13 Strategies for Making Thinking Visible

10 Min Read  •  Visual Thinking Strategies

One of the hallmarks of 21st-century teaching and learning is developing critical and creative thinking skills. Focusing more on the process and less on the product. One key tool for developing and assessing these skills is by making thinking visible. 

When we can see the process students are using to analyze problems, make predictions, and draw conclusions, it becomes easier to support and guide their thinking.

Here’s a list of specific strategies and activities you can use support making thinking visible in the classroom (click on each for more details):

  1. Use Artful Thinking Routines
  2. Try Close Reading of an Art Composition
  3. Connect with Cooperative Poetry
  4. Explore Ekphrasis Poetry for Vivid Language
  5. Generate One Word Focal Points
  6. Develop Collaborative Narrative
  7. Sketch to Write
  8. Create an Art Recipe
  9. Design Haibun Poems
  10. Perform a Human Slideshow
  11. Build Summarizing Skills
  12. Composing a Soundtrack
  13. Produce Curriculum-Based Reader’s Theatre

Use Artful Thinking Routines

Teaching with the Artful Thinking routines is one of the best strategies for engaging and motivating students to learn. Studies show that approximately 65% of our students are visual learners. Why not help students develop deeper understanding of the content by tapping into this phenomenon? You will not only get kids talking excitedly about it with each other – you’ll also be teaching and practicing critical thinking skills.  

The routines are easy to teach and are adaptable to any grade level classroom.  Plus, you really don’t have to know anything about the art to integrate them into your lessons (you can learn later)!  What could be better?  

You can find the full array of routines with detailed descriptions for and how to use them at the Artful Thinking website or check out this Artful Thinking “cheat sheet” at Edutopia.

Trying out the routines

Take a look at this painting:

 “Surprised by the Storm” (1887) by Ferdinand Hodler

What do you think is going on or might be happening in this picture? What do you see in the painting that makes you say that?  

Or, imagine that the scene is part of a story. Is this painting telling the beginning, middle, or the end of the story?  If you decide it is the middle of the story, then, what might have happened before this? What might happen after?  If it is the end of the story, what happened before?

These questions are examples of two Artful Thinking routines called “What Makes You Say That?” (a routine that asks students to interpret and justify answers). And, “Beginning, Middle, End” (a routine asking students to imagine and to sequence). 

Artful Thinking routines are fourteen short, flexible, and easy strategies developed by Project Zero, a renowned educational research group at Harvard University along with Traverse City, Michigan Schools.  They were designed to use art as the power for developing critical thinking skills and connecting students to the content. They do both beautifully and artfully!

When using the routines, students observe a piece of art (any teacher selected painting, sculpture, photo, or artifact). Then, respond to it by exploring, describing and connecting to what they see.  

Incidentally, for auditory learners, the same routines apply to listening to a piece of music.  The routines are classified into categories of critical thinking skills Project Zero calls thinking dispositions.  

Students might be asked to make interpretations and inferences with “I See/Hear, I Think, I Wonder”, provide evidence and reasoning with “Claim, Support, Question”,  or explore viewpoints with “Perceive, Know, Care About”, to name a few.

You will be amazed at how even your quietest students will respond automatically and freely to the art.

Art works as a conversation starter because the visual aspect of it inspires reactions in students. Students don’t have to know anything about the artist, the genre or the medium in order to connect to what they see in the art (either does the teacher—you just have to find a piece of art or music that connects to your content or gets kids to do the type of thinking you want them to practice). Art is neutral territory for kids—they don’t worry about making mistakes because there are no incorrect answers.

Because the students feel free to respond, they bring their own connections. Along with, background knowledge to the discussion and respond more thoughtfully and easily. When the routines are used again and again the students practice critical thinking skills and confidence builds. 

This leads to creating critical thinking habits. You will see struggling and ELL students soar.  Your students will become better articulators, become more detailed observers, and develop into better writers when you employ the routines.

You will also see your students develop a deeper understanding of the content when it is linked to a piece of art.  It creates a visual peg and/or another way to connect to or build onto the concepts already known. It is brain-based teaching at its best.  

What about math?

Kids of all ages struggle with math. But whenever you connect a math lesson with visual art—the kids seemed to grasp the math quicker and easier. When we think about the fact that students are more often than not (about sixty-five percent) visual learners, it stands to reason that connecting difficult math concepts with visual images would help kids make connections.

You will find that when you implement an Artful Thinking routine with a content-connected art piece (such as a geometric Kandinsky abstract to show obtuse, isosceles, or acute angles) as anticipatory sets, activities to build or assess background knowledge, in reflective processes or for formative assessments, your students will be drawn into your lesson with more enthusiasm and greater understanding.

If nothing else, the visual art will serve as a mental peg for remembering the math concepts.

I will often suggest that math lessons begin or end with a related visual image and an Artful Thinking question such as: what math do you see in this image? You might also use the What makes you say that? or Claim, Support, Question routines. 

In Claim, Support, Question, students make a claim about the math they see in the image, support it with evidence-based on what you know and see and ask a question about what might be left unanswered. 

Connecting to Math Practices

Not all math concepts are readily (or literally) visible in fine art examples. However, the Common Core Math Practices (CCMP) certainly can be! Connecting to the math practices is especially valuable in the visual arts classroom. It turns out that the math practices correlate beautifully with the Artists Habit of Mind! The processes and skills that we want students to use with ease in math (make sense of the problem and persevere in solving it, use appropriate tools, look for patterns and structures, etc.) are all attributes of the artistic creative process and what artists do! 

Art teachers can help students be more successful in math by making math academic language a regular part of their art lessons. They can do this by drawing students’ attention to the CCMP whenever analyzing, discussing, or looking at art. 

Art teachers could have a pivotal role in demystifying math: showing how it is integral to creating art and not something only used in math class. There’s a variety of ways teachers could make connections to the CCMP: 

  • pointing out literal visual examples of the practices
  • identifying examples of math practices that the artist might have used in creating the art or 
  • by asking critical thinking questions (i.e. Artful Thinking Routines) that explore reasoning, explanation or math habits of mind. 

Try this example. Look at this artwork: 

Math + Visual Arts = Connection, Education Closet

And connect it to this Math Practice: MP 6 – Attend to precision.

How would the artist have been able to get the perfect number of feather strokes to fit around the base of this ancient Greek amphora?

Artful Thinking is a powerful tool teachers can use to begin making thinking visible in their classrooms. But there are so many other techniques that build upon this foundation. Let’s take a look at a few more.

Close Reading of an Art Composition

You could have students use an activity that involves creating poetry in response to a close “reading” of an artwork. 

For example, look at one of the “veil” paintings— an abstract-expressionist color-field painting that artist, Morris Louis created by pouring paint in layers on a canvas. 

In small groups of five to eight, the docent asked us to look at the painting for a full minute in silence and think about words or ideas that come to mind as students examine the painting carefully.

Then, provide students a small square of paper (an index card would work) and ask them to write down one word that describes what they saw or felt when looking at the painting. 

When finished, students can share their words, discuss their individual interpretations and then put the words down on the floor. 

Students can arrange them in a sequence to create a “poem” and read the poems out loud. 

Cooperative Poetry

In this activity, small groups of students construct original poetry. Poems are written by combining individual student’s responses to a selected painting, sculpture, photograph, portrait, image, or artifact with their classmates’ responses. 

Each student, in a group of 4-8 students, reacts to an art piece by independently writing one line of poetry on a sentence strip. Then all of the group’s strips are laid out on a table. Cooperatively, the group decides how to order the strips to create the most pleasing poem.


  • Art posters, prints, photographs or artifacts or computer or projected images
  • Sentence strips
  • Markers
  • Optional: Poster paper and tape or staplers


1. Group your students.

Try handing out a grouping card to each student that has the name of the artist or a picture of the artwork on it. Give students 5 seconds to look around the room and spot the painting by the name of the artist or picture on their card and then 30 seconds to proceed to the group. Provide each group area with enough sentence strips and markers for each of the participants to have one of each.

2. Instruct each student to silently “read” the artwork for one minute.

After one minute of contemplation, give students two to three minutes to write a personal reaction to the art on a single sentence strip. This can be in the form of a complete sentence, a phrase or a series of words. 

Ask students to use the Artful Thinking routine: “I See, I Think, I Wonder” as they contemplate the artwork. They should write what the art says to them: they can describe items, feelings, ideas, connections, themes, mood or any art elements they see when looking at the painting. You may direct their thinking or leave it completely open.

3. Instruct students in each group to lay all the sentence strips from the group on a table or on the floor.

After reading through each strip, they discuss and decide cooperatively how to arrange the strips into a pleasing order to form a poem. This is the best part of the activity! You will hear the most wonderful conversation as students decide which order will sound the best. If you want to keep the poems for display- have the students staple or paste the strips in the order that they decided onto a large piece of paper.

4. Ask the group to select one person to hold up the art for all to see.

We’ll call them Vanna White of the group :). Then, have one person read the poem dramatically to the rest of the class.


What makes Cooperative Poetry a great strategy is that it can be used in any content area, at any level and in any language! 

Since there is no right or wrong answer in art, even the most reluctant or hesitant student is willing to write one line of poetry. It never fails that the poems are wonderful and the students are very proud of their poetry.

Implementing Cooperative Poetry with Other Content Areas

You can choose to have students look at the art with or without a lens for looking. You can select random artwork and ask students to make any connection they want to or you can identify a specific focus. 

For example, ask students to look for the science or the math they see in the art. You could also select pieces that have an obvious connection to the lesson or unit. Use this activity at the beginning of a lesson or unit as a way to introduce a topic and build background knowledge, during a unit to give students an opportunity to practice and use academic vocabulary, and also as an assessment after students have researched or read about the life of an individual, character or topic.

There is a lot of flexibility for scaffolding in this visual thinking strategy. You can provide word cards to use when responding to art. You could provide sentence starters. At the end of the writing and presentation, you can have the students and/or the groups explain how and why each line connects to the art. You can invite discussion, praise, or questions from the rest of the class.

Using Ekphrasis Poetry as a Visual Thinking Strategy

Ekphrasis is a way to vividly offer a verbal description of a piece of visual art. It can be either real or imagined and often appears as a form of poetry.  Here are 3 more ideas for making thinking visible through Ekphrasis. 

Poems for Two Voices

Select a piece of art that has at least two characters or two points of view. Introduce examples of a two voice poem and discuss how this type of poem could be used tell a story. 

After exploring the art with the Artful Thinking routines What Makes You Say That? or Perceive, Know, Care About, have students brainstorm exchanges that might occur between two parties in the painting or two points of view inspired by the art. 

Students can record these on a three-column organizer: the outer columns are used for lines for each different voice and the middle column for what the lines they might say together. Students work in small groups or pairs to write and perform the poems.

Sensory Poem

After observing and discussing the artwork with a routine such as I See, I Think, I Wonder, students write lines of poetry based on sensory perceptions they might have if they were to step into the painting. 

After imagining that they have walked into the setting, they record what they might smell, hear, taste, touch, feel against their skin, and feel inside and record descriptive words, phrases, or sentences for each on an organizer. 

They can read their responses in order as a poem or select a favorite response to put on a sentence strip. Sentence strips from various students could be ordered to create a collaborative poem.

List Poem

A list poem is an itemization of observations that is ordered to create a poem. It may rhyme or not. You can assign or have students select a theme. Themes might include colors, shapes, feelings, ideas, concepts, memories, or anything else that is appropriate to the content. 

Students work alone, in pairs or in small groups. Their goal is to observe works in a collection (a gallery of images) of art. Then, while perusing and examining the art, the students brainstorm and record words or short phrases inspired by what they see that relates to the theme.

Using this list, they arrange/order the words and phrases into a poem. As an option, students might participate in a gallery walk and identify a theme that becomes apparent to them as they view the artworks. They return a second time and then create a list of details they see that illustrate the theme for their poems.

One Word Focal Points

One Word Focal Points is another hands-on activity that has students looking at and physically combining text and image. This strategy builds on the one-word idea of the previous strategy. 

As an example, look at artwork by Ed Ruscha. This is an artist who experimented with words as part of the art form. Many of Ruscha’s pieces depict single words as the center or the focal point of the work. 

Students can discuss the impact of words embedded in such paintings (or as the artist put it, “the evocative and artistic power of words”).

Next, ask students to contemplate Ruscha’s painting entitled “Won’t”. Begin by looking at the artistic qualities of the work (you could use an Artful Thinking routine, such as such as Colors, Shapes, Lines to facilitate this) and then analyze the multiple meanings and impact of the actual word. 

These steps are preparation for a collage making activity. Provide students with a selection of cut outs of words in a variety of fonts and texts as well as a selection of images, scenes, paintings to use as the background.

Then, invite students to select 1-3 words and a background image on which to place the words. Students could select an image with a similar meaning to the words, a contrasting meaning, played with positive and negative space, or perhaps select one that used color in an expressive manner. 

Finally, create a piece of art by using glue sticks to adhere the words to the background in interesting placements or juxtapositions. Students can share their work and discuss how the meaning of words might change based on their context or artistic treatment. 

This would be a perfect opportunity for students to write an artist statement to explain their thinking and reasoning, making their thinking about the main idea, mood, tone, or author’s purpose visible for all to see.

Collaborative Narrative

The next two making thinking visible strategies – Collaborative Narrative and Sketch to Write – involve “pass the paper” activities. This is a good way to offer students the opportunity to be a part of the writing process but still be comfortable with giving up some control over the outcome.

First, let’s start with Collaborative Narrative. Here are the steps for this process:

1.Create a variety of writing response templates that include five lines of writing, such as:

  • Noun, two adjectives, three words ending in “ing,” phrase, noun
  • One word, two words, three words, four words, one word
  • Two syllables, four syllables, six syllables, eight syllables, two syllables

2.Divide class into groups of four or five and provide each group with a different work of art. 

Take a few moments to have participants look closely at the work of art with an Artful Thinking routine, such as I See, I Think, I Wonder.

3.Provide each student with a template from step 1 to start.

4.Instruct students to:

  • Complete the first line of the template and then fold the paper so that the written response is hidden.
  • Pass the template to a neighbor.
  • Fill in the next line on the template passed to you, fold it, and pass again.

5.Students continue passing until all five lines have been completed. Each participant will have a completed narrative/poem to unfold and read aloud to rest of the group.

6.Each group selects one to share with the class.

7.Option: Provide copies of the completed narratives/poems to the students. Students read and decide which artwork they narrate/describe.

Sketch to Write

Sketch to Write is perhaps the most literal strategy for making thinking visible. In this activity, we’re not focused on the quality of the sketch itself. It’s more about showing what students are thinking or learning. 

There are two versions to this: using images and using language as a prompt for the sketch.

1.Sketching with Images: Sixty Second Sketch:

  • Create an art gallery in the classroom by posting images of art around the classroom. You may select art that connects to the curriculum topic/standard or use a random variety of art.
  • Instruct students to walk around your gallery and then select one work of art.
  • Provide students with a blank sheet of paper and a pencil. Instruct students to create a sketch of the art they selected. Use a timer. Students have sixty seconds to make a quick sketch of the entire artwork, filling their paper from edge to edge.
  • Have students lay their sketches on a center table or designated area on the floor. Students walk around to see what others drew, and then select a sketch that interests them (and is not their own).

2.Sketching with Language:

  • Students take several minutes to “finish” the sketch they had selected, but by only by using language — adding words, phrases, thoughts, and reflective writing directly on top of the drawing.
  • In small groups, students share their writing by reading it aloud and explaining their choices.
  • Option: Post the 60-second sketches alongside the original artwork. Provide students an additional opportunity to do a gallery walk and discuss or compare/contrast the sketches.

Looking at and writing about art is a great way to get our students to develop keener observational skills. We need them to develop these skills in order to be able to identify relevant details in the text (art=non print text) and cite them as evidence in their writing. 

Art Recipe

There are a number of other good activities for practicing descriptive (detail) writing with art that are quick. One that always intrigues students is called Art Recipe. 

The activity combines a sequencing exercise along with practice in identifying details. It involves a close observation of a 3-D artwork, such as a contemporary sculpture. It works best when the artwork chosen has a variety of pieces, objects or textures. 

Some examples might be: the work of El Anatsui, a Ghanaian sculptor whose artwork in focuses on close-up perspectives, Nam Jun Paik’s 1995 Electronic Superhighway (at SAAM), the work of environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy, or an American or African mask. 

Here is how it goes:

  1. Ask students to imagine that he/she is a cook getting ready to prepare a favorite dish (such as popcorn, a sandwich, pizza) and think about: What ingredients would you need? How would you make it? What would you do first, next?
  2. Provide students with a gallery of artworks. Each student selects an artwork, looks closely at all the details and writes a “recipe” for how he/she thinks the artist made this artwork. Provide instructions:
  • Begin by listing the materials (ingredients) you would need.
  • Then list set-by-step directions for making it.
  1. After completing art recipes, students share them along with images of all the artworks that were used. Have the class guess which work of art they are describing.

Note: the resulting “recipes” may or may not actually describe how the artwork was made. This does not matter. The objective is to have the students notice the details in the artwork and use them in the writing.

Haibun poems

A haibun is a form of Japanese poetry that combines imagery in prose and a haiku poem. Traditionally, it was written while traveling to record personal experiences. 

However, we can use it to record any scene or special moment in a highly descriptive manner. Simply, in a few short sentences- typically five. The description is then followed by a related haiku poem (a three line poem with a 5-7-5 syllable structure). Here’s how to use this with your students:

  1. Hand out different copies of outdoor landscape paintings by famous artists to inspire student poetry. 
  2. Then, ask students to imagine they traveled to the place in the painting and record what they saw, heard, tasted, smelled and felt as if they really went there. 
  3. Students then use these words and ideas to develop their poem and incorporate into the haibun. 

This would be a great activity after an Artful Thinking routine such as I See, I Think, I Wonder. The poetry activity could further help students develop visual connections to any place or environment targeted in a unit, such as in the middle of a storm, in a rainforest, or in an animal habitat.

Using this simple poetry format provides an engaging way of responding, reflecting, and connecting to the text (print or non print). It can also help support building background knowledge. 

Human Slide Show

This activity is great for demonstrating sequencing and summarization. It comprises a series of tableaux staged to show a series of events or related ideas. 

A tableau is a silent group of students in frozen action: the students communicate a key moment or idea by creating a composition through body language and facial expression just like characters frozen in a painting or on a statue. 

For the Human Slide Show strategy, as in tableau, the students work in small groups.

After reading a story, each group would identify a series of 3-5 events to retell or summarize the story. In their groups, the students collaborate to determine which big ideas or events they want to communicate and then develop a tableau for each one. All of the tableaux presents itself in a sequence to the rest of the class in a slide show format. 

The instructor asks the audience to close their eyes and cues them with “blackout”. During this time the group quickly and silently forms their tableau for the scene. When they are ready, the instructor cues the audience with “lights up.” The audience opens their eyes and views the tableau as they hold it for a few seconds.

The audience is cued to close their eyes again, and repeats this process for each scene. At the last “lights up”, the performers take a bow. The audience may add narration to each of the tableau during either the “blackout” or “lights up” time. 

You can use the Human Slide Show in every curriculum: your students could create a slide show for the events leading up to the Boston Tea Party, the blood moving through the circulatory system, the steps to solving a word problem or even interpreting themes in the stanzas of poetry. There are endless possibilities for this strategy.


Summarizing is a skill that students will need to be able to do in every grade. Summarizing, in Bloom’s taxonomy, is found fairly low in the taxonomy- it is located in the cross between understanding and factual knowledge.  

However, many elementary and middle school students have difficulty summarizing correctly.  Figuring out which details support the main idea is a skill that requires kids to think abstractly.  This type of thinking needs to be taught!

In this easy and short strategy, the teacher presents a work of art to the class (a painting, sculpture, photograph, text illustration, artifact etc. that has an obvious story in it works best). Then s/he asks students to look carefully at it in order to decide what they think might be happening or going on: the story in the picture. 

Once this is determined, the students are further requested to identify evidence they see in the painting that supports the statement about what is happening:  main idea and details.

This activity can be done orally with the whole class or by asking students to individually, or in pairs, complete an organizer and then share.  When students answer What Makes You Say That? they are practicing the art of summarizing and providing pertinent details they see in the art.

Research shows that with repetition, there will be a transference of this skill to reading.  You will find that the students will begin to ask What Makes you Say That? when reading or when answering other classroom questions.  

Writing responses in poetry formats such as haiku, lune, cinquain, limerick, acrostic, renga or diamante are wonderful ways to prompt students to summarize- they are simple, short, and require kids be concise and thoughtful about word choices—not to mention creative. If you haven’t already tried any of these, check out the Poetry Soup website for help in finding a poetry format for your next lesson.

Composing a Soundtrack

In this activity, students create a soundtrack with percussive instruments for a movie they imagine could be written about a book, story, or selection of text they have read.

 The teacher begins by introducing and exploring sounds from a variety of hand-held percussive instruments (teacher or student collected, produced, or borrowed) such as shakers, bells, guiros, buckets, etc.

These are used to demonstrate how sound is used to create mood through the elements of dynamics and tone quality. 

After listening to examples, a discussion follows about how music is used in movies to create or amplify the mood and action in particular scenes and a soundtrack is composed. (The music from Jaws would be a great way to introduce this idea)

After reading a story, small groups of students are provided with an illustration from the text. (This activity would work using a quote from the text as well.)

The students must create an imaginary movie that will be based on the moment in the text portrayed in the illustration. It prompts students to imagine walking into the illustration and engaging their senses in order to brainstorm ideas about the theme, message, and/or emotions of the characters. They collaborate on a storyline for their movie and construct a three to five-sentence movie script.

Then students select appropriate instruments whose sounds will convey the mood and action of their movie and compose a one-minute musical composition with them. After rehearsing, they present to the rest of the class. Students might narrate their compositions or allow the audience to guess what the movie is about or which illustration the music is based on. This encourages the audience to react and share what they hear in the music. 

The performers can share their process, storyline, and/or thinking behind the selection of instruments. Imagine your students creating the soundtrack for these movies: The Causes of the Civil War or The Trail of Tears, The Rock Cycle, The Order of Operations, or Romeo and Juliet.

Curriculum-Based Reader’s Theatre

Do you want to integrate drama into your classroom in a simple but highly effective way? Provide an opportunity for students to improve oral reading fluency and learn vocabulary? Provide authentic writing and speaking activities? Help your students retain important facts and information about your content topics? Then, you have to look into Curriculum-Based Reader’s Theater (CBRT): an arts integration approach developed by Dr. Rosalind Flynn, an educational drama specialist. 

CBRT is different from traditional reader’s theatre. Student actors perform without costumes, props and there is no stage movement. CBRT is a rehearsed group presentation of a script. The emphasis is on voice and spoken words, facial expression, and gestures, not on staged action. The students stand in front of their audience and read aloud from a script. 

Instead of scripts that are based on stories or literature, students read and rehearse entertaining scripts that are written about any content topic or standard. The Order of Operations, The Parts of a Story, The Bill of Rights, or The Water Cycle are all examples of topics that could be used. The scripts are designed to review content while giving students an opportunity to practice reading. 

Students who read, re-read, repeat, and rehearse a CBRT script in preparation for performance tend to remember the information in the text. Dr. Flynn says: reading and rehearsing scripts based on curriculum content increases the likelihood that students will perform better on assessments. 

Her CBRT formula for success is: reading + recitation + repetition + review = retention.

CBRT scripts are short in length and hence make it ideal as an arts integration strategy for busy classrooms. Scripts can be created to accommodate large groups (i.e., an entire class) and provide possibilities for all of the students to read and speak at some point. 

Teachers, or students, can write their own scripts, but Dr. Flynn offers many already written scripts on her website, for free. You can find sample scripts right here. Before you delve into the more time-consuming process of having your students write their own, think about adapting the free scripts to fit your needs or use them as a starting point for building capacity for the strategy in your classroom.

Connecting these Strategies

Making thinking visible isn’t difficult with the help of these 13 strategies. And helping our students observe critically, express joyfully, and reflect deeply is one of our most important responsibilities. 

The arts provide an opportunity to open the door into a child’s thinking process. Once we walk through that door, we can begin to build relationships and understand our students as they would like to be seen.