Color, Symbol, Image: A Thinking Routine to Map Student Understanding

Artist palette with color study to represent the color, symbol, image thinking routine

“Abstraction is one of the greatest visionary tools ever invented by human beings to imagine, decipher, and depict the world.” - Jerry Saltz

What is the Color, Symbol, Image Thinking Routine

A powerful way to keep students at the center of your instructional practice is to provide a diverse set of tools to enhance the expression of understanding. In the science classroom, students must organize ideas, make connections, draw conclusions, and reason with evidence. The Color, Symbol, Image routine asks students to engage in deeper cognitive work through abstract thinking to select a color, symbol, and image to represent the essence of concepts or ideas. Students use this routine as a framework to think abstractly and synthesize new ideas by connecting what they already know to new information and developing creative representations of their thinking.


Determining the Appropriate Content

Creating an authentic learning experience with this routine requires tapping into the feeling, emotion, and mood of a concept. The routine also requires content that can be analyzed and interpreted in multiple ways while not presenting too many competing ideas. Take risks when selecting content and ensure that it demonstrates elements of complexity and nuance.

You can present the selected content using a variety of different media, including:

    • Current events video
    • Excerpt from a news article
    • Online presentations, such as TEDx talks
    • Short YouTube clips
    • Demonstrations or experiments

Steps for the Color, Symbol, Image Thinking Routine

Students make connections between their lives and the world around them every day. This routine's essence is making connections, identifying similarities, and providing interpretations.

Step 1: Color

During the first step of the routine, invite students to determine a color that best represents the idea they are exploring. Students should consider elements such as the idea's mood, emotion, or purpose. These elements will help students explain why they chose a particular color. For example, if a student chooses yellow, they may reason that yellow is the color of happiness and friendship or represents energy.

Step 2: Symbol

In the second step of the routine, students create or select a symbol that they think accurately represents the core idea they are exploring. Provide examples for students (e.g., a balance symbol could symbolize justice). Students will have an opportunity to explain their symbol in relation to the concept they are working to understand.

Step 3: Image

This last step requires students to elaborate on the concept they are learning by choosing or sketching an image. Students are encouraged to look below the surface, make deeper connections, and apply metaphorical thinking. Ask: What does this concept make you think of? How does this image that comes to mind connect with the big idea of the content?

A Student-Centered Approach to the Color, Symbol, Image Thinking Routine

This routine recognizes that students process information in different ways. This thinking routine can be flexible and does not need to happen in a specific order. For example, after interacting with content, there may be students who know what image they will sketch before they know what color they want to use. This keeps students in the process of thinking and searching for the deeper meaning of the content. Let the learning happen!

Foster a culture of thinking by incorporating activities such as gallery walks. A gallery walk is a discussion technique that allows students to share and comment on each other's work. Using a gallery walk alongside the Color, Symbol, Image thinking routine will encourage students to practice rich conversational moves as they compare and contrast ideas relevant to the content with more depth. They will also be able to observe the varying levels of metaphorical complexity evident in their work.

Are you ready to use the Color, Symbol, Image Thinking Routine in your classroom today? Download a free copy of our templates for this routine here.


Color Symbol Image Anchor Chart


Ritchhart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K. (2011). Making thinking visible. Jossey Bass Wiley.