10 ways to create a culture of thinking…

Ron Ritchhart, in his book Intellectual Character, as well as his work with Visible Thinking through Harvard’s Project Zero, describes the forces that comprise a ‘culture of thinking‘ in the classroom. Here’s my take…

10 ways to create a culture of thinking…

1. Model thinking.

Talk about your own thinking. Make your thinking explicit. Share ideas. Wonder aloud. Explore possibilities with your students. Acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers.

2. Allow thinking time.

Don’t expect answers as soon as you have asked a question. Don’t repeat or rephrase the question if there isn’t an immediate response. Get used to the silence. Give students time to formulate their thinking. Don’t call on the first kids to have their hands up. Sometimes, get every student to write their thoughts down before you call on anyone. Give time to discuss their thoughts with a partner or group before sharing with the class.

3. Provide  opportunities for thinking.

Pose problems. Encourage exploration and inquiry. Set meaningful, real-life problems. Encourage students to take and defend a position, make predictions, support their ideas with evidence, articulate and test theories, make connections with prior knowledge.

4. Create a physical environment conducive to thinking.

Don’t have seats facing the front. Arrange the seats in groups so that kids can collaborate and construct meaning together. Allow movement for interacting with different people. Display student thinking on the walls. Put up a series of sticky notes showing development of thinking over a unit.

5. Introduce thinking routines.

In the same way that classes have routines for management and organization, students get used to thinking when it becomes routine. Routines need to be short, clear and easy to remember and repeated often.  Thinking routines provide a scaffold and structure for thinking. They give students guidelines within which to think and a direction to head towards in their thinking.

6. Show that you value thinking.

Name and notice thinking. Avoid praise for individual thinking. Acknowledge every contribution. Make it clear that all thinking is acceptable. Respond respectfully to all students. Ask for clarification and development of ideas. Encourage students to build on each others’ thinking.

7. Give them something worth thinking about!

Make sure your stimulus is always something worth thinking about. Create tension and cognitive disonance. Create strong provocations that will invite students into the topic. Ask powerful questions. Think laterally, it isn’t always something obvious. Use art. Use music. Use artifacts.

8. Let go.

A thinking culture works best when the teacher isn’t in charge.  Sit at the back sometimes, don’t always stand in front. Don’t paraphrase student’s thinking into what you think they mean. Every response does not have to go through the teacher. Don’t be the filter.

9. Focus on big ideas.

Don’t teach only facts and content.  Look at big ideas, rather than just topics.  Explore events and ideas through one or more conceptual lenses for deeper learning.  Facts are locked in time, place or situation, while concepts are transferable. Encourage transfer of learning to other contexts.

10. Focus on learning, not work

Make sure you and your students know the reason for every learning experience. Don’t give ‘busy work’. Avoid worksheets where possible. Don’t start by planning activities, start with the ‘why‘ and then develop learning experiences which will encourage higher order thinking.

11. Your suggestion… (leave a comment)

Series of posts on ’10 Ways to…’ #3

10 ways to encourage students to take responsibility for their learning

10 ways to foster a love of learning


32 thoughts on “10 ways to create a culture of thinking…

  1. #8 has to be done in order for any of this to really work. As teachers, we often struggle letting go of the power and letting students choose/guide their own learning. If we want students to problem solve and think critically, we have to let go and allow them to. Too often we worry about meeting this standard or learning that piece of content, that we try to control the (learning) process to ensure that, when in reality we are simply limiting potential and possibilities.

    Students need to feel “safe” enough to think in your class. There should be an equity of voice, everyone’s thoughts are valued and mistakes aren’t given an “F”, but are seen as an opportunities to rethink.

    And you said it Ed, time. We all want more of it, including our students. Some of our greatest thinkers may only need more time; instead we serve them detentions and poor conduct grades because they don’t work fast enough. Yes, I believe that at some point its time to move on, but make sure to plan appropriate time for learning to occur.

    Love the “10” series. Thanks Ed.


    1. Thanks, Jeremy. Yes, I agree. I didn’t put them in any particular order, but should probably have started with #8! Feeling safe is really important too. Nobody (not adults either) likes to express their thinking in a threatening or critical environment.


      1. Time… This is a tricky one. I am well-renowned by my students for giving extensions on tasks (Year 7). When I asked my stunts for feedback on my teaching/operating, a few complained that kids who didn’t meet deadlines “got away with it” or weren’t “penalised”.

        I have found it hard to justify to the students that school isn’t about ‘passing’ or ‘marks/grades’, and that if someone presents an example of their learning a few days late, that I should not devalue it (late penalty).

        But why do we set deadlines?

        I think it’s purely about management.

        I hope that by the end of the year my students understand that school is a place for learning, and that, ultimately, what they ‘did’ isn’t as important as how they changed. You can’t penalise that!


  2. I like the ease of this list–“10 Ways to…” that would be a fun writing to do with students. Thank you for summing up the Ritchhart book; sounds like something I’d like to read. I was reminded of David Perkin’s book from the early 90s, Smart Schools. His book moved me to work on establishing a culture of thinking in my own classroom.

    One thing I found I needed to do that I didn’t see on your list was to help students develop a common language for thinking. I used DeBono’s Six Thinking Hats We used pipe cleaners and not hats to create models of our thinking. These models became touchstones for us to refer to when talking about our actions and reactions throughout the year. I’ll have to find those handouts for this year.

    When we talked (or wrote) to make our thinking explicit, I would introduce the language of thinking: metacognition, schema, activating background knowledge, brainstorm, infer, predict, reflect and the like. The words would go up on classroom word wall, so that students could see, use and internalize them.

    So many things to think about before school begins!


  3. Another great list, Ed! I would add:

    – Encourage alternative ideas
    Many times a response that reflects an alternative way of thinking is ridiculed by the other students. Encourage different ways of looking at ideas and help those who think differently to be comfortable in expressing their ideas. Create an environment where even the most outrageously alternative ideas can be safely expressed.


    1. I completely agree. My goal each year is for the students to truly think about possibilities and not just try to remember what I have told them. I definitely want them to pay attention to what I say, but I really want them to always be considering, questioning, and evaluating- even my answers. Often responses that are alternative to what is expected can cause an “aha” moment because they illuminate an aspect we may not have considered. So, hopefully students can see that divergent thinking and more linear thinking are BOTH part of higher order problem solving and critical thinking. I want kids to grow in their abilities to think for themselves and question. It seems to me that if I set the stage for this from the beginning, then it becomes a safe environment for sharing alternate perspectives…all input is viewed as a contribution to the process. I’m not the most linear thinker myself and (unfortunately) that can leave a less than organized comment! Anyway, I appreciated the thoughts.


  4. Great Post. When I was practising teacher I decided that what I was doing was teaching thinking. The subject was the metaphor around which we organised thinking routines. Focussing on thinking means you move towards a problem-solving approach to learning rather than a practice, drill and memorise approach. Give them somthing worth thinking about and let them choose what it is…


  5. So happy to have stumbled upon your blog this morning. (Thanks @4thGrdTeach) Lots of great reading here! It’s funny, as August nears on the calendar, I find myself slowly moving into back to school mode. This post, like many I seem to be finding lately, really have me considering the start of my year and changes I want to make. You have discussed so many ways to value and develop thinking in the classroom. For me, I know my language is also important in developing thinking. Asking questions that don’t have exact answers such as, “Are you like _____(book character) in any way?” (OK, that’s a weak one, but it helps make my point.) In math, having students explain how they solved problems instead of focusing on right answers. Thanks for sharing your reflection.


  6. This is a great list. It’s amazing how many of the 10 I broke every day as a high school teacher 😦

    One of the reasons these 10 don’t happen, though, is that we lack a method to teach thinking skills. There’s a growing body of research about a practical way to teach thinking called the DSRP method. I would encourage you to check out some of the free materials:

    And hear from teachers who are using DSRP:


  7. #2 has always been the hardest for me. Wait time is not something that was modeled for me and it is not something I am naturally comfortable with. I feel the need to “rescue” my students, most of the time they don’t need rescuing, just a few minutes to think it through. The other enemy to #2 is time. The school day (at least mine) feels like it is shrinking. There isn’t enough time to fit it all in. Especially when I only see students once a week for 35 min. I have learned when students don’t answer questions right away, I table it and create a wall wisher or a blog post that students can respond to in their own time as they come up with the answer. This is why I love technology!


  8. Really great list Ed, thanks for sharing those ideas with us.

    I’ve just read a post by Oliver Quinlan (http://bit.ly/9N2IN4) about setting up the space in a classroom to reflect the type of learning you want to take place. When thinking of that having this list of ways to create the culture of thinking will be invaluable in helping teachers create their space.

    I use thinking time a lot and to make sure everyone gets a chance (and is expected) to contribute an answer I use lollipop sticks to randomly choose pupils, pairs or groups to answer. I wrote a post about this here http://bit.ly/ccFdW1.

    Something I really enjoy doing and which always gets children thinking is to repeat their answers back to them. This often makes them double check their answers and provide a justification for their ideas to counter me!

    Once again, thanks for the grand ideas,


  9. I really love a lot of the suggestions on this page. I do a lot of talking and discussions with the students, often lead by their own questioning and exploration. I always think, how to I document or have evidence for the things that we have discussed or covered in the class, without written evidence??????


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