Thinking Routines and Visible Thinking Strategies for Critical Thinking

How do students become good thinkers? Being able to think creatively, critically, and deeply is a fundamental skill which supports the learning process.

Thinking Routines consist of asking probing questions, making connections between ideas, challenging them, and generating possible explanations.

What are Thinking Routines and Visible Thinking Strategies?

Thinking Routines can be defined as a small sequence of steps and structures: See, Think, Wonder, Connect, Extend, and Challenge. They help students go beyond the superficial, making the complex accessible.

Visible Thinking Strategies (VTS) is an inquiry-based teaching method created by a cognitive psychologist and a museum educator living in California, USA.

VTS encourages collaboration, inclusivity, community-building, and dialogue amongst students and improves student ability to describe, analyze, and interpret imagery through observation and discussion.

Both Thinking Routines and Visible Thinking Strategies include important formulas which focus on developing critical thinking skills as well as encouraging open-ended, collaborative, and inclusive classroom discussions based on observation.

These strategies are especially effective in engaging and motivating learners because they invite a more profound level of thinking and increase attention to visual perspective.

These thought approaches keep students focused in the present and can be used in various ways to develop students’ thinking skills in any academic subject matter at any level.

Introduction to Thinking Routines

Thinking Routines were developed and adapted by the Project Zero research group at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education in Massachusetts, USA.

Project Zero’s Thinking Routine Toolbox defines thinking routines as “a set of questions or a brief sequence of steps used to scaffold and support student thinking”.

Within this toolbox, they examine several types of thinking types from Core Thinking Routines, Possibilities, Analogies, Perspectives, and Controversies to Objects, Systems, Synthesizing and Organizing ideas, etc.

Thinking Routines are valuable and useful to both teachers and students as they place students at the core of learning.

The steps of each thinking routine are easy to remember, and teachers can use any of them repeatedly within different academic contexts. Students will be able to memorize the thinking pattern and apply these routines to a variety of contexts inside and outside of the classroom.

The role of the teacher within these thinking routines is to act as the facilitator, coach, or guide who paraphrases students’ observations and interpretations neutrally to give way to new perspectives and ideas.

5 Examples of Thinking Routines

  1. Think, Puzzle, Explore:
    This routine activates prior knowledge and generates ideas and curiosity.
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  2. Claim, Support, Questions:
    This routine encourages reasoning by asking to form interpretations and to support them with evidence.
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  3. Think, Feel, Care:
    This routine encourages learners to consider diverse perspectives helped by different groups of people.
    Discover more here
  4. Stop, Look, Listen:
    This routine helps students think critically about sources and truth when obtaining information through investigation.
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  5. Color, Symbol, Image:
    This routine asks students to identify ideas in non-verbal ways by using color, symbol, or image to represent the ideas.
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Thinking Routine: ‘See, Think, Wonder’

This Thinking Routine encourages students to make careful observations and thoughtful interpretations. It also helps stimulate curiosity and sets the stage for inquiry.

It interrogates these three questions:

  1. What do you see?
  2. What do you think is happening?
  3. What does it make you wonder?

This routine excels when a student responds to each of the three stems actively by saying “I see…”, “I think…”, and “I wonder”.

This routine can be used with an object, image, or video clip when a teacher wants their students to reflect carefully on a certain subject. It can also be used at various points within the lesson: at the beginning of a unit to spark student interest, in the middle, or even near the end of a unit to encourage students to further apply their knowledge.

This routine thrives in classroom discussions, but students may be asked to individually write down their answers to the routine prompts on paper first before sharing their thoughts with the rest of the class.

After each stage, students can share and compare their ideas in pairs or small groups.

Here are some more detailed instructions for the application of this routine:

See: Ask students to watch, or observe, and think silently. They should construct their own opinions first, take some notes, and try to avoid making assumptions.

Think: Ask students what they think is happening, What do they think? Why? What has made them think this? What else is happening?

Wonder: Students may be asked what image or object makes them wonder. What questions are sparked? The teacher should avoid defining wrong or right interpretations and just let students expand upon their “wondering” to what comes up for them.

Additionally, feeding the information back to the students but rephrasing it, helps with opening new perspectives and opening a path for a deeper analysis and perspectives, but also helps language learning.

Introduction to Visible Thinking Strategies (VTS)

VTS is recognized for developing critical and creative thinking skills that can lead to increased visual literacy for students across all fields of study.

This visual strategy not only supports the development of critical thinking skills it also encourages participation in inclusive and collaborative classroom discussions.

The teacher’s role within the adaptation of this strategy is to facilitate, paraphrase, and support what students say, whilst making them aware that it is okay to have different opinions and points of view.

Teachers don’t provide answers, they help students make connections based on what their students see and notice through observation.

“In VTS, the teacher is not actively teaching the group. But they are actively facilitating the conversation and the shared discovery of the group.”

– Christiaan Verwijs, Netherlands

VTS includes three key questions:

  • What’s going on in this picture (or image)?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can we find?

5 Examples of Visible Thinking Strategies (VTS)

  1. Venn diagrams: They are used to compare two or more things and to show both their similarities and differences.
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  2. Mind Map: they are diagrams to visually organize information branching out from a central concept or viewpoint.
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  3. KWHL Chart: The KWHL (Know, Want, How, Learn) chart helps students to organize their thinking before, during, and after conducting research.
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  4. Peel the Fruit: Peel the Fruit can be used as a way to map out a deep understanding of a complex issue by going from the surface, flesh, and to the core.
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  5. Six Thinking Hats: Six Thinking Hats assists students by looking at things from a number of different points of view (hats).
    Discover more here

The benefits of VTS and Thinking Routines

These routines and strategies are simple structures that are closely related. They are a set of questions or a short sequence of steps that can be used across various subjects and levels.

They can be used frequently in the classroom and become a classroom habit.

They also facilitate the way in which students process classroom content as well as provide patterns of action that can be integrated and used in a variety of contexts to enhance learning.

Some of the key benefits of these approaches include:

  • Supporting student thoughts and transforming them into visual ideas;
  • Helping determine what they know, believe, and feel;
  • Creating a culture of observation and reflective discussion;
  • Being adaptable, simple to use, and easy for teachers to incorporate;
  • Requiring no extra training on the teacher’s part, just practice;
  • Being transferable to just about any academic subject outside the classroom.


Thinking Routines and Visible Thinking Strategies provide teachers and students with a short series of indispensable steps that guide the thought process. They can be used to support students’ ongoing learning and encourage them to think more critically and deeply about the world around them.

Routines and Strategies are meant to focus students’ attention on specific kinds of thinking, which emphasize the generating, comparing, and contrasting of ideas. Frequent use of any Thinking Routine or Strategy will sharpen student awareness and create inclusive classroom discussions. 

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