Colour, Symbol, Image thinking routine

Chelsea Bullock
4 min readMay 27, 2021

The Colour, Symbol, Image routine’s core purpose is to enhance students’ comprehension, synthesis, and organisation of ideas in activities that involve the reading of, writing of, and listening to a text through the identification of the essence of key words and ideas.

Photo by Mahbod Akhzami on Unsplash

The routine -which was developed as part of Harvard Project Zero, includes three key steps to build understanding: choosing a representative colour, a representative symbol, and a representative image. The routine is flexible to work across a range of subject areas and is easily implemented for use with students of a range of ages.

To implement the Colour, Symbol, Image thinking routine in the classroom, students should be encouraged to engage with subject-related information in which they will identify important ideas, events, and connections. Students then select a key idea or concept from the information they have engaged with and choose the colour, symbol and image that best represent that idea or concept.

It is important that, at the end of this activity, students are encouraged to share, discuss, and justify their choices with others in order to help the students understand their own thinking and the thought process of others. Through engaging with this routine, students will deepen their thinking as they justify how the colour, symbol and image represent the core essence of their chosen key idea or concept.

When selecting a colour, students should consider the mood, emotion or feeling conveyed by that idea. A symbol, within this activity, should be recognised as a representational line or simple drawing. An example of this would be a simple outline of a bird to represent the word ‘freedom’ or an unbalanced scale to represent the idea of ‘bias’. Finally, the image students provide could be in the form of a picture or metaphor, but it must be more developed than the symbol the student has chosen.

It was mentioned previously that this routine is applicable across a range of subject areas. In English, the routine could be used to explore the personality or motives of certain characters or to explore the relationship that exists between two characters. In other arts subjects, such as the visual arts or music, students can use the routine to consider a feeling that is evoked or a mood that is communicated. In science, students could use the routine to check and secure their understanding of complex scientific concepts, such as evolution or mitosis.

This also applies to mathematical studies, in which students could use this process to explore volume or the concept of ‘averages’. The routine also applies well to humanities subjects. Students could be asked to read a historical document and complete the routine to reflect their understanding of a key historical event, such as using CSI to show their understanding of ‘revolution’, or using the routine to express the essence of ‘interconnectedness’ in geography.

Although currently a resource that is more commonly implemented in primary classrooms, the routine is both applicable and beneficial for students from primary to tertiary education.

How to use the CSI Thinking Routine in LAMS?

In this learning design, students will read a passage from ‘Huckleberry Finn’ in order to answer the question:

Does Mark Twain admire the character of Huckleberry Finn? Name and describe the specific traits that Twain attributes to Huck that make him an admirable person or not.

The CSI Thinking routine involves reading the extract, highlighting interesting and important information and then completing these three steps:

After the reading students — individually first, will get to complete three questions regarding Huck’s character:

  • Identify the colour that best represents the character of Huck (using Symbolism of Colours)
  • Draw a symbol that best represents Huck.
  • Create an image that best represents him.

Then students get to share their three representations (Colour, symbol and image) with each other and discuss why they chosen these.

And finally, as a team, collaborate to have a team agreed representation of colour, symbol and image.

Finally, the teacher shares all teams’ output to others for comments and ratings.

Outline of activities

1. Introduction to the exercise [Noticeboard]

2. Setting up teams [Grouping]

3. Highlighting the text [doKu]

4. CSI introduction [Noticeboard]

5. Individual CSI representation [Q&A]

6. Team discussion and team CIS representation [Whiteboard]

7. Exercise reflection [Notebook]

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For a step by step run of the learning design or to download it and adapt it to your own teaching, take a look at this card:



Chelsea Bullock

I’m a Communication Manager and Outreach Officer at LAMS (Learning Designer App).