What Does Thinking Look Like?

Updated: Jul 16

This article was originally posted on Kim Essenburg’s blog on February 2, 2018.

Over the years, I’ve stumbled upon exercises that really help students get traction on thinking—not playing “Guess what’s in the teacher’s head,” but grappling with ideas, articulating them, and coming to new understandings because of it.

This week in AP English 11 we did 2 of my favorites. One is literally cutting up a piece of writing into its components—a paragraph into sentences, a short piece into paragraphs, or a longer piece into designated divisions—and having students work in groups to reconstruct the order. As they work, they have amazing discussions about transitions, structure, and argument—so much better than when they just look at an intact piece and respond to the question, “What do you notice about transitions?”

In the photo above students are working with the 6 divisions of an article from the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell called “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.” Later in the week, they worked on group annotations of poems. (See photo below.)

It’s nice to have a bag of exercises that are really effective, but because they’re so distinctive, they can also become gimmicky if we do them more than, say, once a quarter. So I need to answer the following 2 questions: Why do these exercises work so well? And how can I even more effectively call students’ attention to the thinking they are doing, so they can transfer that thinking even more effectively to other classroom settings and to life?

I found some answers this week in a book discussion with 7 other colleagues. In Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners, Ron Ritchhart and his colleagues say, “[W]e need to draw on our understanding of what thinking is and the types of thinking we seek to foster so that we can name, notice, and highlight thinking when it occurs in class” (29). Name, notice, and highlight the types of thinking we seek to foster when they occur in class.

What are the types of thinking I’m looking for? I have a bulletin board listing them in the back of my classroom—I made it after reading this book for the first time this summer. But the bulletin board, alas, has not served as the memory trigger I’d hoped it would. That’s why I need this second time through the book with colleagues—taking it slowly, reviewing, and building in accountability. I was especially aware this week both as I read the first 3 chapters in preparation for the discussion Thursday afternoon, and as I set my application goal to name, notice, and highlight thinking when it occurs in class, especially the 6 moves listed on page 11:

  1. Observing closely and describing what’s there.

  2. Building explanations and interpretations.

  3. Reasoning with evidence.

  4. Making connections.

  5. Considering different viewpoints and perspectives.

  6. Capturing the heart and forming conclusions.

And it’s actually working. I’m using those words—especially 1, 3, and 4. I ask students to observe closely and describe what’s there because that’s the basis for clear, careful thinking. It’s the basis of both of the exercises pictured above. Then they use those observations as the evidence for reasoning: What makes you think that section comes after this one? What makes you think the tone of the poem is angry? What is the character’s motivation, and what makes you think that? Making connections is probably the one that I use most naturally and frequently—What other work or character or theme or author was similar to this or different from this? Modeling my thinking by commenting on a news story or a TED Talk or a personal experience that connects, and asking students to come up with their own.

Now for next week, I want to continue to name, notice, and highlight when students (or myself) observe closely and describe what’s there, reason with evidence, and make connections. I also want to work on naming, noticing, and highlighting the other 3: building explanations and interpretations, considering different viewpoints and perspectives, and capturing the heart and forming conclusions.

What thinking do you name, notice, and highlight in your classroom?