Learning is a consequence of thinking. Understanding, and even memory, of content are enhanced greatly when learners think through and work mentally with the concepts and information they are studying. This is a hallmark of contemporary constructivist views of learning, as well as inquiry and problem-based learning. And yet, thinking is pretty much invisible. To be sure, sometimes people explain the thoughts behind a particular conclusion, but often they do not. Mostly, thinking happens under the hood, within the marvelous engine of our mind-brain. How can we make students’ thinking visible so that their individual and collective understanding, as well as our understanding of students’ understanding, is enhanced?
The Visible Thinking Routinesdeveloped at Harvard Project Zero provide ways of making students' thinking visible to students, their peers, and to the teacher. As teachers work with the routines, they often notice that students become more engaged by ideas and come to manage their thinking better for learning and other purposes. Thinking routines are simple structures; for example, a set of questions or a short sequence of steps, that can be used across various grade levels and content areas. What makes them routines, versus merely strategies, is that they get used over and over again in the classroom so that they become part of the fabric of the classroom’s culture. The routines become the ways in which students go about the process of learning.
Thinking routines are not activities so much as they are vehicles through which to explore content. Their power rests in their use with strong, worthwhile, and appropriate content. You can think of a routine as a container that must be filled with good content. You choose the right container to go with the content being explored. Through the routines, students mentally engage with the content through offering their ideas, explanations, justifications, interpretations, reasons, evidence, perspectives, alternatives, and questions. In doing so, they find more meaning in the subject of study and more meaningful connections between school and everyday life. As this happens, 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.
When Thinking Routines are used along with the other cultural forces to make thinking visible in classrooms, students are in a position to be more metacognitive, to think about their thinking. When thinking is visible, it becomes clear that school is not about memorizing content but exploring ideas. Teachers benefit when they can see students' thinking because misconceptions, prior knowledge, reasoning ability, and degrees of understanding are more likely to be uncovered. Teachers can then address these challenges and extend students' thinking by identifying where they are and building on from there.