Visible Thinking in the Classroom

Written by Prof. Mary Grosser

Critical thinking involves the application of interrelated thinking skills and dispositions according to the universal standards of reasoning. This implies that thought processes should be clear, logic, precise, relevant, significant, and contain depth and breadth. A good way to enable students to take control of their thinking, become alert to the dispositions and standards of reasoning involved in critical thinking, and to evaluate the quality of their thinking is to promote a visible approach to thinking in the classroom.

A visible approach to the development of critical thinking actively engages learners in the processing of information, and can be any observable representation, such as charts, mind maps, diagrams et cetera, of an individual learner’s or a group of learners’ thought processes, questions, motivations and reflections.

A number of practices or routines can be employed to facilitate visible critical thinking in the classroom. In this short article, two practices will be explored, namely the use of “Colours, Symbols and Images”, and the “The Explanation Game”

This routine works well in groups and helps learners to identify the most important facts from information that they are reading, watching or listening. After learners have read, watched or listened to information the teacher asks individual learners to identify THREE facts/ideas that stand out for them in the information. For one fact, the learner has to choose a colour that would best represent the essence of the fact/idea. For the second fact, the learner has to choose a symbol that would best represent the essence of the fact/idea, and for the third fact they learner has to identify a visual/image that would best represent the essence of the fact/idea. A learner must be able to motivate the choice of the colour, symbol and image. Each learner gets a chance to share their facts and corresponding colour, symbol and image with the rest of the group.
The development of critical thinking benefits, as this routine helps learners to, for example, synthesise information (critical thinking skills) think deeper about information when choosing relevant colours, symbols and visuals to represent the information (standards of reasoning), and remain open-minded (disposition) to the facts, colours, symbols and visuals identified by their group mates.
The figure below illustrates how a learner made use of a colour, symbol and image to explain his understanding of an important character, Katniss Everdeen, in The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins.

This routine enhances understanding and discussion and can be used to reflect on previous learning.

The Explanation Game
The Explanation Game offers a routine that enhances understanding by encouraging a learner to look for detail about an object/idea, thus promoting part-whole thinking. The following steps apply when using The Explanation Game that can be done in pairs or in small groups.
1. Learners are asked to take a close look at the idea/object that is the focus of understanding.
2. They have to name a characteristic of the object/idea.
3. They have to explain the function of the objective, and why it exists.
4. They have to explain the reasons for their responses to 4.
5. They are then asked if the object/idea could be something else, for which they also have
to provide a motivation.
Groups of learners work to find answers independently instead of relying on a teacher or textbook for answers. The learners’ ideas become visible when they communicate their answers to the rest of the class. Learners’ main ideas are captured in table format and can be displayed in class.

The Explanation Game
1. Name it. Name a characteristic of the object/idea
2. Explain it. Explain the function of the objective, and why it exists.
3. Give reasons. Give reasons for your response in 2.
4. Generate alternatives. What else could this object/idea be, and motivate your answer?

The Explanation Game promotes the development of the critical skills to analyse, interpret and evaluate information. In addition, dispositions to be clear and explore information creatively, and to adhere to standards for depth and breadth of information, also need to be considered.

For more information on practices that help make thinking visible, visit the website of Project Zero at Harvard University: