Saturday, April 11, 2015

Thinking About Thinking: Creating a Classroom of Thinkers

A couple of years ago I was fortunate to visit my dear friend Kristin Ziemke's classroom in Chicago, Illinois.  Kristin is an incredible teacher, author, and presenter.  She co-authored her first book Connecting Comprehension & Technology which is a must read if you're looking to utilize technology to increase student comprehension.

While in her classroom  one thing that continues to resonate with me is the way she had her students engage with the text as they were reading.  Leaving thinking tracks was an integral part of her literacy program.  It got me thinking, was I doing this well enough? Could this be something I could improved at?

Fast forward a couple years and leaving thinking tracks is an integral part of not only my literacy program, but throughout our day to day activities.  My students have been exposed to various ways to leave thinking tracks. They know that learning isn't about memorizing facts but more about connecting and engaging with those facts and making them meaningful to them.

While reading my students often write on a post it note to record words they are having trouble reading. They may write down a connection or question or wonder.  They know that good readers don't just figure out what words say, but they actually think about what they are reading and engage with the text. They also know that it doesn't matter what level of text you are reading, everyone can engage with text.

Thinking tracks goes way beyond just when my students are doing the reading. During shared reading we stop and turn and talk often as a way to think about and keep engaged with the text. We do follow up thinking activities such as  "think pair share", "I knew this but this is new information", or "I used to think but now I think" .  My students  are often encouraged to draw what they learned from the story, what their favourite part was,  or  how they would  change the ending.  Adding voice to the illustrations helps better explain the thinking behind the drawings.

While watching videos my students leave thinking tracks by taking notes. I want thinking to permeate everything we do in our class so I am doing my best to include thinking activities as often as I can.

Thinking occurs during one on one conference time too.  Not only are my students explaining to me what they have worked hard at and are proud of but what they feel they still need to improve. It doesn't matter what we are conferencing about. My students  are actively thinking about their work.

What I've found most interesting this year though is that when the key focus is thinking, and pushing thinking, mistakes become far less important.  Mistakes are seen more as a place to step forward from, instead of an error that halts learning.  For example  this past week my students were experimenting with writing  math stories.  They were given the open ended task of creating a math story with "big" numbers. Big was never officially defined but we have spoken about how playing with numbers to 100 is a part of grade two math. Here are a couple samples from one of my students.

While it is quite obvious that there is a mathematical error in the second problem the error takes a back seat to the thinking behind the math.  His attempt to write mathematical stories beyond what is expected at his grade level showed me that he is thinking about his math, and trying to push his thinking forward.  Yes, we did have a conversation about the error, but it was part of a more important conversation about how he took what he knew and explored a much larger number. We talked about how he was really thinking about his math.

Thinking is occurring throughout the day and it is coming from my students. It is not about me telling them what to think but it's about them being aware of how to think, and what's possible when they engage in what they are doing.  This whole notion of students being in control of their learning leads me to a whole other blog post on the power of student voice and choice.

But back to thinking... thinking routines themselves are not new.  Making Thinking Visible by Ron Ritchahart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison is a fabulous book that explores making thinking visible.   From the cover of the book it is written,

"Making Thinking Visible offers educators research-based solutions for creating just such cultures of thinking. This innovative book unravels the mysteries of thinking and its connection to understanding and engagement. It then takes readers inside diverse learning environments to show how thinking can be made visible at any grade level and across all subject areas through the use of effective questioning, listening, documentation, and facilitative structures called thinking routines. These routines, designed by researchers at Project Zero at Harvard, scaffold and support one's thinking. By applying these processes, thinking becomes visible as learners' ideas are expressed, discussed, and reflected upon."

No matter what age, all students are capable of thinking and being actively engaged in their learning.  For more information on thinking routines check this out Thinking routines.

Are you creating a classroom of thinkers?


  1. You are so right, Karen! Thinking about your learning is so important! I love the phrase 'thinking tracks'!

    1. I picked up the term "thinking tracks" from my visit in Kristin's classroom and it stuck immediately. It's now a very common phrase in my classroom.

  2. I love that phrase too! Do you call it the same thing when it is oral?

    1. Carrie I do. For me the idea behind a thinking track is that expression of the thinking you are doing to keep you engaged/involved with what you are learning. This can and does happen in all different context areas. There are many different types of thinking we can leave behind. The link to various thinking routines has a lot of great suggestions.

  3. Loved your post! I am doing so much of what you have mentioned here and it is wonderful to read it to remind us all of how important it is to constantly stop and ask students what they are thinking and why they think it!! I haven't used the term "thinking tracks" before but I will definitely be introducing it to my students. Thanks again for being such an inspiration to us. Love you posts!

    1. Thank you Sarah. I'd love to chat with you about other ways you are getting more thinking from your students. Imagine if we were in a district pilot project called "Making Thinking Visible". Oh wait, we were, and then well... you know how that ended.