Thursday, March 28, 2013

Visible Thinking

Posted by Tara Della Rocca

Tishman, S. & Palmer, P. (2005). Visible Thinking. Leadership Compass, 2(4), 1-3.

Many longer and more detailed works have been developed on the concept of "visible thinking", largely by researchers of Harvard Graduate School of Education's Project Zero. But this article, also written by research associates at Project Zero, provides a simple and concise definition of visible thinking and a description of three important ways it actively supports good thinking.

"Visible thinking refers to any kind of observable representation that documents and supports the development of an individual's or group's ongoing thoughts, questions, reasons, and reflections. Mind maps, charts and lists, diagrams, worksheets all count as visible thinking if - and this is an important if - they reveal learners' unfolding ideas as they think through an issue, problem or topic." 

Tishman & Palmer make it clear that visible thinking includes activities that expose thinking as it's happening. They then suggest purposes for taking action to make thinking visible in the classroom. Beyond the diagnostic value for teachers (allowing them to understand "what students are learning and where they need help"), it also...

  1. "expresses a powerful view of knowledge. Knowledge is a living thing, continually shaped and reshaped by human thought; it can't be represented by neat and orderly lists of facts... Making these messy, changing, and interlocking relationships visible helps students build authentic knowledge instead of just memorizing facts"
  2. "demonstrates the value of intellectual collaboration"; the visible representations illustrate "a collaborative conceptual "take" on a topic that is broader and more complex than any individual student's conception" and visible thinking practices "draw many students into discussion" since they "emphasize students' own ideas and questions."
  3. "changes the classroom culture...thinking is highly valued...students have ample opportunities to express and explain their ideas. This in turn encourages students to become more alert to opportunities to think things through for themselves, and helps them become active, curious, engaged learners."
I appreciate this neatly delineated set of benefits to visible thinking. While I do not think it's comprehensive, I think the argument for using thinking routines in the classroom is sufficiently made with the benefits being that 1) students come to see that knowledge is not just a list of facts but more like a constantly changing web of connections and understandings, 2) students become cognizant of the value of collaboration, and 3) a culture of thinking is created in the classroom that helps students become more alert to opportunities to use thinking strategies themselves.

Tishman & Palmer do not go into too much detail regarding individual thinking routines that help make student thinking visible (aside from two examples they provide from classrooms in the introduction to their article), but they do explain that...
"A distinctive feature of thinking routines is that they encourage what cognitive psychologists call active processing. They don't ask that students simply list facts. Rather, they encourage students to actively engage with a topic by asking them to think with and beyond the facts they know---asking questions, taking stock of prior knowledge, probing the certainty of their ideas, and visibly connecting new knowledge to old."

A helpful addition to this piece that I haven't seen exposed elsewhere in my reading about visible thinking is the idea that parents can be engaged in the visible thinking process. At a parent night in which visible thinking was on display at one school, parents were given the opportunity to respond to what surprised them and what interested them as they walked through the hallways and classrooms. I think about our Exhibitions at High Tech and how we display the process of our projects. I think that working to depict the evolving thought processes of our students would be even more impactful than simply the development of the work. Having visible thinking on display is a way to show this. And then, inviting parents to take part is even more powerful! This article now has me thinking of ways to involve parents during projects too - maybe asking students to engage in visible thinking routines with their families at home around a topic we're exploring at school - to extend the culture of visible thinking beyond the classroom.

As the authors state, "it's hard to argue against classroom practices that teach students to think." The practice of making thinking visible in the classroom hardly seems controversial. It makes sense and almost seems obvious (even though it's not what happens in most classrooms). In a way, it may come across as 'just another thing' that teachers need to incorporate into their teaching. But, I would argue that this practice should come first. Creating a culture of thinking in the classroom - one that values thinking and highlights how we think as we're doing it - should be a priority for teachers as one of our primary aims is to develop actively thinking students.

Other areas to research, as mentioned in this article:
Artful Thinking project - one of several school-based initiatives at Harvard's Project Zero that are loosely linked by the visible thinking theme

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