paper about their thoughts before sharing those thoughts in two-person pairs. Have student pairs work on their ideas, reshaping and reforming their individual ideas to form new ones based on their collective discoveries. Close out the activity by having each student pair share what they have ideated and synthesized together with the rest of the class.
See, Think, Wonder
Best for: new ideas, idea exploration, art-based learning
Get students to activate their research skills and inquisitiveness with the See, Think, Wonder Visible Thinking Routine. Students should observe what they see, then consider what they think about what they have seen, and then add musings about what they now wonder about.
Example Activity: Have your students take time to examine a new piece of art or unfamiliar item which relates to your curriculum. Embolden students to look for new things, beyond the familiar, with the item. After they’ve had time to see and to think thoroughly, have them write down “I wonder” questions to help them build on their ideas and thoughts about the item. Then have students participate as a group by sharing their observations and questions out loud in class.
What Makes You Say That?
Best for: idea exploration, deep thinking, idea justification
If you’re ready to build your students’ evidentiary reasoning skills, What Makes You Say That? is the perfect VTR. This routine asks students to elaborate on their ideas by supporting them with the facts they've acquired from classroom teachings, personal experiences, and present circumstances/surroundings. This routine also helps students better understand how to justify their reasoning as they interpret texts and take in classroom sights, sounds, and surrounding stimuli.
Example Activity: During classroom reviews of assigned reading, ask students, “What makes you say that?” Have individuals offer their viewpoints and consider the viewpoints of other classmates that have already participated. Let students know it’s okay to refer to the comments of others when supporting their own positions and perspectives to build classroom engagement and camaraderie.
Think, Puzzle, Explore
Best for: new ideas, idea exploration, art-based learning
If you are looking for ways to have your students focus on their deeper thinking abilities while activating prior knowledge about concepts to generate curiosity, Think, Puzzle, Explore is the perfect VTR. Ask students to write down what they currently think about a certain topic. Have students add what puzzles them about that topic. Finally, ask students to share how they would explore and look for certain information that could provide the answers to the questions they have come up with. This Visible Thinking Routine works well for younger students as well as older students who need to dissect and absorb complex concepts in history, geography, science, social studies, etc.
Example Activity: Have your students consider what they think they know about a many-layered topic from a textbook reading, artifact, or visual object, encouraging them to contribute any ideas concerning what they think they already know. Next, have students ask their questions out loud. Lastly, have students share the best places and sources to gather the information they seek for these questions. As an added bonus, review correct answers students have about the artifact in a subsequent class to dispel any misconceptions and reinforce correct answers. Be sure to moderate this Visible Thinking Routine by writing down student contributions on a shared board viewable by all students during the exercise.
Best for: classroom collaboration, positive feedback habits, peer review
Learning how to positively critique each others’ work and give effective feedback is the purpose of this VTR. Give 3 asks students to provide beneficial feedback about student work in a manner that fosters interaction as well as an atmosphere of teamwork. Have students support their comments for their peers with examples from the work, being sure to remain helpful, engaged, and positive.
Example Activity: Have students prepare a short work to a lesson that will be seen and commented on by their classmates. Ask each student in class to share their feedback for each of the three VTR steps before moving to the next portion of the activity. Start the exercise with an example of your own work to teach students the proper way to review peer work.
Color, Symbol, Image
Best for: organizing ideas, originating ideas, idea distillation, art-based activities
Get your students to practice their knack for colors and visual ideas with this VTR. Color, Symbol, Image asks student participants to read/watch activity material and then draw using a color they think best encompasses the lesson ideas. Next, have your students create a symbol that represents their idea. Lastly, have students construct a more complete image of that idea, fleshing out their color and symbol creations as they go. Ask students to explain, in a short note, why they have made each particular visual choice.
Example Activity: Share a short video or reading with your class that builds on your lesson plan for the week. Have your students draw and share what they have created, adding their reasons for doing so, at each stage of the activity. Call on a variety of students with different perspectives and drawing abilities to create an engaging learning atmosphere that brings out the best in students who respond to art-based activities.
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