Why You Should Read: ‘Making Thinking Visible’



A few months back I wrote a review of the book ‘A New Culture of Learning’    by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown. The progressive agenda of this text was inspiring, but in terms of how to convert innovative theory into concrete practice, the results were disappointing. I was hoping for something that could be applied immediately in the classroom, something with a realistic vision of administrative affordances and constraints. In this sense, A New Culture of Learning was perhaps too ahead of its time. It was therefore with a tinge of skepticism that I acted upon a fellow IBO teacher‘s recommendation for summer reading: ‘Making Thinking Visible.’

Making Thinking Visible documents the results of a research project carried out by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. The main premise is that the learning process is for the most part invisible to our students. Students are assessed on criteria such as “knowledge and understanding” but are rarely exposed to the specific components that define and distinguish these criteria. Lacking specific exposure to these components, students are unlikely to develop a meta-cognitive awareness of these processes on their own thinking.

The authors ask us to imagine how the process of “apprenticeship” is carried out in non-academic domains. They refer us to the craft of brick-laying, where an apprentice is able to see the process unfold, from the mixing of mortar, to the scaffolding, to the application of the mortar, then finally to the laying of the brick. The process is modeled for the apprentice by the professional mason, so when it’s time for the apprentice to do the job of brick-laying, they know precisely how to proceed. In the classroom, we require the product “understanding” but how many of us provide a model for the processes involved in the production of this abstract term?

Not me, I confess.

At least not before reading this book. What the authors have done in magisterial form, is to provide teachers like you and me with a model for the processes that go into what we call “thinking.” The authors identify eights primary traits of thinking:

  • Observing closely and describing what’s there
  • Building explanations and interpretations
  • Reasoning with evidence
  • Making connections
  • Considering different viewpoints and perspectives
  • Capturing the heart and forming conclusions
  • Wondering and asking questions
  • Uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things

The authors recommend that we make these processes an explicit part of our daily classroom activities, to identify these processes when we see them occur, so the student can gain a ‘meta-cognitive’ awareness of their own thinking. This morning, thanks to a severe typhoon here in Hong Kong, I’ve had time to create eight posters, each labeled with a different thinking trait, that will be laminated and posted in my classroom. This year, when students exhibit these processes, they will be made aware of it. Perhaps more crucially, for students who exhibit some but not all of these traits, the model shows what needs to be developed. I can hear the discussion now:

” So which of our thinking traits did Kim just demonstrate?”

” Making connections”

“Good….  but what’s lacking… Kim, what are you forgetting”?

” Umm.. I haven’t considered the different viewpoints?”

” Excellent.. check out the posters… anything else?”

Another reason why you should read ‘Making Thinking Visible’ is that the author’s provide really great “thinking routines.” I’ve heard this term used a lot this past year, so I suspect some of you are ahead of the game. For late-comers like me, thinking routines are things you do in class on a regular basis to inspire the thinking traits listed above. These routines can be as simple as a question: “What makes you say that?” By asking this simple question, a student is encouraged to “reason with evidence.” Another routine that I’ve already used to positive effect in a PD workshop was what’s called “Compass Points.” You provide information on a topic ( like changes being introduced in the MYP by ‘The Next Chapter ), you then ask the audience what   E.  Excites them about the topic     W. what Worries them about the topic    N. what Needs further clarification    S. what Strategies or Suggestion do they have for improvement.   This routine is easy to remember, as it’s based on the compass points, and is an effective way to inspire higher level thinking. I can imagine using this routine on topics in my Individuals and Societies classroom such as Globalization, Migration, Nuclear Energy, Development, G.M.O.’s, the list could on indefinitely.

Nearly half the book is devoted to these kinds of thinking routines. All of them are easy to remember, with helpful acronyms, and the utility, the styles of thinking each routine develops, is explained in depth. If, like me, you are pressed for time, and prefer literature with precise and thoughtful application, you will benefit handsomely from a reading of ‘Making Thinking Visible.’ For me, it’s a game changer. It’s reframed how I think of the thinking process itself, and revolutionized my methods for making these processes visible.





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