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Thinking Made Visible

The following article by Assistant Headmaster Alexis Aoyama appears in the summer 2015 issue of Saint David's Magazine:

The formation of thoughts and ideas is often an invisible process, yet it is the basis for learning. Remembering, reflecting, reasoning, analyzing, and synthesizing are complex internal processes that shape the way a person makes sense of the world. Providing opportunities for a student to share his thinking gives the educator a window into his mind and allows the educator to tailor instruction to meet the student’s needs. As boys are asked to explain their thinking, they develop language for talking about thinking and gain a sense of ownership in the process. Explicitly teaching students thinking moves they can use to understand a wide range of topics helps them become empowered as learners. Making boys’ thinking visible promotes student engagement, understanding, and independence.

At Saint David’s, we aim to immerse students in rich learning experiences that engage boys in thinking and lead to deep understanding. The Teaching for Understanding Framework is a model we use to conceptualize and design units of study. The model puts understanding up-front, placing an emphasis on selecting generative topics that will capture boys’ attention and provide opportunities for connection making. Units are framed with overarching understanding goals or throughlines.

Throughout a unit, students engage in a series of performances of understanding that are intimately connected with the throughlines. Students and teachers track students’ progress toward understanding through ongoing assessments. The Teaching for Understanding Framework has provided us with a common language for talking about teaching and learning, and it has helped us “reversion” our program to include signature learning experiences that promote understanding.

This year, we added another dimension to our work by focusing on the thinking that leads to understanding. We are bringing thinking to the forefront of our conversation about teaching and learning, and we are exploring methods to formalize how we think and talk about thinking. In August 2014, we began working with Mark Church, an educator and learning consultant from Harvard University, to consider ways we can further develop a culture of thinking at Saint David’s.

As part of our ongoing professional development program, Mark visited Saint David’s for two days in February. During the first day, he met with teachers and administrators, and attended classes to get a better sense of our culture and community. On the second day he led the whole faculty in a workshop about Making Thinking Visible. He helped us to connect the conceptual thinking we have been doing about teaching for understanding to practical ways we can cultivate thinking and student engagement in our classrooms.

There are numerous paths or “thinking moves” a person can take to develop understanding. The research team at Harvard Project Zero has identified eight thinking moves that are integral to understanding: describing what’s there (What do you see and notice?);

building explanations (What’s really going on here?); capturing the heart and forming conclusions (What’s at the core of this?); uncovering complexity (What lies beneath the surface of this?); making connections (How does this fit?); reasoning with evidence (Why do you think so?); considering different viewpoints (What’s another angle on this?); and wondering (What am I curious about here?) (Ritchart 11-13). Teaching and practicing thinking moves across disciplines and grades helps boys develop habits of mind that lead to understanding, so they can independently employ them long after they leave our classrooms.

During the workshop, Mark introduced the faculty to thinking routines that can be used to engage students in the learning process. Each thinking routine corresponds with one or more of the key thinking moves, so teachers can decide which routine or routines will help them foster the types of thinking habits they are striving to develop in their students. For instance, to help students learn to reason and develop thoughtful interpretations, a teacher may decide to use the Claim-Support-Question routine.

First, students are asked to make claims or provide explanations of some aspect of the topic. From there, boys are invited to identify support for their claims. What do they see, feel or know that supports their claim? They then ask questions related to their claims. What’s left hanging? What isn’t explained? What new questions does your claim raise? As boys share their responses, teachers chart their thinking on the board, so the group can reference it during their discussion. Many of the thinking routines require the students to jot down their initial thinking before they share it with the group. This process invites all students to engage with the material and gives more students a voice in the ensuing discussion.

Following the workshop, teachers who were interested in pursuing some of the ideas and techniques Mark shared were invited to become part of a “seed group.” Fifteen teachers volunteered. Given the strong response, we divided into three groups of five.

Teachers began exploring with thinking routines in their classrooms and met regularly with their study groups to share their experiences using the routines, and reflect on the impact on student engagement and thinking. Looking closely at student work during our study sessions helped to “anchor” our conversations, and it also served as a “launch pad” for allowing us to think about our teaching. The presenting teacher benefited by being able to see things she ordinarily would not see because she is too close to it. The study group functioned as a “brain exchange” or think tank, and the resulting educational discourse was energizing. Creating a rich culture of thinking for educators is key to fostering a school-wide culture of thinking.

During our follow-up professional development day in May, Mark Church challenged participants in the seed group to think about the kinds of thinking habits we want to grow in our students. He raised the question, “What are the thinking habits you wish your students left you with?” and asked us to consider “How might the habit of reasoning with evidence help our students?” Clearly articulating learning goals specific to thinking is a critical step in developing a culture of thinking. The choices teachers make are powerful. By creating space in our classrooms to focus on thinking, we are able to help boys build their repertoires of thinking habits.

Paying attention to students’ thinking gives us great insight into where students are; it helps us to understand their interests, and it can unveil students’ misconceptions. Simply raising the question “What makes you say that?” communicates to the student that the teacher is curious about what is going on inside his head. Evidence of students’ thinking helps us to know what boys take from a lesson versus what we hope they take from the lesson. Mistakes become gifts. Teachers are able to unpack student thinking and clear up misconceptions.

This spring teachers practiced using thinking routines with their students. As part of his Fifth Grade American history course, Mr. Hubbard used the See-Think-Wonder routine to gauge his students’ background knowledge about the southern colonies. As boys studied a copy of a lithograph created in 1884, A Cotton Plantation on the Mississippi, he asked the boys: What do you see? What do you think about that? What does it make you wonder?

The students’ observations, inferences and wonderings gave Mr. Hubbard insight into aspects of the topic the boys were confused about; for example, some boys thought the image may have depicted a scene from a plantation in Delaware or Pennsylvania, leading Mr. Hubbard to know that he needed to spend more time teaching the boys about the geography of the colonies. A number of boys raised questions or wonderings about slavery, which helped Mr. Hubbard recognize that this is an area of interest for the class, and one he would dedicate more time to studying. Uncovering students’ thinking allows teachers to strategically tailor instruction to accommodate boys’ needs and interests.

During Ms. Sundar’s Fifth Grade science class about ecosystems, she asked her boys to consider the interrelatedness of living organisms with each other and with the non-living aspects of their habitats using the Connect-Extend-Challenge routine. To pique their interest, she asked students to read an article about how an asteroid collision on Mexico’s Yucat√°n Peninsula in the late Cretaceous Period could have had a ripple effect so large that it may have led to the mass extinction of dinosaurs and other species across the globe.

Boys were asked to consider how the ideas and information presented in the article connected to what they already know. Then they were asked to think about what new ideas arose that extended or broadened their thinking in new directions, and consider what challenges or puzzles came up in their minds from the ideas and information presented. Boys began by making connections between the article and their current study of interdependence in ecosystems as well as their winter study of DNA and natural selection.

They considered the ways that catastrophe would not only devastate the zone of impact, but could also alter the atmosphere so that plants far away would not be able to carry out photosynthesis, which in turn would starve smaller and then larger consumers. As they extended their thinking, they posited that a natural disaster would lead to death for most organisms, but those equipped to survive in the new conditions would repopulate the earth. As boys delved deeper into the subject matter and explored the challenges, they began to think about the likelihood that such an event would happen in the future and the role technology could play in helping to provide warning and protection. The Connect-Extend-Challenge routine gave boys an opportunity to make sense of what they had learned in class and apply it to new learning.

Thinking routines are powerful tools for developing thinking dispositions and intellectual character as well as for deepening subject matter understanding. In his book Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World, David Perkins writes, “The general notion is that in our complicated world, for the kinds of lives today’s learners are likely to live, it’s important to develop skills and attitudes that address some very broad challenges, like self-understanding, empathy, ethics, and collaboration — , and of course, good thinking” (199). At Saint David’s, our signature learning experiences are designed to forge thinking habits in our boys as they collaborate with one another and apply what they have learned to novel situations. We aspire “to educate boys to fulfill their potential through rigorous academic pursuit, deliberate moral introspection, and critical analysis of ideas and issues.” Thinking is central to our story of learning.

Perkins, David N. Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World. San Francisco, 2014. Jossey-Bass.

Church, Mark; Morrison, Karin; Ritchhart Ron. Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners San Francisco, 2011. Jossey Bass.

A Cotton Plantation on the Mississippi, 1884.


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