Review: Making Thinking Visible

I recently read part one and part three of Ritchhart et al’s 2011 book “Making thinking visible”. The book espouses a methodology for promoting thinking in students and for making that student thinking visible in the work that we do as educators and is broken into three parts.

Part one deals with the philosophy, terminology and theory of putting thinking at the centre of the classroom experience for students; part two details specific strategies that can be used to promote thinking; while part three deals with advice on how to get the most out of these strategies in the classroom.

I have struggled with this question in my own professional practice for a couple of years now. How do you balance, with the limited time you have in class, the need to develop the thinking skills used in the process of doing science with the need to develop knowledge of the content?

I can think of many conversations with colleagues where we have debated this. Often the running theme amongst science teachers in my experience has been that the content is king; that student needs the building blocks that the content gives them in order develop that deeper understanding of more complex science. You can’t just jump into redox reactions and the electron transport chain if students don’t have some understanding already to work with.

Often this has been levelled as a critique against the whole idea of inquiry teaching, the philosophical backbone of the IB. In science class how can you reasonably expect a G8 student to uncovering understanding that has literally taken scientists 400 years to develop?

Often-times science is taught in spiral way; students meet similar topics through middle and high school and each time they go into more depth. This allows students to construct understanding piece by piece year by year.

This book lays a clear challenge to that type of thinking but goes further by actually providing practical steps and examples of the types of questions teachers should be asking to develop students thinking. Undoubtably developing thinking skills in our students is one of the most important things we can be doing as teachers as these skills are inter-disciplinary and underpin lifelong learning. If you know how you can learn anything.

Thus as science teachers we need to examine why we do what we do and think more cleverly about how we use our time. After all, as this book highlights, quality in education is about developing dispositions and habits of mind, not simply high grades on exams with content that is then forgotten.

Students need to see us as learners and thinker, modelling those attitudes and valuing them. learning often occurs through reflecting on mistakes. This can be a challenge in schools where the culture sets the teacher in centre stage. I remember an ex-colleague once saying to me that if he ever admitted to not knowing something then his students would lose all their confidence and trust in him.

Part one of this book details the steps to making thinking visible through modelling an interest in ideas, constructing understanding, facilitating and clarifying thinking all through questioning, listening and documenting.

Ritchhart focusses on asking questions that model an interest in ideas, construct understanding and facilitate and clarify thinking. The key is to ask authentic questions; questions to which the answer is not predetermined, and to elicit these questions from the students as well.

Questions that model an interest an ideas set the classroom culture and allow students to see teachers as learners. Essential questions fall into this category. Questions that construct understanding are ones that guide, direct and push student’s understanding forward of the big ideas and concepts. “constructive questions frame the intellectual endeavors in which students are to be engaged and point them toward uncovering fundamental ideas and principles that aid understanding. Questions that clarify and facilitate thinking enable learners to get what is in their heads out and into the teachers. For example asking students “what makes you say that?” instead of simply responding to a comment will give you insight into how the student is thinking.

We need to learn to identify the key ideas and concepts with which we want our students to struggle and engage instead of just covering the curriculum and judging our success by how much we get through. This will enable us to put students in charge of their own learning and progress not merely providing them with material for the test.

We need to draw our attention to what types of thinking we want to foster in the classroom and what we think thinking actually is. We need to highlight thinking when it occurs in class. Until students can name a process they cannot control it.

As well as questioning, listening and documenting are highlighted as essential parts of the process. Modelling listening, a vigorous and interested attention in what the other is saying, is essential for modelling group interactions for students, showing them how to work collaboratively. Documenting as well as providing evidence of the thinking that is taking place should also act as a stimulus to drive the thinking forward.

Part two introduces the reader to a set of thinking routines that are grouped as to their purpose in the type of thinking they are trying to develop. Each routine contains detailed instructions for its use and clear examples on how to deploy it. Routines are not intended to be used as stand alone activities but as repeated structures in the classroom that students can eventually gain mastery of themselves.

I haven’t yet read part two yet as I didn’t feel the time for me would right until I had spent sometime addressing challenges that part one put before me. Once I have reflected on the types of thinking that I wish to elicit in my classroom then I will plough on into part two.

Part three provides useful case studies of from teachers using these routines over time, providing an excellent guide on how to bring these routines to life.

I was once again reminded of the usefulness of mindfulness in teaching practice. Mindfulness reminds us to remain in the present with attention and this is essential for all of these skills of questioning, listening and documenting and being able to respond to our students.

This book is certainly one every teacher should read, as it provides some excellently researched food for thought about what we are doing in our day to day as educators. Are we placing thinking, and the development of thinking skills at the centre of the learning experience of our students? or are we more focussed on content and assessment?

Got me asking:

  • Is memorisation and rote practice ever useful?
  • Don’t people need to train and doesn’t training involve practice and isn’t practice often rote learning?
  • What types of thinking do we want to encourage today?
  • What types of thinking do we want to encourage in science? What types are valuable to scientists?
  • How to balance the need for content knowledge vs thinking skills especially when curriculums are so broad and time is so short and universities expect a certain level of knowledge in undergrads?
  • What is a quality education?
  • What types of adults are we trying to develop?
  • What are the essential concepts in Biology identified in the literature of teaching biology?
  • What essential questions are we trying to ask in science/Biology class?
  • What routines do I want to use in my classroom?
  • What does our schools mission and vision say about thinking?
  • How can I incorporate more non-written, non-verbal reflection into my students learning?
  • What expectations do I set in my learning environments?
  • Is shorter lessons a good thing to promote deeper thinking?
  • How useful is individualization in developing understanding and advancing deep learning?
  • What are the essential questions to propel learning in Biology?
  • How do these change and morph through a teaching unit?

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