Making Thinking Visible

imagesIn the beginning of November, I traveled to the American Community School of Abu Dhabi to see Mark Church and learn more about thinking routines.  I had been introduced to thinking routines, back at KAUST, but wanted to make sure I understood them and possibly learn more about Artful Thinking in the process.

Turns out, I have a lot to learn.  The two day conference made me think about my teaching practices and my focus as an art teacher.  Two main questions I asked myself: “What messages am I giving my students about what is important in my class?” and “What are my students learning?”

Mark Church really made us think about what our ultimate goal as educators should be.  We constantly want our kids to understand content, but students get mixed messages on this.  We can tell you all what we are doing (today we made….) in class, but can we tell you what we are learning?

Once I returned home, I asked my students the following questions:

  1. What is the purpose of our art class?
  2. What does your teacher expect you to do in art class?

I was quite surprised by the responses.  Students have a good understanding of the purpose of art class.  Most responded the goals are to learn how to use materials safely and correctly; to learn about art and artists from the past; to see how art affects our lives; to create; to learn how to solve problems and adapt; to have fun.  I was pretty impressed that they understood a lot of what I try to teach about art.

The second question makes me pause.  Most students answered that I expect them to do their work quietly and follow the rules.  That’s it. You come into my room, and you do what I tell you to do, which is to be quiet.  Ouch.

Then I thought about it.  What do I really expect from them in the art room? I don’t really know.  I want them to take risks, to challenge themselves, to push through the frustrations.  But how do I see that happening, how do I measure that? How do students see that as an expectation, when all they see is me tallying points on how well they are behaving that day?

Thinking routines were created by Project Zero, an organization under the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  Visible thinking  routines is not a curriculum, not a program.  It is a set of routines in which students show their reasoning, allowing for deeper understanding of concepts.  Essentially, it is a way for students to show their thinking.  To move beyond getting the right answer and start thinking critically about our world. Who doesn’t want that in their classroom?

This conference was a necessary step back for me.  I had taught thinking routines, but they were so ineffective.  I used them as activities. As an additional item to either fill in time, or a way to introduce or wrap up a unit. (Yes, I said it.)  I didn’t use them as what they are meant to be – a ROUTINE.  But that is what they are.  They are routines.  Routines to teach students how to think.  They are routines to allow us to see how they are thinking.

Mark Church asked us if we had routines in our room.  You betcha!  I have routines on how to come into the room; how to set up for painting; how to clean up after painting; how to ask to go to the bathroom, blah, blah, blah.  Tons of routines.  Do I have routines on how to think. Uh. No.

So if you see a thinking routine this way it really changes how you use thinking routines. These should actually be the backbone of my teaching practice. Because at the end of the day, it’s great that junior made a beautiful picture, but how much thinking went into it? Hmm…

You have to start slow with any routine.  You have to teach it, you have to practice it, you have to monitor it, and you have to give feedback so students know they are doing it correctly.  Once I saw thinking routines this way, I realized I had it so wrong. And now that I knew what I was doing wrong, I could work on fixing my errors and using them correctly for my desired outcomes.

I’m very excited.  Stay tuned for how I now use thinking routines in my classroom.

Author: Sonia Chapman

I am an art teacher, living in the Middle East, following my passion for art, teaching little children about the finer things in life, and loving every bit of it.

2 thoughts

  1. This is so interesting. I stumbled upon Project Zero and VTS last Spring and would love to hear more about your practice. Thanks!


    1. Great to hear! I’m now going to start teaching Maker Space as a special. I will start putting more information about Design Thinking, Thinking Routines, and more as we start the school year.


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