Making Thinking Visible

How do I know if my students are learning? What do thinking and understanding look like? Do students need to be taught how to think? Can thinking be taught and assessed?

This 2-part blog series will unravel the ‘mysteries’ of thinking to show how learning is developed in individuals through thinking, planning, creating, questioning and engaging independently as learners. It attempts to present that thinking can be made visible through the use of effective questioning, listening, documentation and facilitative structures called “Thinking Routines”. Every Thinking Routine is accompanied by a “Learning Tool” – a graphic organizer of sort for students to pen down their thoughts on the topic discussed.

Attending the “Making Thinking Visible” course at the British Council has enlightened me to this practice of “Thinking Routines” which was designed by researchers at Project Zero from Harvard Graduate School of Education to scaffold and support one’s thinking. By applying these processes, thinking becomes visible as learners’ ideas are expressed, discussed and reflected upon.

“Making Thinking Visible” aims to promote engagement, understanding and independence for all learners of the 21st century. This emerged from the premise that many teachers focus more on having their students complete tasks and assignments than on developing students’ thinking and understanding. Hence, to promote thinking in the classrooms, teachers must: (1) create opportunities for students to think and (2) make students’ thinking visible. Learners of the 21st century have to be prepared to think creatively, think critically, communicate effectively and collaborate (Ritchhart, Church and Morrison, 2011).

How can we make thinking visible? There are three primary ways: (1) questioning, (2) listening and (3) documenting.

Questioning – Teachers can ask questions that: (a) model our interest in the ideas being explored e.g. “We talked about this spelling rule the other day. I was wondering if it can be applied to all words.”, (b) help students construct understanding e.g. “Why does it make you wonder?” and (c) help students clarify their own thinking e.g. “I’m not quite following, can you say what you are thinking in a different way?”

Listening – We can learn about students’ thinking by listening to students’ answers. Teachers need to listen to student confusion and prompt or probe appropriately in order to follow up with appropriate responses.

Documenting – Students’ thinking can be made visible when they are captured through written notes of students’ contribution, audiotapes of class discussions or notes written on a whiteboard. Students then must be encouraged to use these documentations to reflect on and monitor their progress.

The session began with the class being led in through the first thinking routine WMYST – WHAT MAKES YOU SAY THAT?

This thinking routine encourages students to describe what they see or know and asks them to build explanations to supports their interpretation with evidence. This routine is useful for gathering information on students’ general concepts when introducing a new topic. When first introducing this routine, the teacher may scaffold students by asking follow-up questions such as ‘What do you know?’, ‘What do you see?’, ‘Why do you think this is happening?’ or ‘What makes you say that?’ after a student gives an interpretation. The answers to these questions form as evidence to what students are thinking about. When doing this as a class, the teacher can make a chart or list the explanations given by students, or have students document their own interpretations. What Makes You Say That? is a simple and flexible routine which can be used as a way to ask students to expand on their ideas or to explain their thinking and reasoning by simply using the phrase “What makes you say that?” as a follow-up question, in general conversation, and in written work.

What’s going on? What do you see and what makes you say that?

In the next part of this blog series, I will share three Thinking Routines and Learning Tools that can be used in the classroom to facilitate thinking in students. These tools are suitable to be used in teaching reading comprehension or essay writing.

“Making Thinking Visible” can be demonstrated through the use of Thinking Routines and Learning Tools. In part 2 of this series, I will be sharing three Thinking Routines and Learning Tools that were taught during the course.

Thinking Routine 1: 3 – 2 – 1 Bridge
A routine for activating prior knowledge and making connections.

This routine asks students to uncover their initial thoughts, ideas, questions and understandings about a topic and then to connect these to new thinking about the topic after they have received some instruction. This routine can be used when students are developing an understanding of a concept over time. It may be a concept that they know a lot about in one context but instruction will focus their learning in a new direction, or it may be a concept about which students have only informal knowledge. Whenever new information is gained, bridges can be built between new ideas and prior understanding. The focus is on understanding and connecting one’s thinking, rather than pushing it toward a specific outcome. For example, if the topic is on “using less plastic”, then students should write down 3 thoughts, 2 questions, and 1 analogy. Students should then read an article, watch a video, or engage in an activity having to do with using less plastic. Provocative experiences that push students thinking in new directions are best. After the experience, students complete another 3-2-1. Students then share their initial and new thinking, explaining to the class how and why their thinking shifted. Make it clear to students that their initial thinking is no right or wrong, it is just a starting point. New experiences take our thinking in new directions.

Learning Tool 1: 3 – 2 – 1 Bridge

Thinking Routine 2: Connect – Extend – Challenge
A routine for connecting new ideas to prior knowledge.

This routine helps students make connections between new ideas and prior knowledge. It encourages them to take stock of ongoing questions, puzzles and difficulties as they reflect on what they are learning. The natural place to use the Connect-Extend-Challenge routine is after students have learnt something new. It does not matter how much they have learnt. Try it as a reflection during a lesson, after a longer project, or when completing a unit of study of any curriculum. For example, the teacher might have completed a Social Studies topic on “Living In A Diverse Society”. A student may be asked to Connect-Extend-Challenge their knowledge based on the chapter they have read on this topic.

Learning Tool 2: Connect – Extend – Challenge

Thinking Routine 3: I used to think… but now I think…
A routine for reflecting on how and why our thinking has changed.

This routine helps students to reflect on their thinking about a topic or issue, and explore how and why that thinking has changed. It can be useful in consolidating new learning as students identify their new understandings, opinions, and beliefs. By examining and explaining how and why their thinking has changed, students are developing their reasoning abilities and recognizing cause and effect relationships. This routine can be used whenever students’ initial thoughts, opinions, or beliefs are likely to have changed as a result of instruction or experience. For example, students can be asked to reflect after reading new information, watching a film, listening to a speaker, experiencing something new, after a class discussion or at the end of a unit of study.

Learning Tool 3: I used to think… but now I think…
The Thinking Routines and Learning Tools above can be used with reading comprehension as a pre/post-reading activity or with essay writing as a pre-writing activity. When students state their thoughts in the learning tool, their thinking is made visible. Teachers can then ask prompting or probing questions such as ‘What makes you say that?’, ‘What do you know about this?” or ‘How do you feel about it?’ to make students think deeper into the topic.

To all the teachers out there, take time to explore these teaching tools and develop thinking skills in your students!




More about Hani Zohra Muhamad, Educational Advisor, Lead Educational Therapist