Making the most of opportunities for thinking

What should our goal for student thinking be? How do we scaffold student thinking in ways that are meaningful while developing autonomy and encouraging students to think effectively when we are not there? What would success with thinking strategies look like? These were the challenging questions that Mark Church presented to teachers at the most recent 'Cultures of Thinking Teach Meet’ hosted by Masada College.

To teachers experienced with Making Thinking Visible, Mark is well known and highly respected. As one of the authors of the book ‘Making Thinking Visible’ and a part of Harvard’s Project Zero team Mark has had a far reaching influence on education. His writing with and alongside Ron Ritchhart and Karin Morrison has created great interest in the use of routines to support student thinking and building cultures of thinking. In this session Mark encouraged the teachers present to look again at how they are using the Making Thinking Visible routines and ask important questions about what they hope to achieve with them.

The Making Thinking Visible routines are powerful tools to guide and structure student thinking. They are seen as a speedy antidote to what David Perkins identifies as the ‘impoverished models for thinking’ which most of us make do with. The routines are easy to implement and in addition to sharpening the results of thinking attained from a standard lesson, the routines allow the results of the student thinking to be captured and shared. They range from simple, yet powerful tools such as asking students ‘What makes you say that?’ when they offer a response without evidence to elaborate routines such as ‘Beginning, Middle, End’ where students imagine the stories that might exist around a picture or event and how that may change depending upon where in the story the picture occurred. The great variety of routines and their flexibility means that a solution to any thinking problem can be found. This brings us to the critical point that Mark made and it results in an important, even if subtle shift, in how we think about the routines.

‘Don't ask, what thinking routine should I use? but what type of thinking do I wish to make routine?’ When we start the process of planning a lesson with the aim of identifying what type of thinking will best serve our learning goals we deepen our understanding of what our students will need for successful learning. If I want them to ‘Reason with Evidence' I will seek out opportunities for this to occur, if the goal is ‘Uncovering complexity’ a different set of opportunities will be explored. With clarity about the type of thinking I desire and which will most benefit my students I can move to asking which routine will support that best within the context of our teaching/learning programme.

With any good routine ask - What kind of opportunities might I harness to help establish rich patterns of thinking behaviour?  And What kinds of interactions might I promote to make the most of these opportunities?

The eight cultural forces identified by Ron Ritchhart include ‘opportunities’ and ‘interactions’. Opportunities are the affordances of a lesson, the degree to which exploration is made possible and the chances presented for students to apply their thinking skills as they move beyond knowing towards understanding. Interactions occur whenever we learn in groups and include those between student and teacher and students interacting with students. Looked at in combination our goal should be to create rich and open ended opportunities which are supported and enhanced by the interactions that they allow for.

The power of creating the right type of opportunities and interactions was demonstrated by Mark through a seemingly simple game. Poison is a game played with thirteen coloured tiles. Two players take turns to take either one or two tiles from the pile. The player who takes the last tile is poisoned. The challenge is to develop and explain a guaranteed winning strategy. This is where the game becomes interesting and played with a group that includes an observer transforms it into a rich collaborative experience as possible strategies are tested, explained, critiqued and modified. The game itself is full of opportunities to learn and invites discussion of numerous mathematical concepts while being made richer as a result of the interactions between the collaborators.

After the routine comes the reflection. With the activity behind us and the routine applied the real learning that thinking routines make possible is found in the process of reflection. Taking time to consider how the thinking routine assisted our thinking and by unpacking the type of thinking it made possible allows us to identify how we may use a similar strategy in other situations. This takes us to what is perhaps our ultimate goal for our students' thinking. That the students adopt the task of answering the questions - What thinking do I need to use here and why? and What opportunities would other thinking moves bring? If our students are empowered to effectively and independently answer these two questions they will be well prepared for the challenges they face.

By Nigel Coutts

To explore how Making Thinking Visible can be combined with Habits of Mind visit :