Saturday, 18 October 2014

Exploring Thinking Routines

I've just finished voraciously reading "Making Thinking Visible" (Ritchhard, Church & Morrison, 2011) front to back, and I must admit it's probably the most interesting and useful text I've read in awhile (that wasn't linked to student voice). It's packed full of amazing and extremely user-friendly ideas for teachers in any subject, at any level, to incorporate into their classroom practice. I am already buzzing with ideas that I am going to take away and use within the next week. If you're looking for a text to help invigorate your own practice, then I would highly suggest purchasing the text; it's a worthy investment.

That said, I will try to summarise some of the best ideas here, for those looking for a quick dose of ideas. 

First of all, I really liked how the authors used the word 'routine' instead of 'technique' or 'strategy' to describe the ideas they share within the text. They justify their choice of the word 'routine' by saying that 'strategies' are only used on occasion whereas 'routines become part of the fabric of the classroom through their repeated use' (48).  They also suggest that the word routine 'carries with it notions of ordinariness, habit, and ritual' which suggests that they are longer lasting and can (and should) be incorporated into daily teaching practice, as opposed to being strategies used or trialled in one-off lessons (48). By thinking of the concepts as 'routines' it suggests that they will become a part of the 'pattern of the classroom' (49). 

The text is then broken down into a series of different sections, offering ways to engage higher level, visible thinking at various stages in a lesson or unit. These sections are: Routines for Introducing and Exploring Ideas; Routines for Synthesising and Organising Ideas; and Routines for Digging Deeper into Ideas. What I will do for you here is sample a few of  my favourite ideas, so that you can have something to take away; if you like what you see here, I would again suggest that you purchase a copy of the text for yourself. Failing that, if you'd like to borrow my copy, I'd be happy to lend it out. Of course, you'd have to know me in real life to take advantage of that offer. 

3 Sample Routines for Introducing and Exploring Ideas

The first routine in the text, and possibly the simplest to use in any classroom (and one of my favourites) is See-Think-Wonder (55). The purpose of using this routine is to provide an 'opportunity to look carefully, to more fully observe, and to notice before interpreting' (55). It would be well placed at the start of a new topic, unit or the introduction of a new skill. 

Essentially, you (the teacher) should select an image or object to present to the class. Students should then be given time to observe the image/object in silence, taking note of the things that they can See on the surface. At this point, students should only be noting what they can observe, nothing more. To clarify, the authors suggest telling students that 'an observation is something  you could actually put your fingers on' (56). 

Next,  you extend their thinking by asking them to explore what they Think is going on. To quote the text: 'This general, interpretive question may be modified to suit the image/object. For instance, you might ask, 'Based on what we are seeing and noticing, what does it make us think? What kinds of interpretations can we form based on our observations?'' (56). 

Finally, you allow students time to Wonder, based on what they have seen and think. This is where you should encourage students to challenge what they think; to what extent are their thoughts valid? Could there be alternative ways to view things? The point of this stage is to 'push [students] beyond [their] interpretations to look at issues and ideas raised by the image/object' (57).

Another routine that I liked was called Chalk Talk (although I think the name could be adapted for British schools, since I haven't seen a chalk board in ages, and the routine itself doesn't require the use of chalk at all! If anything, it's a variation of a Jigsaw). This routine allows students to partake in 'silent conversations' where they can anonymously absorb, build on, and debate thinking. 

To use this routine, you would need to write a series of prompts on large sheets of paper, placing them on various tables around the room. You may choose to put markers out as well, but students can just as easily use their own pens. You can also choose to have students circulate each prompt from table to table, staying in a set group, or give students free roam of the room; I think that this would vary for each teacher, depending on the group. Anyways, the task works by allowing students time at each prompt to record their ideas and responses. Prompts, or students, circulate around the room and students are meant to read and add to what has been previously written. At the end, you hold a discussion where students share the themes that have emerged from throughout the process. 

The 3-2-1 Bridge (86) is another excellent idea that I felt could be used at the start and end of a lesson to show progress. The purpose of the routine is 'all about activating prior knowledge before a learning experience begins' (86). 

To start, you need to ensure that you've selected a topic that your students should have some prior knowledge in. Present this topic to your students at the start of the lesson, then have them write down 3 words that quickly come to mind when they think of the topic; these should be quick, rapid fire associations. Next, have then generate 2 questions that quickly come to mind. Finally, they should create a metaphor or simile for the topic. You may need to provide prompts to start, such as 'Planets are like....' (88). 

You'd then go into the main part of the lesson, where you'd hopefully give the students new information, or teach them a new skill. After this, you can come back to the 3-2-1 part of the process, getting them to repeat the steps as above, this time with their new-found knowledge. This is when the bridging comes in; students should now compare their initial responses to their new responses, noticing how their thinking has shifted throughout the course of the lesson. This might be best facilitated through a discussion with a partner. 

The 3 words provide an 'accessible' way to 'activate ideas', the 2 questions 'push a bit further', and the metaphor/simile works to 'test how one is understanding and framing a topic or idea' (86), while the Bridge section of the routine acts to 'help learners recognise and name their own learning and development' which means it's a great way to show progress within a lesson (something that Ofsted and PM observers love to see) (87). 

3 Sample Routines for Synthesising and Organising Ideas

I'm going to refer to one of the adapted versions of Headlines (111) here, because I feel that it is a more creative way to approach the routine. Basically, if you're exploring themes or ideas within a given unit, an interesting way to have students revise their understanding is to have them choose a song that they feel best captures that theme/idea; they then need to link the song to the theme/idea and explain their choice in detail. This pushes students to reflect on their learning by having to justify their choices, therefore making their understanding of the topic clear. It could make for an interesting Speaking and Listening activity in a number of different subjects. As the authors say, this activity shouldn't be about 'coming up with a superficial but catchy phrase' or song choice - instead, it should be about 'inviting learners individually and as a group to gear their thinking towards core, central ideas and elements that are at the heart of a topic being studied' (115). 

Another routine, which builds on the oft-used technique of concept mapping, requires students to Generate-Sort-Connect-Elaborate (125). I'm going to share this technique because I think we, as teachers, often get students to mind map or create concept maps, but not in a way that clearly shows their thought processes, or extends their thinking beyond the basic writing down of key facts. This routine works best when there is a difficult concept or big idea that needs to be explored. Concepts such as 'freedom, power, and electricity' or processes such as 'designing a science experiment, creating an animated film, or preparing for a debate all lend themselves to this routine' (126). 

To start, you need to share a topic (or topics, if have students produce different concept maps for different ideas) with the class. Having large sheets of paper with the topic in the middle for each group of students would be ideal. Next, you ask students to generate a list of words, ideas or aspects that they associate with the topic. I would suggest that you have students do this on post-it notes or cue cards, as these ideas will need sorting in the next step. 

Once a bunch of words have been created, you should get students to sort these into 'how central or tangential they are, placing central ideas near the centre and more peripheral ideas towards the outside' (126). You can them have the students copy (or glue) their ideas down, so that they're more permanent on the page. 

The next step is to make connections between the ideas, drawing kings between ideas that share a connection, writing a brief explanation of what that connection would be on the line. To elaborate, students should pick a few ideas that they think are most relevant and elaborate upon them. In English or history, for example, this could be done by findings quotes from the text/primary sources and linking them up, to support their ideas. Finally, students should share their work with the class, so that discussion can be had about the choices made, etc. 

My favourite routine in the whole text is the Micro-Lab Protocol (147). This activity is 'designed to ensure equal participation and make sure everyone contributes' (147). As part of my thesis study, I have begun looking at techniques (or maybe routines!) to help engage disadvantages pupils, and so far I've read that what really works is getting students to change their mindset; getting them involved in the learning, so that they actually want to take part. You have to change their approach to education  by engaging them directly in it; that's why I think this routine would be the most useful for my own practice. Anyways, I'll explain to you how it works, and let you judge for yourselves...

Micro-Lab Protocol involves having students work in groups of three to 'discuss and explore perspectives' on various topics or themes (148). To start, get students into their groups of three and have them label themselves as 1, 2 or 3. Next, inform them of what it is you want them to talk about, as well as what you hope they can get out of the discussion. You should time the proceedings closely, to ensure that students don't get bored or begin to muck about. You may wish, at this time, to have students spend a few minutes writing down their initial response to the topic in silence. 

Person number 1 should talk first. No one speaks except the speaker. The other two group members should listen attentively, and takes notes if they want. Allow students up to a minute to speak, then call for silence. If the student runs out of things to say in that minute, they should sit quietly. You should allow for 20-30 second of silence after the initial minute, so that students can think over what has just been said. The authors note that some people can become uncomfortable with the silence, but it's really important that you get past that discomfort/fear, because the thinking time is important. 

You then repeat the process until each member of the group has shared their thoughts. After that, students can have an open discussion. The authors suggest allowing 5-10 minutes for this, depending on your group. You should encourage the students to make connections between what each person has said, or to ask questions to clarify points. 

After group discussion, you can then have students reflect on their thoughts as a class. At this point, they could record how their thoughts changed, or didn't change, throughout the course of the routine. It might also be interesting to get students to discuss their thoughts on the routine itself, as the routine is likely to very different to past techniques re: sharing ideas in groups. 

I think this routine would be an excellent one to use during observation lessons, because it shows that all students are engaged in the lesson, and could also be used to show progress, as students can reflect on their initial thoughts once they've completed the discussion. I certainly plan to make use of it during my next PM observation (not without trialling it first though!). 

1 Sample Routines for Digging Deeper into Ideas

The best suggestion is super simple, and only requires you to use the phrase 'What makes you think/say that?' more often in your lessons. Try it, and you'll see how powerful the phrase really is. 

Well, I must admit, this post has become much longer than I intended. I feel like I've written a mini-novel myself, though I've only been trying to summarise a few of the best ideas I was able to glean from the text. As I said, I really think you should pick up a copy of the text yourself, so that you can judge the routines for yourself; it may be that I've picked out the ones that work best for my own subjects (English, history and media studies), but I assure you, the text has ideas that work in Maths, science, art, and any other subject out there! I also assure that I have not been paid to write this glowing recommendation. I'm just trying to help! 

I do hope that someone will find these tips helpful. I'd hate to think that I spent a large chunk of my Saturday typing this up purely for myself. Then again, so long as it improves my own practice, who am I to care? :) 


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