Teaching Thinking Moves

This year I’m once more refining my role as teacher and working harder than ever before to promote critical thinking on the part of students? How? I sought outside help from thinking experts Ron Ritchart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison in the form of a book they’ve authored entitled Making Thinking Visible.  It is well worth the $17 price on Amazon. The first portion of the book reevaluates Bloom’s taxonomy and posits that “understanding” is an outcome of thinking and not a prerequisite to application, analysis, and evaluating.

By engaging students in “thinking moves,” we can assist students in fostering understandings of new ideas. Those thinking moves are:

  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 of a topic and forming conclusions
  7. Wondering and asking questions
  8. Uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things

The text argues that kids should focus on learning these thinking moves with as much urgency as they focus on their performance on tests or quizzes. The authors also posit that different types of thinking is required for problem solving, decision making, and forming judgements. The list below isn’t exhaustive, but is a place to start. Those thinking moves are:

  1. Identifying patterns and making generalizations
  2. Generating possibilities and alternatives
  3. Evaluating evidence, arguments, and actions
  4. Formulating plans and monitoring actions
  5. Identifying claims, assumptions, and bias
  6. Clarifying priorities, conditions, and what is know

The next section of the text suggests that we as teachers need to make visible thinking the centerpiece of what we teach. “Covering content” is no longer enough. We need to design experiences for students to grapple with. Students must learn how to make their thinking visible so that we as teachers can formatively assess their progress as they encounter and assemble new ideas into their milieu of understanding. One of my favorite quotes from the book is: “Children grow into the intellectual life of those around them.” Message: We have to model the type of thinking we want our students to exhibit.


Questioning is key. The authors warn against stilted questions that may sound insincere and are only probing for the right answer. Ask questions that model our own interest in ideas being explored. Ask questions that facilitate a student clarifying their thinking to themselves. Ask generative questions that “propel learning forward.” These essential type questions might be displayed on a wall and referred to throughout the year. The authors cite one example of a humanities teacher who has the following questions at the front of the room:

  1. What’s the story?
  2. What’s the other story?
  3. How do you know the story?
  4. Why know/tell the story?
  5. Where’s the power in the story?

The last portion of the book are a series of thinking routines-protocols if you will-for students to engage in and thereby make their thinking visible. We’ve tried a handful in class so far, and all I can say is that giving students a structured opportunity to take their ideas on a joy ride is an amazing thing to watch. The richness of student discussions in small gorups has skyrocketed. The whole class moments of discussion are also much richer with more students gaining a foothold and offering ideas.

I would highly recommend that we as teachers reevaluate what we teach and why we teach it. Is it to get kids to memorize facts to show fluency in a subject area? Fluency in a subject matter will always be necessary, and measuring a student’s ability to memorize those facts is arguably something that must be done.

But we need to understand that if that’s the upper threshold our teaching aspires to, then we’re doing a major disservice to our students. By pushing students to think and deepen their understanding of a topic, by pushing our students to think and problem solve and be metacognitive about what they are doing, we are truly preparing them for a lifetime of thinking.

If, on the other hand, we are fixated on covering and memorizing content and not helping students think deeply and find the interconnections between topics and ideas, we’re merely preparing them to be the next Jeopardy champion or trivia master at Buffalo Wild Wings.




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