Making Thinking Visible

Yesterday at PLC Sydney we held a whole-staff PD workshop with American educator Mark Church.  Mark is a co-author of the book Making Thinking Visible, as well as a contributor to the Project Zero team. I found myself really resonating with much of what he had to say. I liked the fact that his focus was on really good pedagogy, and although I could see many connections to the sorts of thinking that I find myself constantly exposed to in the edtech world, his message had very little to do with the use of technology. It was really just all about good teaching.

PLC brought Mark out from the US especially for this workshop after members of our senior leadership heard him speak at another event. They were really impressed with his message and felt it was just what our staff needed. I tend to agree. In schools like ours, where we are essentially teaching to a largely compliant, affluent and  literate demographic, it’s doesn’t seem to be too difficult to have our students achieve significant levels of success without teachers needing a big “bag of teaching tricks”. We provide kids with content at a sophisticated level, and they generally perform very well in the traditional ways of measuring school success. Based on our HSC results, we certainly manage to create a disproportionate number of highly successful students, although I certainly don’t always agree with the conventional way we measure that “success”. Mark’s message was that we can do much more to really expose the thinking of our students, to help them develop greater understanding of what they learn and to make the learning more authentic and meaningful. To all of that I certainly found myself in much greater agreement.

The first part of the day was spent on some big picture stuff, ideas about education and the ways in which we build a culture in our schools. Enculturation, or the way we create a culture over time, is a critically important aspect of education and schooling and something I feel quite passionately about so I very much resonated with this part of the discussion. The second half of the day was spent looking at a number of pedagogical ideas – Mark called them “routines” – that provided some terrific examples of ways in which we can be better at what we do. I found the day insightful and refreshing, and felt quite energised by the ideas we covered.

Along with some other members of our staff, I used Twitter (and the hashtag #plcpdday) to capture some of the key ideas and thoughts during the day, and I thought I’d just recap a couple of my more salient tweets here, and expand them beyond Twitter’s sometimes frustrating 140 character limit.

Unless a teacher takes time to understand the culture of students, the students will never care about the culture of the teacher

This idea has always been a big one for me. It’s kind of a rephrase of the old “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” line, but I’ve always found it so incredibly true in schools. It drives me crazy that most educators seem to think that “their stuff” is so intrinsically interesting and valuable that students will just automatically be interested in it. They won’t. Students are people, and people want to feel valued before they will buy into what you want. In every school I’ve been in where there’s tension between teachers and students, it is nearly always because of an overly militant, authoritarian approach that says to kids “just shut up and do it my way”. A highly disciplinary approach might win the battle, but it’s never going to win the war. Respect, care, and dare I say, even love, are the basis of a good relationship between teacher and student, and until there is a good relationship it’s going to be an uphill battle.  I suppose this idea particularly struck a chord with me because it something I’ve also talked about a fair bit elsewhere.

Dispositions are developed through enculturation in thoughtful settings over time. OVER TIME. time to uncrowd our curriculums?

The notion of a learning culture is also something that is central in the way I think about schooling.  Too often we think that we can “teach” kids something by giving them a lesson or two in it, and that’s enough. We run sessions about cyberbullying or plagiarism or creativity or digital citizenship, and we act as though by pouring this information into our students’ heads that we have done our job. “We taught it, so we now expect them to know it”. It’s all nonsense of course. We don’t create enduring dispositions by running a session or two on a particular idea and then ticking it off our todo list as done.  Building a disposition is about creating a culture based on the values of that disposition. And that culture needs to permeate everything. It needs to become part of the way we think, the way we act, the “way we do things around here”.  You don’t teach creativity by running a couple of workshops about it.  You teach it by having the values of creativity become an ingrained part of the way you think. You don’t learn it, you become it.  And the key thing is that it takes time. Lot of time. Lots of repetition, iteration, example-setting. You model the big ideas, all the time, over a period of time.  In a teaching sense, this makes it even more imperative that we find ways to uncrowd our curriculum to make space for  this to happen. We need to create the space to have the time to build worthwhile cultural dispositions.

Focusing on the average in education is like looking at the average of a mountain range. All the peaks and valleys disappear.

We build our education systems for the average student. Too often we pitch to the perceived middle.  Sure, we try to come up with strategies to differentiate, but when it’s all boiled down, the structure of most schools is built on the idea that we can process students in groups of 25+, and that by designing for the needs of the whole group we hope to be able to meet the needs of most of the people within it. And as the mountain metaphor shows so well, if you focus on the average high of a mountain range the peaks and valleys disappear. By catering to the needs of the group, we often fail to meet the needs of the individuals within that group. It hard to do well, but so important that we keep trying to be better at it.

It’s far too easy for kids to have the “right answer” and still have no idea about what they supposedly learned.

As a teacher, how many times have you thought you taught students something, only to realise that they still really don’t get it.  You explained it, demonstrated it, they tried it themselves, the practised it, the seemed to master it… and then when they really needed to demonstrate that knowledge or skill, you realise that they still don’t get it. Or worse, the can demonstrate the skills you want them to have – the can pass the test, do the activity, get the right answer – but you can see that there just isn’t any deep, real understanding there. It can be quite demoralising, but it happens a lot. The idea of Making Thinking Visible is to get to the root causes of misunderstandings so that true understanding can be reached.

Mindset change: what if what I teach today shows up on a test 3 years from now? How would I teach it differently?

I liked this idea. We often teach things to our students on the basis that they will need to pass a test on it at the end of the lesson, or the end of the week, or end of the unit. But what if we taught in ways that presumed the information we taught today would not appear on a test for another three years. Would we do it differently? How? What would we change?

The big picture… What are the residuals of education? What does education leave kids with long after they have finished school?

I guess this is the same kind of idea as the last one, but I liked Mark’s idea about the “residuals of education”. A residual is the stuff you’re left with when everything else is gone. So after the homework is forgotten, after the tests and exams ar done and the reports are handed out, what are we left with? What is the truly important stuff that sticks with kids when the ephemeral nature of “school” has passed? And if what we have left over is not the same stuff that we usually give so much importance to, why do we keep giving that other stuff so much importance in the first place?

Let’s change the language… Let’s stop using the word “work” in our classrooms and start calling it “learning”.

Homework. Classwork. Schoolwork. “Get your work done .” “Where is your work?” “What are you working on?” What if we stopped calling it “work” and started calling it what it’s supposed to be… learning. Better yet, what if we stopped giving kids “work” to do, because so often it’s just pointless busy-work that does little more than just keep them busy. It’s colouring in. It’s making titlepages. It’s making a PowerPoint. It’s doing “research” into things that they already know about. Why do we do that? Why don’t we make more effort to ensure that the precious time we have with our students is spent doing real stuff, real learning? We could start shifting this mindset by at least not referring to what we get kids to do as “work”, and start calling it “learning”. Because we’d soon feel pretty stupid referring to their colouring-in and titlepage-making as “learning”.

Looking at how time gets used in your classroom sends a big message about what you value in your classroom.
How does the environment in which we teach say a lot about what we value about learning?
what does the language and style of communication we use in our classroom say about what we value about learning?
If a classroom is set up with rows of desks all facing the front, what does that say about what we value about learning?

These tweets were all focused on the same core idea… how does what we say is really important manifest itself in what we actually do on a daily basis?  If we say we value teamwork and collaboration but our classroom desks are set up in forward-facing rows, what does that tell us? If we say we want our classrooms to be student-centric places, and the teacher still does most of the talking, what does that tell us? If we say we want independent, self motivated learners, and we still infantilise our students by spoonfeeding them with content, what does that tell us?  If we say we want to meet the needs of every child, but we don’t allow for their choices and preferences and learning styles, what does that tell us? The bottom line is that we need to ensure that our beliefs about what and how we teach are in alignment with what we actually DO every day, or things will always be out of whack.

Routines for building understanding… See-Think-Wonder, Connect-Extend-Challenge, What makes you say that?, 3-2-1 Bridge.

Mark wove many of these techniques (he called them “routines”) into his presentation during the day. You can find a more complete list of these routines on the Visible Thinking website. Some people might just call them common sense or good teaching, but they are still a useful collection of teaching techniques that I will certainly be trying to build into my repertoire of classroom skills. It’s far too easy to fall into familiar patterns of teaching, and I think especially so in a school like ours where, let’s face it, the kids are easy to teach, generally compliant and focused on passing the test.

It’s the questions our students ask, not the answers they give, that really let us see what ideas they are grappling with.

In most schools we seem insanely focused on getting our kids to provide answers. We test them with quizzes and exams. We get them to write factual essays. We ask them to solve math problems using the correct formula. We get them to do science experiments where we already know the end result. We seem to always want our students to be finding “the answer”, and the correct one at that. Instead, maybe we should restructure things a little to allow them to ask more questions. More wondering. More curiosity. If we can know what questions they have, we might have a far better insight into what’s actually going on in their heads. We’d get to see their thinking, to observe their understandings (and their misunderstandings). We would be able to see their thinking. Getting kids to give us “the answer” might seem like the obvious thing to do, but it doesn’t really let us see what they understand.

As I hope you can tell, there was lots of great stuff presented during the day, and most of our staff seemed very receptive and enthusiastic about it all. Something that I’ve felt has been missing at our school for a while now has been this common educational language or direction, and I’m glad to see that we finally seem to have found a focus we can all latch on to as we move forward. It’s really refreshing to have a whole staff focus on a shared pedagogical idea – visible thinking –  and one of the things I would like to see happen is the creation of some Visible Thinking study groups where keen staff members could openly explore some of these ideas with each other, sharing suggestions and best practice, and pushing themselves forward to become even better teachers.

I definitely want to be part of that.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Making Thinking Visible by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

6 Replies to “Making Thinking Visible”

  1. Great to read what sounds like. Great day. Whilst there are some similarities with other approaches (other persons view in habits of mind springs to mind) its always good to have a different perspective and a reinforcing of ideas as your pd day clearly did
    The “Nurenberg Funnel” approach that you allude to OS to common in a system that is lorded over by assessment pressure
    I’m particularly struck by the science experiment where we already know the answers. We’ve spoken of this before, where results are compared to “what should have happened” rather than asking if the results support the hypothesis and what uncontrolled variables and errors may have had a hand in the results
    There is another force at play here I suspect and it is practice
    I wonder how many English teachers write regularly? How mant science teachers actively investigate something?
    Or are we just playing “air guitar” in our disciplinary orchestras?
    Music is a good example: musicians, when jamming, do a lot of educating: of others and themselves
    Looks like you had a great day and this pd has gone well beyond the Plc gates


    1. HI Martin,

      Yes, i do remember us having that conversation about the science experiments. It’s a good point. So much of high school science seems obsessed with getting the “right answer” or making the experiment reveal exactly what the textbook says it’s supposed to reveal.

      Your point about teachers who practise their practice is very valid. I have noticed that when I get on one of my “this is what’s wrong with education” moods and bemoan how much we seem to teach to the test and focus on just getting the “right” answers, that the art, music and drama people are always quick to point out that they are not part of that problem. It’s probably true, arts education is far more “real” in the sense that it’s usually practical, there’s not the same focus on a single right answer, and creativity is encouraged and rewarded.

      Great metaphor about the air guitar! 🙂

  2. I really enjoyed reading your post, Chris. You hit the nail on the head. As teachers we are part of a culture too and unfortunately we find ourselves falling into old habits, culturally determined grooves, even though inside we know that there is a much better way.
    I like the bit about ‘the residuals of education’. Thinking back to my own high school days, it’s not so much the actual knowledge as the life skills, the social skills, the work habits, the interests. In the end, like you said, students are just like real human beings – a glaringly obvious fact which seems to be forgotten by many teachers – and human beings want to be engaged, be interested, use their amazing brains – they don’t want to be kept busy with busy work.
    Thanks for this post Chris.

    1. THanks Ivw. Yes if more teachers were more willing to actually DO the tasks they set for their students to do, I wonder how things might change for the better. I’m often amazed at some of the crappy tasks I’ve seen teachers set for their students, and when I ask those teachers how THEY would approach the task they often don’t know, and that’s usually because they haven’t done it themselves.

      I think the rule should be, if it’s not something you’d be prepared to do yourself, then don’t even think about asking your students to do it. If you don’t find it engaging, then chances are neither will they!

  3. Really enjoyed your post, Chris. Have heard about visible thinking, but this has given me a desire to investigate further as something that could for the basis for a shared staff-wide pedagogical focus. Thanks!

  4. I had the good fortune to get to know Mark Church here in the US through curriculum work I do and coaching work he did here. Super smart and super thoughtful. So glad he’s making an impression elsewhere as well.

    You wrote,

    Some people might just call them common sense or good teaching, but they are still a useful collection of teaching techniques that I will certainly be trying to build into my repertoire of classroom skills.

    But remember, if they were just common sense, you’d see them in nearly everyone’s lessons, right? And you don’t because they’re not. They make sense when you hear them, but they require thoughtful, purposeful planning to implement.

    Thanks for the reminder to do so!

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