Making Thinking Visible: Initial Thoughts

I‘m currently reading Making Thinking Visible by Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison (2011). I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make thinking processes like writing and reading visible to students. Writing, for example, is part art but mostly craft. While some students think of good writing as something that just magically happens for certain individuals, I try to show students how many decisions actually go into writing—how much thinking really happens. The same can be said for reading.

I’ve read the introductory chapters and almost finished the second half of the book where all the strategies are described (more than twenty are included). In the opening section, the authors point out that we need to move beyond Bloom’s taxonomy. Framing thinking as a sequence or hierarchy is problematic because we know that many of the types of thinking in Bloom’s taxonomy can be happening simultaneously, out of order, and at varying levels of complexity. I’ve had students, for example, who can apply their knowledge with greater complexity than other students who analyze. Yet analyze is higher on the taxonomy than apply. It also seems to me that understanding—true understanding—is achieved by analyzing, applying, and synthesizing, yet understanding is lower on the taxonomy.

So what the authors suggest instead is a list of “high-leverage thinking moves”—moves that are “integral to understanding and without which it would be difficult to say we had developed understanding.” The list of moves includes:

Observing closely and describing what’s there

Building explanations and interpretations

Reasoning with evidence

Making connections

Considering different points of view and perspectives

Capturing the heart and forming conclusions

Wondering and asking questions

Uncovering complexity and going below the surface

When I read this list of “high-leverage thinking moves,” I gave myself a pat on the back. After all, I felt certain that my students and I engage in each of these moves with some regularity. But as I continued to read, I realized that none of these moves could be divorced from context. In other words, thinking can’t be separated from the discipline or subject area. I could, for example, get my students to wonder and ask questions about how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie pop, but that doesn’t build disciplinary understanding.

In order to determine whether or not your classroom is one “aligned with understanding,” the authors pose this scenario I’ve outlined in the visual below:

Does your classroom foster deep understanding-

The authors continue:

We need to be aware of the kinds of thinking that are important for scientists (making and testing hypothesis, observing closely, building explanations…), mathematicians (looking for patterns, making conjectures, forming generalizations, constructing arguments…), readers (making interpretations, connections, predictions…), historians (considering different perspectives, reasoning with evidence, building explanations…), and so on, and make these kinds of thinking at the center of opportunities we create for students.

How do the actions I ask my students to do in the classroom match up with how those actions look like in the real world and how I, myself, act in the real world within that discipline? In the case of English Language Arts, the question becomes this—in what ways do what my students do in the classroom match up with what real world writers and readers do, or with what I do as a reader and writer?

I’m reminded of this tidbit from Kylene Beers, which she posted last summer in response to the summer reading many schools assign:

When I finish reading a book, I want to think about it and talk about it, and then I want to start reading my next book. Never have I closed the covers, sighed, and said to myself, “Now, now I want to make a Venn Diagram.”

Yes, I know the value of scaffolds such as Venn Diagrams. They do help us think about how particular information is like (or not like) other information. And at some point, showing students how to make one, as a way to think more deeply about two characters or two books or two issues, is probably a good idea. If I had to write a review of a book and I knew that review was going to be published, I might sketch out a Venn Diagram to make sure I wasn’t missing details regarding how Atticus in Mockingbird varies from Atticus in Watchman. Maybe I’d do that . .

But honestly, when I finish reading, I don’t rush to draw those overlapping circles. I mull over what I’ve read; I find a friend who has read the same book; we talk about it; we turn in the text to favorite passages; we find where we agree and disagree; we reread sections that meant a lot to us or were confusing; we talk about how this book helps us understand something about ourselves, others around us, or the world. We talk about the questions it has raised. And when that’s all said and done, then I hunt for another book. I don’t finish one book and rush to make a diorama, complete a dialectical journal, or make that Venn Diagram. I didn’t do any of those things one time this summer. Not once. Actually, I didn’t even think about doing those things. I just read more books.

A major aim of education is to prepare students for the “real world.” Yet much of the “memorization, work, and activity” students do in the classroom may be less focused on developing understanding than on simply “memorization, work, and activity” for their own sakes.

What if every instructional and curricular decision was seen through this lens of understanding? What would that mean? It would mean that I should be able to say that I ask my students to do only those things that are authentic to the discipline as it exists in the real world.

So a thought experiment:

  • Do I answer study guide questions after I read a book? Or do I take my own notes, whether in the margins or on stickies, based on what I notice or want to remember?
  • Do I write a five-paragraph essay about the things I read? What types of real-world writing happens with the things we read? What about book reviews? Or podcasts?
  • Do I have someone else choose everything I read? Or do I choose books on my own, perhaps based on recommendations or in a book club?

In some ways, looking at my classroom through this lens is freeing. I can hopefully feel less guilty about not assigning the type of work I used to when I first started teaching—work that may have been “fun” but that was more often “busywork” and produced only shallow disciplinary understanding. On the other hand, looking at my classroom through this lens is also terrifying. It makes me see just how important it is that the things I do with students really, really matter. 


  1. Rachel Trosino

    I really resonate with your post. I read the link you offered and found myself disagreeing with some of it – disliking the assumptions that teachers don’t know already that thinking isn’t linear and that activities should be about practice of skill not content. However, when I read your response, I appreciated it more. I enjoyed their points, even in my first reading before your post, regarding what thinking points should be versus what they are. I agree with all of them, but mostly (if I’m being honest), it was because in my head I was sure I already do and focus on all of them. But reading your honesty about what really goes on in your class versus what you’re sure of made me give it a second chance to think about what I’m doing and how it fits into what I want. I think a lot of the time I’m accused by my on-level students who insist they will never go to college that none of this applies to their lives. I’ve dismissed it for a long time to their faces while agonizing over it in my own time, but I think part of it is the point you made – about authenticity in the post-school world and what will they REALLY need to do and want to do, what do they REALLY need, versus what the curriculum, test makers, and English teachers of the world say they do. Thank you for your honesty and your reflection – it gave me space to be a bit more honest with myself.


  2. Great post! I read this book this summer and really liked some of the strategies. My students are often so focused on “the right answer” or “getting their assignment done” that they skip right over the actual thinking that I’m trying to get them to do. A colleague of mine and I have really been focused this year on getting students THINKING authentically. It is challenging but is key to then really succeeding at anything. Thanks for the read!


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