Online Professional Learning and
Technical Assistance for
21st Century Community Learning Centers


June 16, 2020

What if brain scans showed actual thoughts, including ideas, opinions, interests, hopes, dreams, beliefs and assumptions? Just think of all the ways you could use that knowledge! You’d better understand your students. You could design activities to help them examine and improve their thinking, learning and communication skills. Those skills could serve them well in school and throughout their lives. If only there were some way to make thinking visible.

Good news: There is! Even better news: You don’t need a brain scan or high-tech equipment to make students’ thinking visible. According to Harvard’s Project Zero Visible Thinking initiative, simple but powerful “thinking routines” will do the trick.

Thinking routines are structured ways to help students ask quality questions, listen (to themselves and others), and document thoughts and thought processes to make them “visible.” Once thinking is made visible, students can more easily spot things like unexamined assumptions, factual errors, missing information and faulty reasoning.

Thinking routines can be used with students of all ages and ability levels. Writing isn’t the only way to make thinking visible. Students can draw their ideas, speak them into a voice recorder, or have an adult or fellow student act as a scribe.

Y4Y has several ready-to-use tools you can use to engage students in activities that will activate their growing minds and make their thinking visible. Here are a few to get you started:

  • Mapping Knowledge and Wonders has two mind-map layouts — one for students to map what they already know about a topic, and another for what they wonder about the topic. This is a great tool for project-based learning.
  • Planner for Brainstorming is a checklist you can use to plan brainstorming sessions and to follow up later on those elements that need improvement or revision. If students are leading the sessions, share the checklist and techniques with them ahead of time to help them build their leadership and facilitation skills.
  • Incorporating Writing Into Citizen Science Activities has ideas for creating a “culture of thinking” by incorporating writing into citizen science activities.
  • Comprehension Checklists include questions you can use to make reading comprehension problems “visible” so you can help students understand and analyze text during the reading process. There’s a checklist students can use to monitor their comprehension and “make visible” the reading strategies they used.
  • Rubric for Assessing Social and Emotional Competencies is a self-assessment students can use to identify (“make visible”) their strengths, and think about which ones they’d like to improve, across five categories of life skills: social awareness, self-awareness, self-management, relationship management, and responsible decision making.
  • Effective Questioning has questions to use when reading aloud to or reading with students. Model self-questioning strategies to help students internalize these practices so that they can access them as needed while reading. Teaching questioning techniques can help students become more engaged and active readers.

Tip for getting started: Pick a tool or routine mentioned above, and try it out with your peers at your next staff meeting.

Thinking can seem like a mysterious process that’s internal and invisible. “Thinking routines” are a low-tech way to uncover hidden thought processes so they can be examined, assessed and improved. Make them part of your repertoire, and your students will be better thinkers, planners, creators and lifelong learners. And who knows? Maybe one day those brain scans will catch up with your visible thinking practices and “bright idea” will have a whole new meaning.


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