The invisible made visible

Posted by Laurel Shockley - 19 November, 2014

3.14If you have invested in 3M stock recently, teachers and students at Randolph might be driving up the value for you. There has recently been a substantial increase of sticky notes and chart paper used in our classrooms and conference rooms. No, we are not learning origami or making paper airplanes. We are incorporating Visible Thinking routines into our lessons and meetings.

Visible Thinking is the result of a research project by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It forms a framework of practical routines to support the development of a Culture of Thinking in schools.

My first exposure to Visible Thinking was during a visit to Presbyterian Day School in Memphis. Our group of administrators and teachers from Randolph clearly experienced the culture of thinking evident in classrooms of the youngest children to the oldest students at PDS.


Many of us quickly ordered the book Making Thinking Visible by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison. Teachers who had observed the visible thinking routines at PDS began to incorporate them into some of their lessons. In the Lower School, we purchased the book for all teachers and began an after-school book club to discuss a chapter each week. Teachers began to bring examples of the charts that recorded students’ thinking to our meetings. A group of Lower and Middle School teachers were able to attend Harvard’s Project Zero Conference hosted at PDS in Memphis.

Over the summer, I put together a binder for each teacher that contained a short summary, examples of use, and small posters for each of the 21 thinking routines. As teachers, we must provide opportunities to plan, prime, and press for thinking. We knew we could do this through this series of thinking routines in which students are given scaffolds to encourage their thinking beyond a surface-level understanding.







photoI recently used one of my favorite paintings, The Gleaners (1857) by Jean-Francois Millet, along with a Visible Thinking routine (See-Think-Wonder) to focus students’ thinking on the purpose and responsibility behind our weekend food-packing program before they set to work assembling the food packs. At first glance, this painting appears to be fairly straightforward, with little detail or underlying message.


foodpack.1In the See-Think-Wonder routine, students are first asked to simply name what they see without judgment. The 3rd grade students were able to observe an amazing amount of detail when given the time to focus on just what is there.

Next, students were asked about what they think is happening in the painting. This prompt generated many thoughts from, “The people bent over do not have time to look up” to “The artist used the background and the foreground to show what is important.”

Finally, students were asked what they still wonder about this painting. The questions were meaningful: “I wonder if the women are gathering wheat for their families?” and “I wonder why there are large stacks of wheat in the background, and the food.packing thirdwomen in the foreground have small amounts?”

We followed our See-Think-Wonder routine with a discussion about the relevance of the painting at the time and how the artist wanted to show the importance of all people. We made the connection that all people are important in our community, and we showed that by helping others through the weekend food pack program.

What we are finding across the divisions is that these thinking routines help learners ponder topics that might not seem to invite intricate thinking at first glance. Such routines jump-start thinking and make it visible.

liese“I LOVE thinking routines! Implementation is always the crux of new ideas for teaching. Thinking Routines are very user-friendly and often take several minutes to complete, and the discussions afterward are outstanding! These routines provide teachers and students with a common and accessible language with which to discuss challenging and new ideas, and it has proven invaluable. We, as teachers, are able to navigate a student’s thought-process using the 'maps' used by the routines. The process, whether it’s toward a project, quiz or final draft, is the most important part of any learning, because that’s where the actual learning takes place. Routines help focus and guide the students toward the big idea.” – Nichole Liese, Middle School English



“I started my Honors Algebra II class with concept mapping. Students were given the task of thinking about four simple instructions, 'Solve, Simplify, Evaluate and Factor.' They did a great job looking at the connections between these ideas. I had 10 groups in two classes and at least 6 completely different maps. The discussions were much more meaningful. We later used Options Explosion to explore as many ways to solve a word problem as possible. The students were instructed to have one person write. The group was supposed to brainstorm techniques for starting and solving word problems. The person writing was supposed to write down EVERY idea. We are still using these crazy signs in class as we start word problems.” – Gia Santos, Upper School Mathematics

2.6"Visible thinking routines are an amazing resource for both students and teachers alike," says 2nd grade teacher Henri Helstowski. "They provide opportunities for students to draw from their fellow classmates’ thoughts to promote deeper thinking into various subjects. These routines provide great insight for teachers into what their students are thinking and where they are developmentally in their learning. Thinking routines are extremely versatile. They can be used across the curriculum, from math to science to language arts. I recently interviewed my students about their feelings on thinking routines. These are some of their statements on why they like Visible Thinking."

“I like thinking routines because I like how you can brainstorm. It helps you to brainstorm more than you think you can. I like Tug of War because we see who likes something the most and I like reading other people’s thoughts.” - George



“I like See, Think, Wonder because you are able to think. You are able to learn when you think. It helps my writing because you write down your thoughts and stick your thoughts up on the chart.” - Celt



“I like thinking routines because they are fun and they help me with my writing. I’m learning more words by reading other people’s thoughts. I like writing down my voice. “ - Ella

There are an infinite number of remarkable aspects in using Visible Thinking routines in the classroom. One aspect is that students have the opportunity create maps and charts that can be displayed as resources for an entire unit of study. These displays can be revisited throughout a unit to see how and why thinking has changed. Another aspect of Visible Thinking is that it creates a cohesive learning environment. We are all working together to collect our thoughts into one comprehensive map for everyone to draw from.

Everyone has a voice and has the freedom to let their voices be heard.

We have found that Visible Thinking:

  • is accessible to any age group.
  • encourages peer collaboration.
  • develops a growth mindset.
  • focuses on learning rather than work.
  • promotes student independence.
  • teaches understanding rather than knowledge.
  • is inherently differentiated.

These are common goals for what we hope students will internalize from kindergarten through senior year at Randolph.

Topics: Academics, art, community, creativity, curriculum, Lower School, math, Middle School, professional development, sticky notes, teachers, Upper School, Visible Thinking, writing

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