By Martin Yakabuski, Teacher Trainer, British Council in Singapore

23 July 2018 - 12:01

School systems across the globe are rethinking the knowledge and skills that students will need to meet the demands of the 21st century. A set of skills has been identified as essential to navigate the economic, civic and global contexts for which we will be preparing our students: Creative Thinking, Critical Thinking, Effective Communication and Collaboration.

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However, this has given teachers pause: How do we take a cognitive function like thinking, make it visible, and assess it? Is it possible?

Enduring learning outcomes are contingent upon creating a classroom where ‘thinking’ is the default expectation of learners, not the exception. The dominant approach, still widely practised today, is the transmission model, through which teachers transmit factual knowledge to students. While students have the opportunity to acquire information this way, the opportunities for applying knowledge to new contexts, communicating in complex ways, using it to problem-solve or as a platform to develop creativity are limited.

The transmission model has perpetuated the learners’ perception that school is about grades, not a place for thinking. Today’s learning imperatives demand a new paradigm, where thinking becomes the primary activity in all classrooms. This shift requires a change in the way of doing things; it should be complementary to the delivery of content where the dispositions of complex thinking, creativity, collaboration and ‘transfer’ learning are central to the learning outcomes of each lesson, across the curriculum. 

“What Makes You Say That?”  is an increasingly ubiquitous question posed by teachers in classrooms everywhere. As a leading Thinking Routine offered by Harvard University’s Project Zero: Making Thinking Visible project, teachers are being asked to consider the nature of how content knowledge is delivered and processed. Building upon Project Zero’s Teaching  for Understanding framework (1998)[1], Making Thinking Visible, its pedagogy and routines provide the necessary roadmap, structure, variables and strategies to facilitate deep thinking and understanding.

Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding and Independence for All Learners (2011)[2] is a full guide supporting thinking in the classroom. Each of the 21 Thinking Routines is explained, opening windows in all learning spaces, encouraging learners to practise vocalising their thinking and relating it to the thinking of others.  These Routines, such as See-Think-WonderStep-InsideZoom-InCircle of Viewpoints,and Headlines, allow students to become more active readers, writers, listeners and oral communicators as they explore the depth of the material with which they are grappling. The Routines support the transfer of content knowledge while uncovering fundamental thinking skills, such as:

  • observing and closely describing what is there
  • building explanations and interpretations
  • reasoning with evidence
  • making connections
  • considering different viewpoints and perspectives
  • capturing the heart of the issue and forming conclusions
  • wondering and asking questions
  • uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things.

The Zoom-In Thinking Routine was used in a recent training with a group of Upper Primary teachers from an MOE school in Singapore. An image of child labourers[3] was divided into four quadrants.  Participants, in groups of four, viewed the image, one quadrant at a time. For each revelation, participants were asked to process the image with these questions:

  • What do you see? What do you feel?
  • What is this image representing? What do you think is happening
  • What do you think will be revealed in the next quadrant?
  • What questions do you have at this point in the viewing?

After each quadrant was viewed, participants discussed their ideas and questions with their group members. With each revelation, the depth of observations, comments, questions and hypotheses continually grew. Participants were then asked to partake in a second Thinking Routine, Headlines. Each group created a newspaper headline that would accompany the image.

This Thinking Routine then provided a provocation to two works of children’s literature, featuring the issues that surround child labour: The Carpet Boys’ Gift[4] and Yasmin’s Hammer[5]. Additional expository testimonies and personal recounts by children who experienced child labour were read using the Jigsaw[6] strategy. After exposure to this content, intended to build the participants’ background knowledge and awareness, the original image was presented again for re-examination.

The discussion from the Zoom-In routine was resumed as groups were asked to re-examine the image and consider their interpretations. At this juncture, participants returned to the Headlines routine intended for summarisation. Each group created a new newspaper headline that would accompany the image. Subsequently, each group presented and posted their headlines. They gave a short presentation on how and why their headlines had changed, and explained any inferential intention behind the headlines. Participants were asked how to extend the learning from this Thinking experience - the ideas were endless!

In this training, critical and creative thinking was taught in conjunction with subject matter. Understanding was deepened, learners collaborated, previous knowledge was transferred and language skills were given an authentic context to develop and mature.

Reflections among the participants gave witness to the role these Thinking Routines could play in the development of 21st century learning expectations. As one participant commented, “Using a scene from a story and the right thinking routine leads children to think and process deeply, contributing to a broader mindset.”

The Thinking Routines provide refreshing research-based approaches that are easy to implement and would greatly enrich classroom interactions – enabling students to cultivate their thinking skills, develop learning dispositions and deepen their understanding of curriculum content.  


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Martin has worked in the field of education for more than 30 years.  He has held primary and secondary teaching, coaching and consulting positions in Canada and South America.  Martin’s expertise is in Critical Literacy and language development across the curriculum.  As Training Consultant at British Council, Martin has been supporting educators from the MOE primary and secondary schools as well as the international schools in Singapore with their continuing professional development initiatives. 

At the Teacher Development Centre, we offer professional development opportunities that support and inspire educators to implement current language and learning pedagogy in the classroom. We are continually responding to the needs and interests of our educational partners in the community, and researching what defines best practices in language and literacy learning.

In response to the growing interest in the Making Thinking Visible project, we have introduced a suite of workshops and courses to facilitate the integration of visible thinking routines with the content demands of the Primary, Secondary and JC curricula:   

  • Making Thinking Visible : An Introduction (3 hours)
  • Making Thinking Visible: Creating Teaching and Learning Critical Pathways (6 hours)
  • Making Thinking Visible: Developing Language Skills Through the Routines (6 hours)
  • Making Thinking Visible and Process Drama: A natural pairing (9 hours)

Here are some comments from participants who attended our courses and engaged with the Thinking Routines:

“Definitely going to infuse them in the P5 Lit-based package we are embarking on this term.”

“It expands my repertoire of teaching strategies to make my lessons more engaging and more importantly, make my students’ thinking visible.”

“I will be applying several routines when I conduct lessons on writing.”

“It will help me especially in the teaching of reading comprehension.”

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[1] Wiske, M.S., 1998. Teaching for Understanding: Linking Research with Practice, Jossey-Bass
[2] Ritchhart, R., Church, M. and  Morrison, K., 2011.Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding and Independence for All Learners,Jossey-Bass.
[4] Shea,  P. D., 2006. The Carpet Boys’ Gift, Tilbury House Publishers.
[5] Malaspina, A.,2010. Yasmin’s Hammer,Lee & Low Books.