Connecting dots for digital learning and teaching

It’s about The Learning, Not The Tools

Frankly I’m tired of tools. Exhausted from experimenting. Weary of web 2.0 options popping up on a daily basis… Well not entirely. Is this how you feel these days. Edna Sackson wrote about “It’s about the learning, not the tools…” with this thought as a “kick-off” idea . And I really like she pointed us to a series of her posts about Havard Project Zero‘s thinking routines in the past and the way it could foster higher order thinking.

Project Zero is an educational research group at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. Project Zero’s mission is to understand and enhance learning, thinking, and creativity in the arts, as well as humanistic and scientific disciplines, at the individual and institutional levels.

Visible Thinking

Visible Thinking is a flexible and systematic research-based approach to integrating the development of students’ thinking with content learning across subject matters. An extensive and adaptable collection of practices, Visible Thinking has a double goal: on the one hand, to cultivate students’ thinking skills and dispositions, and, on the other, to deepen content learning. There are three ways to get started using Visible Thinking….

Start with Routines

Start by exploring Ideals

Start by focusing on Documentation

At the core of Visible Thinking are practices that help make thinking visible: Thinking Routines loosely guide learners’ thought processes and encourage active processing. They are short, easy-to-learn mini-strategies that extend and deepen students’ thinking and become part of the fabric of everyday classroom life. Thinking Ideals are easily accessible concepts capturing naturally occurring goals, strivings or interests that often propel our thinking. Four Ideals — Understanding, Truth, Fairness and Creativity — are presented as modules on this site. There are associated routines for each ideal and within each module there are activities that help deepen students’ concepts around the ideal.

The idea of visible thinking helps to make concrete what a thoughtful classroom might look like. At any moment, we can ask, “Is thinking visible here? Are students explaining things to one another? Are students offering creative ideas? Are they, and I as their teacher, using the language of thinking? Is there a brainstorm about alternative interpretations on the wall? Are students debating a plan?”

When the answers to questions like these are consistently yes, 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 attitudes toward thinking and learning 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.

visible thinking

Create a culture of thinking

Visible Thinking is for teachers, school leaders and administrators in K – 12 schools who want to encourage the development of a culture of thinking in their classrooms and schools. The following content is from Edna Sackson 10 ways to create a culture of thinking…

1. Model thinking.

Talk about your own thinking. Make your thinking explicit. Share ideas. Wonder aloud. Explore possibilities with your students. Acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers.

2. Allow thinking time.

Don’t expect answers as soon as you have asked a question. Don’t repeat or rephrase the question if there isn’t an immediate response. Get used to the silence. Give students time to formulate their thinking. Don’t call on the first kids to have their hands up. Sometimes, get every student to write their thoughts down before you call on anyone. Give time to discuss their thoughts with a partner or group before sharing with the class.

3. Provide  opportunities for thinking.

Pose problems. Encourage exploration and inquiry. Set meaningful, real-life problems. Encourage students to take and defend a position, make predictions, support their ideas with evidence, articulate and test theories, make connections with prior knowledge.

4. Create a physical environment conducive to thinking.

Don’t have seats facing the front. Arrange the seats in groups so that kids can collaborate and construct meaning together. Allow movement for interacting with different people. Display student thinking on the walls. Put up a series of sticky notes showing development of thinking over a unit.

5. Introduce thinking routines.

In the same way that classes have routines for management and organization, students get used to thinking when it becomes routine. Routines need to be short, clear and easy to remember and repeated often.  Thinking routines provide a scaffold and structure for thinking. They give students guidelines within which to think and a direction to head towards in their thinking.

6. Show that you value thinking.

Name and notice thinking. Avoid praise for individual thinking. Acknowledge every contribution. Make it clear that all thinking is acceptable. Respond respectfully to all students. Ask for clarification and development of ideas. Encourage students to build on each others’ thinking.

7. Give them something worth thinking about!

Make sure your stimulus is always something worth thinking about. Create tension and cognitive disonance. Create strong provocations that will invite students into the topic. Ask powerful questions. Think laterally, it isn’t always something obvious. Use art. Use music. Use artifacts.

8. Let go.

A thinking culture works best when the teacher isn’t in charge.  Sit at the back sometimes, don’t always stand in front. Don’t paraphrase student’s thinking into what you think they mean. Every response does not have to go through the teacher. Don’t be the filter.

9. Focus on big ideas.

Don’t teach only facts and content.  Look at big ideas, rather than just topics.  Explore events and ideas through one or more conceptual lenses for deeper learning.  Facts are locked in time, place or situation, while concepts are transferable. Encourage transfer of learning to other contexts.

10. Focus on learning, not work

Make sure you and your students know the reason for every learning experience. Don’t give ‘busy work’. Avoid worksheets where possible. Don’t start by planning activities, start with the ‘why‘ and then develop learning experiences which will encourage higher order thinking.

Within a culture of thinking, students experience school as a place where thinking is valued and given time, rich opportunities for thinking abound in their day-to-day classroom experience, models of thinking are present in the form of seeing teachers and peers as fellow thinkers, and the environment is full with the documentation of thinking. Such environments not only provide for the practice of students’ thinking skills but also help them to foster an inclination toward thinking and to develop a greater awareness of thinking occasions.

Other posts of series on ’10 Ways to…’ from Edna Sackson

10 ways to encourage students to take responsibility for their learning

10 ways to foster a love of learning


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3 Responses »

  1. I enjoyed this post. Can I have permission to share a printed copy of this post with a group of educators? If so, are there any special requirements regarding a citation?


  1. Ideas about what works while learning a language – Part Four: mostly to the teacher « Learning and teaching English in the Netherlands

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“Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.” -------- Chinese Wisdom "Games are the most elevated form of investigation." -------- Albert Einstein
"I'm calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, educational software as compelling as the best video game," President Barack Obama said while touring a tech-focused Boston school (year 2011).
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