Visible Thinking: A Learning Technique to Ensure the Development of Critical Thinking Skills

What do you think you know about creating a culture of thinking?
What questions or puzzles do you have?
What does the topic make you want to explore?

Over 40 administrators and faculty from the Meritas Family of Schools recently gathered to answer these types of questions and dig deeply into the topic of “thinking” in education. The conference, “Creating a Culture of Thinking in Our Classrooms and Schools,” was hosted by North Broward Preparatory School in Coconut Creek, Fla. The administrators explored, collaborated and reflected on thinking and learning in much the same way Meritas’ students are compelled to approach new topics in the classroom every day.

Visible Thinking

How do we know when we’re thinking? What does thinking look like? Can we, as educators, consciously improve our students’ abilities to think, and can we see improvements in their abilities and achievements?

Visible thinking is a relatively new area in education that has origins with the Harvard University Graduate School of Education’s educational research group Project Zero. Shari Tishman, Director of Project Zero, co-wrote an article that explicitly defined visible thinking:

“Visible thinking refers to any kind of observable representation that documents and supports the development of an individual’s or group’s ongoing thoughts, questions, reasons, and reflections.”

Another view of visible thinking, by Tanya Lynch, a Grade 3 teacher at North Broward Preparatory School, makes this textbook definition more tangible:

“When we ask students to make their thinking visible, what we really want them to do is take their internal thought process and present it in a tangible way that is accessible for their fellow classmates and teachers to see, interpret and utilize.”

As Ms. Lynch explained, at Meritas, we want our students to engage with material through an observable thought process to promote the development and growth of critical thinking in a nurturing environment. Through powerful visible thinking techniques, our students become more critical, creative and expansive thinkers.

Critical Thinking: A Skill All Need, Few Possess

As a recent study published in the book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” showed, there is a dearth of critical thinking skills in our current and upcoming adult workforce. The study followed 2,322 traditional-age college students, and the authors found 45 percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called higher order thinking skills.

Any inquiry into what employers seek in job candidates today always returns a laundry list of soft skills, with critical thinking at their core. A student in today’s global society must possess critical thinking skills to succeed. The earlier the technique of visible thinking is used to encourage critical thinking, the greater the effects will be on a child’s thought process development, the results of which will last a lifetime.

The Meritas Approach to Visible Thinking

At Meritas, we place student thinking at the core of our everyday instruction. Our teachers educate our students using visible thinking routines in a nurturing, yet challenging environment. They approach each lesson by asking themselves, “What are the thinking skills I want my students to take away from this lesson, and how am I going to teach this lesson in a way that helps them?”

In turn, our students explore ideas without fear of “the wrong answer” and are empowered to share their thoughts and ideas.

As educators and education enthusiasts, we should commit to engaging students in visible thinking exercises to ensure they are prepared to become productive members of society. We should worry about a generation who cannot think critically or engage in high-level thought. As an international network of 10 schools around the world, we take this matter seriously, and we believe our friends and partners in education should as well.

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