Friday, March 29, 2013

Making Thinking Visible

Posted by Tara Della Rocca

Perkins, D. (2003, Dec.) Making thinking visible. New Horizons for Learning. Available: http:/

"Thinking is pretty much invisible." Perkins reminds us that we learn so much by watching, imitating and adapting what we see in our world and building from there. Not only is the skill of thinking invisible, but the circumstances that invite thinking are not clear. (Music invites dancing; kids have seen this happen; so when music plays, kids dance. Rumors told invite skeptical thinking strategies; this thought is invisibly undertaken; so when kids hear an unlikely rumor, they don't naturally question it.)

"People are often simply oblivious to situations that invite thinking."

"a dispositional view of good thinking... pays as much attention to people's alertness and attitudes as it does to thinking skills as such. We ask not only how well do people think once they get going but how disposed are they in the first place to pay attention to the other side of the case, question the evidence, look beyond obvious possibilities, and so on. Our findings argue that everyday thinking may suffer more from just plain missing the opportunities than from poor skills."
This last quote touches on part of the inspiration for research in my classroom around visible thinking. I not concerned about the skills my students have around thinking - they use thinking strategies when I prompt them to and develop deep understanding around the topics we study through our projects with thoughtful practice. BUT, I am concerned that their alertness to situations in which they should employ their thinking strategies is undeveloped. I have created students who can think, but not students who will think without prompting.

"As educators, we can work to make thinking much more visible than it usually is in classrooms. When we do so, we are giving students more to build on and learn from. By making the dancers visible, we are making it much easier to learn to dance."

Ways to make thinking visible:

  • use the language of thinking: hypothesis, reason, evidence, possibility, perspective...
  • be a model of thoughtfulness for students: do not expect instant answers, display uncertainties, express the process of thought by asking questions out loud
  • surface the many opportunities for thinking during learning using thinking routines: "patterns of thinking that can be used over and over again and folded easily into learning in the subject areas" (Perkins provides 3 examples highlighting that an important trait of thinking routines is their "ease of use")
"The ultimate aspiration is building a strong culture of thinking in the classroom. Culture, after all, is the great teacher." Perkins quotes Vygotsky who emphasized the "fundamental learning process of internalization: making part of one's silent repertoire cognitive processes played out through social interaction." I agree that the classroom needs to have a very clear culture of thinking. This suggests that not only will visible thinking routines be utilized for academic activities, but applied to all types of activities in the classroom: part of morning meeting - part of classroom discussions - part of project planning - etc. And it should be explicit, rather than implied. 

Personal sidenote/analogy:
Prior to living abroad, I couldn't easily identify facets of the American culture that set us apart from other cultures. After moving to Samoa and immersing myself in their culture for many months, I started to see my own culture better and now can speak to it - describe it - to others better. Although I couldn't explain my culture well (prior to having a very different one to which I could compare it) I lived it easily because I grew up with it surrounding me. I like to think that my students, surrounded by a culture of thinking, may not be able to describe their thinking routines or strategies well, but are learning to do them - just as I learned to 'be American'. BUT... they are also surrounded by many non-thinkers in their lives... people who simply accept the things they say or hear without questioning. I fear that they may also learn from these people. So, it is not enough to give them six hours a day surrounded by a culture of thinking, we need to make explicit how this culture is different (and important) such that they CAN name the routines they are involved in throughout the school day and can continue to practice them outside of school.

"Artful teachers establish cultures of thinking from the very first class days of the year." Perkins gives examples of how teachers do this and I recognize the activities mentioned because we use them in our school, too. What I fear is missing is the explicit explanation to students about how these activities (such as open-ended problems or Socratic dialogues) drive thinking or direct us to think critically. Perkins doesn't mention this, but I think it's implicit in his argument for doing these activities that we need to be clear with students what these activities do for us in helping us build understanding or develop learning. Again, I suggest that it's not enough to DO the thinking routines, but we must be very explicit that these routines are driving at deeper understanding or learning so that students are inspired to utilize them elsewhere.

"In the quest for a culture of thinking, the notion of visible thinking helps to make concrete what such a classroom should look like and provides a kind of compass to point the way." Perkins suggests that thinking is visible in a classroom when you can see students explaining things to one another, offering creative ideas, using the language of thinking, and brainstorms or procon lists are around the room. He suggests that the result of making thinking visible is "students are more likely to show interest and commitment as learning unfolds in the classroom. They find more meaning in the subject matters and more meaningful connections between school and everyday life. They begin to display the sorts of thinking dispositions we would most like to see in young learners not closed-minded but open-minded, not bored but curious, neither gullible nor sweepingly negative but appropriately skeptical, not satisfied with "just the facts" but wanting to understand." 

Again, I question why this has not happened in my classroom? My students ARE thinking... but I don't feel they have developed thinking dispositions; they have the skills to think and are doing the routines, but have not internalized the drive to do so voluntarily or the alertness to situations in which they can apply the thinking strategies they learn. Am I not using visible thinking routines frequently enough in the classroom (totally possible) OR is it this combined with the fact that I'm not explicitly teaching my students that these routines are the framework for how we think about things.

Inspirational quote Perkins closes with...

"We don't notice how easily thinking can stay out of sight, because we are used to it being that way. As educators, our first task is perhaps to see the absence, to hear the silence, to notice what is not there."
This reminds me of the constant comparison I've seen made throughout articles about learning how to think to the way we learn other things life: we learn to drive by watching other drivers; we learn to play soccer by watching others play; so if we want students to learn to think, we must make thinking visible!

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