Expectations: Recognize how our Beliefs Shape our Behavior

Expectations is a belief that shape our behavior. Understanding is a goal will take students further and demand more of them. Only then is our teaching focused on deep rather than surface learning.

Ritchhart’s focus for expectation is school will be about learning, rather than the mere completion of work and merely accumulating enough points to score a top grade.

Ritchhart makes two distinctions between two types of expectations: directives and beliefs. Directives are a top-down hierarchy where the aim is to clearly define what the person in charge desires with respect to another’s performance.  Nothing wrong with communicating behavioral standards or criteria for assignments to students. Effective teachers and leaders do this all the time and with consistency.

Beliefs operates on a deeper, more systemic, and more powerful level. The expectations are rooted in our beliefs about the nature of teaching, learning, thinking, schools, or the organization itself.

Five Beliefs of Expectation

Ritchhart lays a foundation for our expectations in learning groups by exploring five belief sets that act as action theories. They are:

Five Beliefs of Expectations
Five Beliefs of Expectations

Ritchhart explores how these specific expectations for students (as opposed to of students) are important to establish a culture of thinking. 

Ritchhart emphasizes that having clear expectations – the kind of expectational beliefs that guide our own and students’ actions – requires a conviction on our part.

Learning Vs. Work

The first expectation is to focus on learning versus the work. The main point is when teachers and students focus their attention on learning as the priority. Letting the work exist in the context and serve the learning, then work becomes a means to an end, not an end to itself.

What does this look like in practice? Ritchhart states teachers normally introduce a task or assignment by highlighting the learning that can potentially arise from it. Next, teachers sustain and support the learning through their interactions with groups and individuals. When the purpose of the task is on learning, teachers are also more likely to provide choice and options in completion of assignments if it is being achieved.

When teachers are focused on learning, they spend their time with students “listening for the learning: ‘Tell me what you have done for far.’ ‘What questions are surfacing for you?’ ‘What does that tell you?’ We see learning oriented classrooms where mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn, grow, and rethink.

Learning Oriented classrooms, teachers often provide more descriptive feedback that informs learning.

Teaching for Understanding Vs. Knowledge

Teaching for understanding Versus Knowledge is the second expectation. It requires exploring a topic from many angles, building connections, challenging long-held assumptions, looking for applications, and producing what is for the learner a novel outcome.

Ritchhart uses metaphors for knowledge and understanding, and they are:

The metaphor for knowledge focuses on possession, storage, and retrieval. Knowledge is seen as something you have. This leads to a notion of knowledge as something one either has or doesn’t.

The metaphor for understanding focuses on action: applying, performing, adapting, and so on. Understanding is viewed as performance; it is something you do.

I thought Ritchhart metaphors sound profound. He emphasizes that knowledge, skills, and information play an important role in understanding, and are a necessary component of it.  Ritchhart explains further that knowledge is presented while teaching for understanding, with an expectation that the knowledge will be used, applied, discussed, analyzed, transformed, and so on. Ritchhart believes the pressure is applied when the teaching of knowledge becomes the primary goal, and it can impede students’ understanding.

There are four essential elements teachers need to attend to when teaching for understanding:

  1. Generative topics focusing on the curriculum around big ideas with understanding
  2. Understanding goals by identifying a small set of specific goals for understanding
  3. Performance of understanding by designing a sequence of ever more complex performance tasks that require students to use their skills and knowledge in novel contexts
  4. Ongoing feedback by providing a steady stream of ongoing feedback and assessment information that students can use to improve their performance.

Ritchhart suggests the key to developing understanding is through activities that allow for development and demonstration of understanding. To help you do it, you can ask yourself this question: What will I ask students to do with the skills and knowledge they are acquiring that will develop their understanding and push it forward?

Ritchhart explains understanding is built up of many small performances of ever-increasing complexity stitched together. By asking yourself, what will learners do with the information and knowledge? How will I ask them to process it – that is to interact, use, manipulate, or change it? You can design performance that builds understanding.

In working with teachers, Ritchhart has found the simple language of “surface” and “deep” thinking to be useful. He notes “Surface strategies focus on memory and knowledge gathering, whereas deep strategies are those that help students develop understanding.” (Ritchhart 2015 pg 52)

Encouraging Independence vs. Dependence

Encouraging Independence Versus Dependence is the third expectation that helps shape culture of thinking. Ritchhart points out some potential downsides to student dependence and they are: 

  • Deterioration of problem-solving strategies
  • A focus on extrinsic motivation
  • Diminished enjoyment of learning
  • Lack of resilience when faced with difficulties and challenges
  • Decreased creativity and motivation

Ritchhart cites Rose-Duckworth and Ramer (2008) definition of student-independence: “independent learners are internally motivated to be reflective, resourceful, and effective as they strive to accomplish worthwhile endeavors when working in isolation or with others-even when challenges arise, they persevere (pg. 2)” (Ritchhart 2015 pg. 55) Ritchhart points out additional benefits of independence as a goal and they are:

  • Resilience in the face of difficulty
  • Openness and willingness to accept challenges
  • Greater motivation, engagement, ownership, and “drive”
  • Intrinsic motivation
  • Interdependence and independence
  • Development of a learning or mastery orientation in oneself
  • Enhanced self-esteem and sense of efficacy
  • Development of lifelong learners

Growth Mindset vs, Fixed Mindset

Developing a Growth VS. fixed mindset is the final belief set. This belief exerts a profound impact on the culture of a classroom, organization, or group. It concerns how individuals view intelligence, ability, and talent. Ritchhart points out Carol Dweck, a psychologist, refers to as one’s mindset and how that view shapes the way one approaches learning opportunities. Ritchhart points out Dweck’s focus is on ongoing growth and development through the situation, and a lack of feeling threatened, beaten down, or counted out by difficulties and challenges. This facilitative approach is different from people who are a fix mindset. People who are a fixed mindset gravitate toward situations that validate their perceptions of themselves and avoid those that will threaten it.

Ritchhart believes mindsets are powerful shapers of our experience, but people aren’t born with them. He notes people develop through one’s interactions with others, particularly in learning situations and in the feedback and input one receives in those situations. Ritchhart explains that our mindset develops through the subtle messages we encounter in the classrooms and from teachers, mentors, and parents.

Ritchhart gives examples of teachers and parents who deliver implicit messages to learners about the nature of abilities through praise and feedback. Comments like “You are so smart,” “You are a really good reader,” and “You are very talented,” define you and that these are inherent in who you are as a person. Comments that focus on a person’s efforts, something that is controllable, tend to aid in fostering a growth mindset: “You really worked hard at this, and it shows!” “That was really difficult, but you stuck to it and accomplished something.” “I am noticing that as you push yourself, your reading just keeps getting better and better.”

You Can Explore and Develop Expectations

Ritchhart emphasizes that taking the five beliefs together lays a foundation for teachers’ expectations in the classroom and forms the basis for action theories to guide instructions.

Ritchhart suggests possible actions teachers can take to better leverage and understand that particular cultural force:

  • Evaluate the five belief sets. Each belief set exists as a natural tension for educators, meaning that although we might intellectually embrace the more facilitative end of each continuum, we might sometimes find an individual expectation hard to implement. Where are the tensions in each belief set for you? What conditions give rise to that tension? How do you resolve or lessen those tensions?
  • Focus on the learning. Talk with your students about the distinction between work and learning. Tell them that because your goal is always to focus on the learning, they should let you know if they are not clear where the learning is in a given assignment. Make sure you introduce new assignments and tasks by highlighting their purpose and what you want students to learn. Pay attention to your own language and the use of the words “work” and “learning.”
  • Identify key understandings. Developing a true understanding of anything is a complex, ongoing endeavor. If you could pick only three things that you want your students to understand after their year with you, what would they be? Why are those three things worth understanding? What future learning does understanding these three things enable?
  • Analyzing understanding experiences. Identify one unit you teach that you feel does the best job of developing students’ understanding. Analyze that unit to pinpoint the elements that helped build students’ understanding. Look at that unit through the four elements of the Teaching and Understanding framework. Do those elements easily map onto your plans? How can you take “what works” from this unit and apply it to other units you teach?
  • Look for deep vs. surface learning in assignments. Working either on your own or with colleagues, collect all the assignments given to students over the course of a week. Look through the assignments to determine the level of processing each requires of students. It is likely that an assignment might require both surface and deep levels of processing, but try to determine where the greater emphasis is in the assignment.
  • Identify the most independent students in your class. What actions do they exhibit that made you identify them as independent? Divide a sheet of paper into three columns and make a list of these actions in the center column. In the left hand column, identify things that make it hard for other students to engage in these behaviors. What stands in the way? In the right hand column, identify things you do or could do that would provide opportunities for or facilitate the behaviors you identified in the center column.
  • Numerous resources exist for exposing students to the idea of a growth mindset. For example, see “Brain is like a Muscle” lesson plan (Ferlazzo, 2011). Typically such instruction focuses on how the brain literally grows as a result of learning. You might use a short article or video clip that describes this growth using Youtube. More elaborate teaching resources can be accessed at Carol Dweck’s own Brainology program https://www.mindsetworks.com

Language Moves: Appreciating its Subtle yet Profund Power

Language Moves

Richhart condenses several keys “language moves” that facilitate the creation of a culture of thinking in schools, classrooms, and organizations. They are:

  •  The Language of thinking

  •  The Language of community

  •  The language of identity

  •  The language of initiative

  •  The language of mindfulness

  •  The language of praise and feedback

  •  The language of listening

 Richhart helps us better understand how each operates in context, what it might look like and sound like, and how it can shape the learning of individuals and the group.

Ritchhart shares his understanding of the vocabulary of thinking with his colleagues Shari Tishman and David Perkins suggesting that the language of thinking is sorted by those words defining processes such as justifying, examining, reasoning, products such as hypothesis, a question, a judgment, and epistemic stances that reflect one’s attitude toward a bit of knowledge or an idea such as agreement, doubt, confirmation. Richhart adds states such as confusion, awe, wonderment that describes one’s mental status or state.

Language of Thinking

The language of thinking helps cue action and provides a means to regulate activity in the classroom. Richhart wants our students to consider alternative actions for the characters, not just thinking about the text they read, but to make predictions about what might happen next, raise questions about the characters’ motive, and so on. Ritchhart believes this is helpful to students who are struggling to engage mentally.

The language of thinking supports meta-cognition in both reflective components as well as planning aspects. It helps us examine the processes we used or did not use.

Meta-cognition involves ongoing monitoring and directing of one’s thinking. This is seen in the process of reading. As we read, we monitor our comprehension, and when we notice it flagging, we slow down and direct ourselves to do something about it.

Ritchhart emphasizes that having a language to identify thinking processes is a requirement for us to use and activate them effectively.

Ritchhart examines how do students develop a language of thinking. He notes the main way is by being in situations where others are using the language. Ritchhart believes a key move that teachers, parents, and mentors can use is noticing when and where students are thinking, and specifically naming the thinking being demonstrated.

Ritchhart often shares a practice called noticing and naming with parents as a keyway they can make their child’s thinking visible. When this practice is used in the classroom, it makes the thinking visible to both the child demonstrating the thinking as well as to others.

How does noticing and naming work? Ritchhart says “it starts with us as teachers or leaders of a group, being aware of what it is we want to highlight and reinforce.”(Ritchhart 2015 pg.70) He gives an example of the See-Think-Wonder routine where students are asked to look closely, notice details, observe carefully, make interpretations, build expectations, reason, generate alternatives, provide evidence, make connections, and raise questions. Getting students to do all of this is the key to making See-Think-Wonder a powerful learning opportunity. A teacher can use the language to notice and name something specific that students had done well: observing, rather than just telling the students they had done a good job.

Noticing and naming are likely to be more effective and productive in building a culture of thinking because we are looking for a particular lesson. What kinds of thinking are needed to be successful? What do I want to reinforce? What do I want to call students’ attention? Ritchhart notes “Becoming more aware of thinking ourselves and identifying what is needed to facilitate learning helps us be more responsive teachers.” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg.71)

See Think Wonder Example Imgage

The Lanugage of Community

Lisa Verkek, a fifth-grade teacher, uses See-Think-Wonder routine throughout the year as a part of a Visible Thinking pilot project. She had volunteered to demonstrate the routine in action so others could see how it worked. Ritchhart captures her teaching on video. His focus is on the activity itself and wants to capture the various aspects of the routine that would help other teachers learn how to use it.

Below is an excerpt of what Lisa’s lesson about:

“Using a photograph of children in a school hall taken at the end of the nineteenth century in America, Lisa modeled and set up the routine easily and effectively for her students. After her quick whole-group introduction, students began using the routine to structure their conversations in pairs as they examined different sets of photographs taken of children from around the world. Each set highlighted some type of hardship or inequity a child might experience, forming a connection to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. As I moved around the room with the cameraman, I was pleased that we were capturing good footage of students talking and sharing their thinking at each step of the routine. We also got ample footage of Lisa as she interacted with the student pairs and discussed their thinking with them. It was a very smooth and productive class. I knew we would be able to use her lesson to showcase the See-Think-Wonder routine effectively, and I left Lisa’s classroom pleased that we had captured on tape a well- executed lesson. It wasn’t until we began the process of turning the raw footage of that hourlong lesson into a six-minute video that the true power of Lisa’s teaching began to emerge, however.” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg. 63)

Ritchhart examines how Lisa’s language served to effectively guide and direct the students’ learning and thinking. He carefully attends to Lisa’s language, so he can begin to understand how all these aspects of expert teaching took shape.

Ritchhart shows the subtleties and power about language that shapes our behavior, interaction, thinking, attention, and feelings by analyzing how Lisa introduced the lesson:

“To model for her students, she holds up the photograph of schoolchildren from the late 1800s and asks, “What do we see?” Students identify several concrete things they notice in the picture, such as children, flags, desks, people standing, chalkboards, and so on. Lisa then asks the class, “What do you think might be going on with those children?” Students immediately begin to offer possibilities and alternatives: “They’re singing,” “Maybe they are in an assembly,” “Maybe they are singing the national anthem because of the flag.” Students put forth possibilities, add on to one another’s ideas, and connect to things that had been seen. Good responses. Good engagement. Good collective sense making. But what did language have to do with this?” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg.64)


Ritchhart analyzes Lisa’s choice of pronoun when she asks, “What do we see?”. Ritchhart notes the pronoun “we” sends a subtle signal to students that the group is working on this together and that the activity is a cooperative endeavor rather than a competitive one. He states “Students respond accordingly and find it easy to build on others’ ideas. When Lisa asks, “What do you think might be going on with those children?” her choice to use the words “might be” rather than “is” cues students that they are seeking alternatives, possibilities, and options rather than trying to definitely name the activity of the picture. Consequently, we notice students responding in this open manner. Furthermore, students build on one another’s ideas without anyone complaining, “That was my idea!” Thus, the spirit of cooperation and collective sense making continues.” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg.64)


Ritchhart has a clear sense of Lisa’s classroom being a learning community. He listens closely to the talk of both students and the teacher and finds it is peppered with the use of words like “we,” “our,” and “us.” Look at the example below:

“LISA: Folks, thank you very much for sitting so quietly. What we’re going to do is: you’re going to come with your table and your photograph, your recording sheet,

and the “Rights of the Child” [handout]. Come with all three pieces of paper. Come and sit up at the board. And we’re going to see what conclusions we can draw about the pictures, and you’ll get a chance to look at each other’s pictures as well.” (Ritchhart, 2015 pgs. 71-72)


Ritchhart examines Lisa’s use of the pronoun “you” to praise students and then to indicate exactly what they are going to do. He believes this allows students to recognize that there are directions for them to attend to individually. Next, Ritchhart states in his examination of Lisa switches to the pronoun “we”:

“This shift places the next endeavor as a collaborative one and signals to the students that Lisa is now a part of the new endeavor as well. Notice that she also makes explicit the thinking that students will be doing: “we’re going to see what conclusions we can draw about the pictures.”” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg.72)

Language of Identity

Ritchhart believes that there are expert teachers who help their students come to see themselves not as an outsider looking in on a subject but as members of it. He states “

 They help their students not only to see the whole game, as Perkins describes it, but also to play the game.” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg. 74) Ritchhart emphasizes that rather than learning history, students become historians; rather than learning about science, students become scientists; etc.

The language of identity is one tool to help students come to see themselves as members of a field. It goes beyond merely having a certain knowledge base but to help students engage in thinking and the key processes that are important in literature, science, social studies etc. When using the language of identity in the classroom, it signals to students that they need to activate certain applicable ways of thinking.

For example, Ritchhart provides two alternative ways of learning an identical hands-on lesson in science: (1) “Today we are going to learn about chemical reactions.” And (2) “Today as scientists, we are going to be investigating how chemical react under various circumstances.” Ritchhart asks Does one of the framings prompt a more active response and engage a different set of mental processes? Does one framing feel more exciting than the others to you? What roles do you imagine for both the teacher and students under each framing? I think you know the answers to these questions.

Ritchhart believes to reject the role of teacher as deliverer of information and student as passive receivers, we need to help students envision and take on a new role: Process-based roles such as thinkers, researchers, data collectors, analysts, commentators, advocates, inventors, and the like.

Language of Initiative

A key aspect of initiative, or what researchers in sociology and psychology refer to as “agency” is the ability to make choices and direct activity based on one’s own resourcefulness and enterprise according to Ritchhart. He says “This entails thinking about the world not as something that unfolds separate and apart from us but as a field of action that we can potentially direct and influence. As a person develops initiative, she comes to see the world as responsive to her actions. This direction and influence involve identifying possible actions, weighing their potential, directing attention, understanding causal relationships, and setting goals, among other things.” Ritchhart believes it demands learning to be strategic and planful. He cites Peter Johnson (2004) “If nothing else, children should leave school with a sense that if they act, and act strategically, they can accomplish their goals” (p. 29).” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg. 76)

Ritchhart answers the question of how language relates to the development of initiative. He believes in our interactions and questioning of learners, teachers, leaders, or mentors can use language to direct a learner’s attention. Teachers help students identify, weigh, and plan potential courses of action. Ritchhart notes that our language can draw students’ attention to the strategies being deployed and their consequences, whether students are aware of them or not.

Ritchhart gives examples from Lisa’s questions:

“What do you think you were basing that idea on?” or the frequently used “What makes you say that?” asks students to identify their reasoning and make their thinking visible. In doing so, students come to see that ideas don’t merely pop into one’s head but are under one’s control and influence and act to shape one’s reasoning.” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg. 76)

Ritchhart (2015) suggests the following:

“One way to know that we are using the language of initiative and independence, rather than rescuing students and furthering their dependence on us, is to ask ourselves, “Who is doing the thinking?” Reviewing the snippets of language from Lisa’s class, we see that in each instance, Lisa frames her contributions to ensure that students are doing the thinking. Our goal as educators, parents, and mentors is to encourage those whom we are trying to nurture to be the thinkers and to see themselves as thinkers, planners, and doers.” (pg. 78)

Language of Mindfulness

Ritchhart uses experiments to prove that conditional words help keep the mind open and flexible. 

He cites Ellen Langer’s ground breaking research (1989) on mindfulness. Langer’s definition of mindfulness is an open, flexible state in which new categories and possibilities can be created.

Here is how Langer sets up her experiment and the results:

 “Langer sought to identify what types of environmental cues might cause someone to remain more open and mindful versus those that might produce more rote, fixed, and mindless kinds of behavior. In an early study (Langer & Piper, 1987), she set up an experiment in which subjects casually encounter a rubber object in a room where they are working with an experimenter. The experimenter comments to some subjects that the object before them could be a dog’s chew toy (conditional language) and to others that this is a dog’s chew toy (absolute language). The experimenter then sets the object aside and begins to interview the subjects, writing down their responses with a pencil. At some point, the experimenter claims that she has made a mistake and needs to erase what she has written. When this happened, subjects who heard the conditional language (this might be a dog’s chew toy) were much more likely than their counterparts to consider using the rubber object as an eraser. By hearing that the object could be a dog’s chew toy, the participants were able to remain mentally open and consider using the object in a new way once the conditions changed. In contrast, labeling the object definitively tended to produce cognitive closure.” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg. 78-79)

Ritchhart conducted another experiment, where he and his teams designed an experiment to teach university students an invented mathematical concept and procedure called “pairwise”. Here is the procedure and results for “pairwise”:

“The procedure didn’t involve more than the use of basic operations with integers. Some of the students were introduced to the new procedure by hearing the statement, “One way to solve a pairwise equation is… (conditional language) and then shown the designed method. Another group was told, “This is how you solve a pairwise equation” (absolute language), and the same method was shown. In a posttest, students who received the conditional instruction were more accurate in solving pairwise problems, used more workable methods likely to yield accurate results, were more able to produce accurate workable alternative methods for solving the problems, and were less likely to misapply the pairwise procedure in circumstances where it didn’t apply. In this scenario of learning a new bit of mathematics, we theorized that participants receiving instruction using absolute language were more likely to turn off their prior knowledge and frame their task as trying to memorize a procedure that might not have made sense. They became passive recipients of information. In contrast, the conditional language allowed students to integrate their prior knowledge and seek to understand the mathematics, rather than simply try to learn a procedure.” Ritchhart, 2015 pg. 78)

Ritchhart concludes that conditional language almost invites others into the conversation to offer their opinion, and the group begins to pool information and make sense of the situation. Conditional language is not about forgoing answers: it is about forgoing early closure to the process of finding answers.

Language of Praise and Feedback

Ritchhart (2015) writes “Praise is not feedback, as Harris and Rosenthal note. This is in part due to the lack of information praise typically conveys. “Good job” hardly gives one much to go on. To truly be considered feedback, our words have to take on an instructional role, providing the learner with information related directly to the learning task at hand (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Furthermore, this information has to be received and actionable, guiding future learning. This suggests that our comments should identify what has been done well as much as what still needs improvement and then give guidance in helping the student achieve that improvement. If our words don’t achieve this, then our comments are probably best understood as evaluation rather than feedback.” (Pg. 81)

Ritchhart believes it is important for the language to be specific, descriptive, and informative so that it tells learners about what they did correctly and should continue to do so in the future. He (2015) cites examples from Lisa, a fifth-grade teacher:

“Lisa’s words to students Andrea and Miran after they had conducted their See-Think-Wonder routine convey these qualities as she comments, “You’ve done a really good job of looking at those pictures. I can see you’ve really tried to find an explanation for what’s going on. And I really like the way that you used what you already know, things that you’ve already seen, maybe on television or news reports.”

(pg. 82)

”Lisa then directs their attention to the next task, again highlighting the thinking to be done: “So, now you can turn over to the other side, and you can find out what’s going on with these pictures. And then, when you know that, you can carry on down here [points to the lower half of the recording sheet] and look at the rights, yes? And see what rights might be being respected and which ones might be being neglected. And what makes you say that?”

(pg. 82)

“Notice that Lisa begins with global praise to assure the students, “You’ve done a really good job,” but then quickly moves to specifics. She notices and names the thinking they did (“tried to find an explanation”) and then goes on to name several other specific actions they undertook (“[using] what you already know”). Lisa then connects what the students have done already to the next learning task: “So, now you can turn over to the other side . . .” All of this is offered in a sincere tone and demonstrates that Lisa has really attended to what the students have been doing and where they need to go next in their learning.” (pg. 82)

Language of Listening

Ritchhart (2015) states “listening is one of the powerful ways we show respect for and interest in our people’s thinking.” (pg. 82)

He believes listening starts with genuine interest in others. It means we must pause our own talk and give students time and space to air their thoughts. Ritchhart notes there are specific skills and actions we can learn and a language of listening we can use to demonstrate out interest.

Ritchhart captures the sentiment of Stephen Covey’s expression “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” which is a common linguistic move made by the listeners: clarification. Ritchhart (2015) gives example of this from Lisa’s class:

“We witnessed this when Lisa probed Alex and Hung-Joon about their statement, “I wonder if the kids are working for their families.” Good listeners ask authentic questions to clarify points, unearth any assumptions they may be bringing to the situation, and be sure of the speaker’s intent. To verify their understanding, good listeners may paraphrase what speakers have said and ask speakers to verify that they have correctly represented their ideas” (pg. 83)

Ritchhart says once the clarification is achieved, a teacher or leader may want to connect what was said to other points people have made or to other ideas being discussed. He believes these connections help to thread various ideas together and to facilitate a conversation. Ritchhart believes threading is important for anyone in the role of facilitating learning in groups because it builds coherence and move the agenda of learning forward. He notes threading requires us to listen for the expression of key ideas, questions, or issues that might not yet be well formed in the speaker’s mind. By highlighting these ideas for the group and by noticing and naming them, we bring them forward for further discussion.

Ritchhart (2015) highlights a couple more language moves such as the following:

“Challenge ideas being presented, not in terms of correctness or accuracy, but in the exploratory sense, as in a Socratic dialogue: “How do you think that idea would play out in another context?” “Let’s follow that line of thinking; what’s the action that might follow from it?” In addition, we can advance the discussion further by inviting others in: “Joaquin, what do you think about what Marcy just said?” “Kate, how does Clinton’s idea connect with yours?” Questions such as these don’t come from some preplanned lesson; they emerge from our careful listening to students.”

(pg. 83)


6 Ways to Make Thinking Visible A Powerful Practice

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.