Visual literacy in history via See-Think-Wonder

See-Think-Wonder is a thinking routine from the Visible Thinking work of Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church and Karin Morrison (see my earlier post reviewing their book, Making Thinking Visible). This thinking routine emphasises looking closely and observing carefully as the foundations for insightful interpretations and deeper thinking.

As a visual image provides the stimulus for this thinking routine, it also allows teachers to tap into and build on the visual literacy of students, which is an increasingly important skill for history and other humanities-based subjects.

The routine is completed as follows:

  1. Present an evocative and engaging visual image that has multiple significant elements or layers of meaning. Allow students to examine the image.
  2. Ask students to discuss or note down what they observed in the image. (What do you SEE?)
  3. Ask students what is going on in the image. (What do you THINK?) This accesses the different and tentative interpretations students can make based on their observations. The teacher should ask students for evidence from the source to support their interpretations.
  4. Ask students what they are wondering about the image (What do you WONDER?) This step asks students to think deeply about their interpretations.

Teachers could scaffold the work by asking students to record their thinking at each step of the see-think-wonder but it would work just as well as a stand-alone discussion. Students could complete this thinking routine as a whole class activity or do it individually or in small groups. In addition, students could complete each step separately (doing all of the seeing first, then the thinking, then the wondering); alternatively, they could jump between steps as they uncover new layers or elements of the visual source.

Regardless of how the routine is done, the think I like most about it is that it breaks up the levels of thinking required when analysing a visual source. I particularly like that students should note down what they observe before they make interpretations. Some students have the tendency to jump in and make judgements about what is going on in a visual source before they have properly examined all of the parts of the source. This routine allows them to slow down this thinking and really build a body of possible evidence before they jump to conclusions.

This is an incredibly versatile thinking routine that would work well in myriad learning settings. Consistent (but not repetitive!) use of this routine would help students to develop the skill of looking closely, supporting their interpretations and thinking beyond the obvious.

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