6 Ways of Making Thinking Visible Title Image
6 Ways of Making Thinking Visible

The 6 Ways to Make Thinking Visible A Powerful Practice are, according to Ron Ritchhart and Mark Church authors of the The Power of Making Thinking Visible:

  • Foster deep learning
  • Cultivate engaged students
  • Change the role of students and teachers
  • Enhance our formative assessment practice
  • Improve learning
  • Developing thinking dispositions

Ritchhart and Church examine what is it about making Thinking Visible practices that helps establish this power? and how can teachers realize that power in their own classrooms?

Foster Deep Learning

According to Ritchhart and Church the two ideas-understanding and thinking- are core to conceptions of deep learning which is The Visible Thinking project, began in 2000, built on the preceding Teaching for Understanding project from the 1990s.

The authors define the meaning of deeper learning according to “The Hewlett-Packard Foundation defines deeper learning as the significant understanding of core academic content, coupled with the ability to think critically and solve problems with that content.” (Ritchhart and Church 2020 pg 6)

There are core elements of what it means to learn deeply. Authors states “Based on extensive research in schools and classrooms where deeper learning was occurring assert that deeper learning emerges at the intersection of:

  • Mastery: the opportunity to develop understanding
  • Identity: the opportunity to connect to the domain and develop as a learner with a place in the world
  • Creativity: the opportunity to produce something personally meaningful

These opportunities are infused with critical thinking, grappling with complexity, challenging assumptions, questioning authority, and embracing curiosity-all core elements of what it means to learn deeply.” (pg 6, Ritchhart and Church 2020)

Erik Lindemann, 3rd grade classroom teacher, from Osborne Elementary school in Quaker Valley, Pennsylvania, observed “The story of our classroom learning is dramatically different when we use visible thinking routines. The routines build learners’ capacity to engage with complexity while inspiring exploration, As my students begin internalizing and applying these thinking tools, I become a consultant in their ongoing investigations. Curiosity and excitement fuel deeper learning as my students take the lead.” (pg 6, Ritchhart and Church 2020)

Example of Thinking Routine
Thinking Routine Essentials

When using a thinking routine, teachers need to situate its use within the larger context of building understanding according to Ritchhart and Church. How does this particular lesson fit within the larger enterprise of understanding I am striving for? When teachers begin to focus on the goals of a particular lesson: With which ideas do I want students to begin to grapple? How can I push students’ understanding and move it forward? With these questions answered, the authors note, teachers are ready to identify the source materials and the kinds of thinking that might best serve the exploration of that material. Only then are teachers in a good position to select a thinking routine as a tool or structure for the exploration.

Cultivating Engaged Students

There are three types of specific engagement when it comes to cultivating engaged students:

  1. Engagement with others
  2. Engagement with ideas
  3. Engagement in action

We recognize that learning unfolds in the company of others and is a social endeavor. We learn in, from, and with groups. The group supports our learning as well as challenges that allow us to reach a higher level of performance. At the same time learning demands a personal engagement with ideas. Building understanding is an active process that involves digging in and making sense instead of receiving information passively. The authors note that sometimes this is identified as cognitive engagement, to distinguished from just mere engagement in activity. Authors emphasize that it is cognitive engagement with ideas that leads to learning.

When students explore meaningful and important concepts that are connected to the real world often means students want to take action. This will provide opportunities and structures for them to do so and encourages studentship and power while making the learning relevant.

Katrin Robertson, a lecturer at the University of Michigan, says she experienced it in her arts education class “For many years I used question prompts to engage my university students in discussing texts and it usually end up being asked-and answer sessions where students simply responded to me but did not speak to each other.” She made a shift when she was not content to blame her students for this pattern of behavior. “When I began using routines everything changed. Students were given space to make their thinking visible—. The room became energized with conversation. Students’ ideas blossomed, new perspectives were revealed, wrestled with, and shared in a multitude of forms —” she said. (Ritchhart and Church 2020 pg 7)

Changing the Role of the Student and Teacher

Teachers begin to see shifts in their role-play by teachers and students when they embrace the goal of making their students thinking visible and begin to make associate practices. Authors note that these shifts might be small at first but overtime has the potential to become seismic. When many teachers start using thinking routines they may be merely tacked on to the traditional transmission model of teaching, however, teachers must embrace this potential and cultivate it through regular, thoughtful application of making thinking visible process.

Mary has shifted her role from that of deliverer to orchestrator who works hard to establish a supportive culture and to create conditions for inquiry and opportunities for meaningful exploration. The dominant voice of the classroom has shifted from teachers to students. Her students are no longer passive receivers of knowledge but active creators, directors, and community members. Mary now celebrates this new level of engagement and seeks to promote it, empowering her students and creating a sense of agency.

Another way Making Thinking Visible change the role of the teacher, is that teachers become students of their students. They become curious about their students’ learning, how they are making sense of ideas, what they are thinking, and what ideas engage them. Making Thinking visible both allows and asks teachers to know their students in a different way. When focusing on students’ thinking, we become interested in how they come to know what they know, what questions they have, and what challenges they face. No longer, we see these challenges as deficits but as interesting opportunities for exploration.

Enhancing Formative Assessment Practice

Authors point out that formative assessment is not a task. It is a practice. “If you rely on and design formal tasks for the purpose of providing yourself and your students with “a formative assessment, chances are you have a weak formative assessment practice from which your students benefit little.” (pg 11 Ritchhart and Church 2020)

True formative assessment is the ongoing and embedded effort to understand our students’ learning according to the book Making Visible Learning Powerful. Authors note that it is a two-way street actively involving students and teachers in dialog about learning. Authors states “Formative assessment lives in our listening, observing, examining, analyzing, and reflecting on the process of learning. —It is driving by our curiosity about our students’ learning and the desire to make sure our teaching is responsive to their needs as learners.” (pg 11 Ritchhart and Church 2020)

If we want to know not just what students know, but how they know it we must make their thinking visible. Therefore, making students’ thinking visible is a formative assessment practice, according to the authors. Shehla Ghouse, principal at Stevens Cooperative School, explains, “Insights into student thinking provide teachers with invaluable information that can be used to plan next steps for individual students. It also helps us better understand the individual learner and ways in which to reach them more effectively to further their learning.” (pg 11 Ritchhart and Church 2020)

Improving Learning (Even when Measured by Standardized Tests)

Way Elementary in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, saw students’ performance on the new state writing assessment far outpace district peers who were using the same writing program with 82% of their students scoring proficient or above versus 66% in the district as a whole. Authors noted. Richhart and Church believe that the only difference was that Way was dedicated to being a “Visible Thinking” school starting in 2008. Both authors do not have new assessment data, but they have the comparative data between Way Elementary and schools having a similar student population in the district and using the same writing program. Authors said “What we think the data do tell us is the efforts to make thinking visible can, in the right hands and pursued over time, greatly enhance students’ performance – even on standardized tests” If we want to know not just what students know, but how they know it we must make their thinking visible. Therefore, making students’ thinking visible is a formative assessment practice, according to the authors. Shehla Ghouse, principal at Stevens Cooperative School, explains, “Insights into student thinking provide teachers with invaluable information that can be used to plan next steps for individual students. It also helps us better understand the individual learner and ways in which to reach them more effectively to further their learning.” (pg 17 Ritchhart and Church 2020)

Authors found that regular use of making thinking visible practices had a dramatic effect on the development of students’ meta-strategic knowledge, that is students’ awareness of the strategies they had at their disposal. Authors believe making thinking visible practices facilitate students’ development as thinkers and learners.

Developing Thinking Dispositions

The Visible Thinking Project’s main goal was to develop students as thinkers and learners by cultivating their dispositions toward thinking. Authors describe a disposition that captures one’s personal pattern of interaction with the world. The thinking disposition reflect who we are as thinkers and learners and it goes beyond merely having the skill or ability. It implies that an individual is also inclined to use those abilities, is aware of and sensitive to occasions for the use of those abilities, and is motivated in the moment to deploy the skills.

Students develop their ability to think and building up a repertoire of thinking moves when teachers use thinking routines. Authors recommend that by having the Understand Map posted in the classroom or in student notebooks for easy reference, students have a repertoire of thinking moves at their disposal. Sandra Hahn, a fifth grade teacher at the International School of Bangkok, remarked “My fifth graders became quite the expert in identifying the thinking moves they used and describing how it was used to help them find a solution to our weekly math problem. Some went even further to create a personal question prompt they could use in another situation to access that thinking move.” (pg 17 Ritchhart and Church 2020)

Example of Understanding map

Authors states that when we make thinking visible as a regular part of the classroom through our use of thinking routines, documentation, questioning, and listening, we send a message to students that thinking is valued. It is infused in everything we do and becomes part of the fabric of the classroom. When students come to see the value in their thinking and become more inclined toward thinking as an important part of their learning this will change who they are as learners.


We as teachers will become better listeners, learn to encourage student initiative, and gain new insights into our students’ learning that help us plan responsive instruction. If we use make thinking visible practices actively and engage students with each other, with ideas, and in action than student will experience deep learning.