Generating ideas about thinking…

I’m lucky to work at a school where most (but not all) of the teachers love to learn and will voluntarily turn up for a bit of professional learning before school or during their lunchtime.

Almost the whole staff at our small  K-2 campus participate in today’s lunchtime session, bringing along sandwiches and bowls of soup. It’s a Year 2 room, so the teachers are sitting on small chairs around tables designed for little learners, but this is their learning environment and they are comfortable in it.

We have 40 minutes to think about thinking, explore one of the Visible Thinking routines and consider how it might be applied in the classroom. It’s one in a series of such gatherings where we work collaboratively on creating a culture of thinking. They have yet to read the book Making Thinking Visible and I hope to explore it with them in our coming sessions.

I’ve chosen the routine ‘Generate, Sort, Connect, Elaborate‘ partly because it’s a new one for them, but also because I know they will initially think it’s not suitable for younger learners*. I’m keen to show them the video below of 4 year olds engaging with this routine and hear their reflections! Here’s a variation of the same routine in a high school class, if that’s more your area.

We start by getting into groups and collaboratively generating ideas about thinking in the classroom. It’s easiest to do this on sticky notes, as they can be readily moved and sorted for the next part of the routine. It’s interesting that each group generates different ideas and sorts them in different ways. The ensuing conversation reveals not only how these teachers think about thinking,  but how productive such an activity could be in getting students to justify and explain their thinking.

Predictably, someone asks whether this routine is suitable for younger learners* and it’s time to watch part of this clip of Silvana and her little learners exploring ways to look after our planet, via the ‘Generate, Sort, Connect, Elaborate’ routine. (Don’t turn off before the little pouter at 5:44!)


There follows a great conversation about the picture of practice we have just seen, how the teacher engages the children, how the children respond, the process of the routine, the potential for application and some possible problems and solutions. In a flash, lunchtime is over and the teachers need to return to class, even though we haven’t actually completed the thinking routine ourselves. In fact, elaborating on and further developing the ideas generated about thinking today will be the goal of our future sessions.

I have never taught K-2 classes and the teachers invite me to come and team teach with them to experience the reality of their learning context. I can’t wait!

Making Thinking Visible: Chapter Two

Cross-posted (almost) from Inquire Within, a blog about inquiry.

We’re laughing as we shift the tables to include the screen in our circle. Someone has offered to give her chair to the expected guest, forgetting momentarily that he is actually in Tennessee, USA and will be joining us via Skype!

This group loves to learn together and we’re meeting for breakfast an hour before school again today to continue our discussion of Making Thinking Visible by Ritchhart, Morrison and Church. I highly recommend the book, the website and the principles of visible thinking for all inquiry teachers.

Our virtual guests Philip and Beth take some time to adjust their sound and then a bit longer to adjust to our accents, but are soon participating in the discussion. Philip is a 6th grade teacher who recently did a course at Harvard’s Project Zero and blogs here about his further exploration into Visible Thinking. Beth is a 2nd Grade teacher who incorporatesthese beliefs and strategies in her class too. They saw our reading group mentioned on my blog and asked if they could join, undeterred by the fact that we are in Australia!

We use the 4 C’s thinking routine as a guide for today’s discussion. It’s a great routine for synthesising and organising ideas.

Concepts: What are the big ideas?

Connections: How does it connect to what we already know?

Challenges: What do we find challenging?

Changes: How have our actions and attitudes changed as a result?

Today’s chapter focuses not just on the power of good questioning, but on how to listen carefully to what students say (and don’t say).  You can read my response to the chapter in an earlier post ‘Great questions have legs‘.

I’ve heard Ritchhart tell the story in person of how he observed great teaching and learning in classrooms then wondered why, although he carefully asked precisely the same questions as they had, the lessons did not go as well and he wasn’t able to create the same kind of thinking culture. It was only when he learned the value of attentive and responsive listening, that he was able to create that culture in his own classes. How many teachers have a desired answer in their heads and stop listening as soon as they hear it? 

The chapter also stresses the importance of documenting thinking. Most of the group agrees that this part is the most challenging. People talk about using sticky notes, which are easy to display, and journals, which are easier to keep. We consider whether one of the most effective ways of documenting and recording student thinking might be via a class blog. The question is what do you do with that documentation? We’ve started spending time in groups analysing students questions, discussing both what they reveal about each student and how they shape the direction of future teaching and learning. (but that’s for another post!)

The conversation, as always in this group, reflects passion for and commitment to learning… our own and that of our students. We conclude by reflecting on how our thinking has changed over time since we first began exploring Visible Thinking and Inquiry Learning. For the ‘exit card’ we use another thinking routine ‘I used to think… Now I think’. Even Philip is ready with his sticky note!

I used to think PD was something by experts that took place a few days a year. Now I think powerful professional learning comes from creating a community of learners and developing  a culture of thinking within your own school. And inviting the world in.

Great questions have legs…


I have some questions to ask you…

Do you ask questions to check for recall of information?
Or to help students clarify their thinking and construct meaning for themselves?

Do you play ‘guess what’s in my head’?
Or do you encourage learners to keep digging deeper?

Do you stop asking once you  get the answer you were  looking for?
Or do you ask questions you don’t already know the answer to?

Do you think answers are more important than questions?
Or are you excited when questions lead to even more questions?


Do you hear the answers and move on to the next question?
Or do you listen really carefully so the responses can guide where to go next?

Do you praise students who give great answers?
Or do you push students further by asking them to explain, elaborate and justify?

Do you rephrase the question if you no one responds?
Or do you give learners time to think, discuss and make connections?

Is every question and answer directed through you?
Or do students respond directly to each others questions?

Great questions have legs. They propel the learning forward.

(‘Making Thinking Visible’ by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church and Karin Morrison)

(Reading the above. Some of my thinking made visible here!)


Making thinking visible…

A recent tweet of mine kept reappearing over a period of days as it was picked up by others.  Someone had asked for tips for the new year and this was mine:

Reading Ron Ritchhart’s latest book (co-authored by Karin Morrison and Mark Church)  ‘Making Thinking Visible’ on a recent flight, I made many connections and was reminded yet again of his powerful influence on my approach to teaching and learning.

I first participated in a reading group some years ago, discussing extracts from his earlier book  ‘Intellectual Character’ and experimenting with Project Zero’s Visible Thinking routines.  Many of our teachers have since attended his workshops.  Most found the idea of a  ‘culture of thinking’ as transformative as I did.

One of my most visited posts, ’10 Ways to Create a Culture of Thinking’  a year ago, was influenced by Ritchhart and I have blogged about many of the Project Zero  ‘thinking routines’ over time.

Unpacking Thinking…

The first chapter of ‘Making Thinking Visible’ unpacks thinking. This initial list of  ‘thinking moves that are integral to understanding’ really resonates for me:

1. Observing closely and describing what’s there
2. Building explanations and interpretations
3. Reasoning with evidence
4  Making connections
5. Considering different perspectives
6. Capturing the heart and forming conclusions
7. Wondering and questioning
8. Uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things

This is what meaningful learning is about.

No wonder I am not a fan of such things as worksheets, over-planned units, prescriptive programs, teacher-centered instruction, content based curriculum and  standardised testing.

I want to SEE my students thinking…


Connecting the dots…

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the demands of teaching?  Does it sometimes feel as if there isn’t space in your head for more ideas, programs, strategies and tools? It might help to spend some time thinking about how the seemingly disparate parts are connected…

We met yesterday to start some dialogue about how best to synthesise the parts. The aim was to promote thinking  to assist team leaders in supporting their teams in connecting the dots.

Each person received a puzzle piece with one aspect of their teaching and completed the puzzle as a group.

But there’s more… How can we fit all these pieces into the puzzle?

Teachers chose to work on the next stage independently, so as to allow for individual thinking first. The task was to think of all the ‘parts’ and to create a visualisation of how they fit together. It was interesting to see how varied our visualisations were. One started with the child in the centre and everything else leading off that. One started with herself, the teacher, at the centre. Another put everything down in list form without connecting them at all initially. Some examples (not all completed)…

The ensuing conversation was really good. People willingly shared their personal challenges, their understanding of how the parts connect and their ideas for managing both themselves and their teams. There was a great deal of trust evident in the session. I won’t breech that by sharing specifics of the conversation…



Thinking about thinking…

In a recent Huffington Post essay, Eric Maisels presented an argument for ‘adding thinking to the school day’ . I totally agree with this sentiment:

If your intention is to have students manifest their potential, you need to do more than stuff their heads with facts on the one hand, or provide them with unstructured freedom on the other. You need to provide students with appropriate guidance that motivates them to think and motivates them to create — an environment that supports their intellectual and creative efforts.

He talks about encouraging students to ‘think big’, which I agree is essential. But I do not agree with his suggestion to set aside 45 minutes each day for students to ponder big questions, write down their thoughts, and present them if they wish.

I don’t believe that thinking is something you can do for one period a day. If students are to develop the habit of thinking deeply, they will need to be exposed to big ideas and given opportunities to ponder big questions throughout the day. Ron Ritchhart, in his workshops and in his book ‘Intellectual Character’, talks about creating a culture of thinking ‘in which thinking is valued,visible, and actively promoted as part of theregular, day-to-day experience of all group members’. I’ve suggested some ways to engender a culture of thinking in the classroom, in a previous post. If you haven’t explored the Project Zero Visible Thinking website, I highly recommend it.

I used the ‘Diamond Ranking’ thinking routine this week, to stimulate thinking  and get students to prioritise their ideas. DIAMOND RANKING

Start with your question, topic, or provocation. Each student gets nine sticky notes and writes one idea on each. In pairs or groups, they pool their ideas and negotiate them down to a total of nine. This requires the ability to provide supporting evidence for keeping your suggestions in. Finally, prioritise the ideas according to the ‘diamond ranking’ …the most important goes at the top, the least important at the bottom and so on.

The kids were totally engaged and their discussion was meaningful and relevant. They are used to thinking about big ideas and evaluating issues … they don’t only do it for 45 minutes a day.

It was only after the lesson that I thought we should have grabbed some laptops and done the activity in linoit, rather than on paper. This would have allowed inclusion of images, embedding in a wiki or blog, sharing and commenting.

I just wasn’t thinking…

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


It’s about the learning, not the tools…

Frankly I’m tired of tools.  Exhausted from experimenting. Weary of web 2.0 options popping up on a daily basis… Well not entirely 🙂

At one point, I was excited to keep trying out new tools, figure out how they work, share them with my colleagues and use them to support learning and engage my students.  I wrote a post a while ago  saying I would start a series sharing one new tool that I tried each week… but never continued the series.  I used to support Linda, our ICT coordinator in introducing a new tool at every session of our early morning tech sessions for teachers.  But, while I am still experimenting with new tools, learning and exploring new possibilities, I have decided to slow down.  It’s important for the learning to drive things, not the technology.

which tool?Most of our teachers are willing to have a go, but not yet entirely comfortable with technology.  They are still daunted by too many different tools, when and how to use them.  So, this week we started using our tech sessions in a different way.  Instead of introducing new tools, we will revisit the ones that teachers have already been shown and discuss further possible ways of using them to enhance learning.  And give teachers and students a bit more time to consolidate and become completely comfortable with each tool in their toolbox.

We started by revisiting Voicethread. If you’ve been with me since the start, you’ll know it’s one of my favourites. To start off with Michele from our junior campus showed us the fabulous connection our 5 year olds made with a school in the US  using Voicethread. (more about that next time.)

Everyone shared ideas for how Voicethread might be used.  As a way for students to respond to an image or video related to their units of inquiry. As a place to share their own inquiry findings and have other kids, teachers and parents comment.  As an opportunity for discussion, a way to collaborate with people in other places, an option for a text response, a way of practising skills of speaking, listening, reading, writing.  Claire liked the idea of setting up a Voicethread as one of her literacy rotations, where kids could respond to a text in an engaging way, without teacher supervision.  Des thought it would be great to upload a talk she had heard and have her class comment on it.  Or perhaps all the Year 4 classes could collaborate.  Rubi has a contact at a PYP school in Mumbai and hopes to connect with kids there for a unit on understanding other cultures.  Talila loves the idea of getting her students to engage in Hebrew conversation.

We talked about how to scaffold thinking so that students’ contributions to the Voicethread will be meaningful.  I remember reading a blog post last week concerning how to get kids to make more valuable blog comments. Whether they are commenting on a blog, adding to a discssion in Voicethread  or responding to their peers’ learning,  the use of a thinking routine will provide a structure for their thinking.  I have blogged extensively about Project Zero‘s thinking routines in the past and can’t stress enough the part they play in fostering higher order thinking. The ‘Connect Extend Challenge‘ routine for any kind of response in Voicethread (or anywhere else) seemed to us one of the most appropriate.  It enables students to make connections to what they already know, explain how their thinking has been extended and then pose a question about the topic/image/video/presentation which they find challenging. One of the teachers suggested simplifying it for the younger kids to ‘Get one,give one’  –  Say something you got out of it (or learned from it) and something new you can add or suggest.

We always come away from these sessions pleased to have reflected on our practice together, aware of how much we have learned and continue to learn from each other, enthused to have a go at applying new ideas… and I always think how lucky I am to be part of a true community of learners.


Making connections…

This week we had a great visit to the  United World College of S.E Asia in Singapore.  The connection was made through Twitter with @kbeasly, who was out at a conference,  but arranged for the  wonderful @librarianedge to show us around.  One of the best things about the PYP is that you can go to a school anywhere in the world, talk the same language and make instant connections.

Back to my unplanned series on thinking routines! (more about that soon). Today’s routine  is Connect, Extend,  Challenge.  It provides a framework for students to make connections between new learning and what they already know.  It encourages them to consider how their thinking has been extended and to ask further questions or engage with new challenges.


There were so many connections to be made.  First of all,  the familiar language and thinking behind the PYP.  Essential agreements, central ideas, learner profiles… all on the classroom walls.  Some of the teachers there have done the Project Zero online course, so another connection was to note the visible thinking everywhere, including the use of the thinking routines.  Luke talked about the coming PYP exhibition and we have our first exhibition this year too.  Katie talked about the way she resources the units of inquiry.  We discussed the difficulties in making units truly trans-disciplinary, and how to ensure meaningful connections across the specialist subject areas.

And lots lots more…

But best of all was the actual connection I have now made with Katie herself, which we intend to continue in the future!


Some new ideas which extending my thinking…  I really like the way they have incorporated service into the school.  Action is an important aspect of the PYP and by twinning each class with a class at a less advantaged school, or an orphanage, or a home for the elderly, they have made this service more meaningful than just a fundraising exercise.

Luke shared lots of interesting ideas and expertise for scaffolding students learning in preparation for the exhibition.  We saw in both his class and Mario’s, how the students have gradually learned to create their own central ideas and the journals they will use to track the process of their learning on the way to the exhibition stage.

Hamish’s room is visually gorgeous, because he is an artist, but I love the way he has combined his wonderful artwork with visible thinking.  Each of the scales on the colourful dragon the wall,  represents student thinking  during a unit and when the scales come down to be replaced by new thinking, he hangs them from a loop on a hook to be added to later, for a record of student thinking.

And lots, lots more…


One challenge will be to try and convey some of what we saw to our teachers back home.  We would love to arrange some sort of exchange, if such a thing is possible… to have Katie visit our school and our librarian visit theirs.  It would be great to establish a connection between our students.  There are some units we have in common and we could set up an online collaboration of sorts, but the challenge will be to get all teachers on board, if they are not yet comfortable with technology.  Another challenge, which we discussed with Katie, is how to incorporate ‘service’ in a meaningful way without our more privileged students feeling a sense of superiority in their lives, assisting those less fortunate than themselves.

And lots, lots more…

Unplanned series of posts based on Project Zero Thinking Routines #5