The Hidden World of Learning: Making Thinking Visible

The ancient cobblestones shifted and clicked underneath Gerenex’s boots as he carefully made his way down the centuries-old staircase. The young wizard breathed deeply of the dust and debris of the ruins in a feeble attempt to calm his anxiety as he plunged deeper into the heart of the cathedral, guided only by the dim light of a small fireball he held in his left palm. 

The half-draconic Ata-kai villagers living in the town at the base of the mountain had all been in a state of panic when Gerenex arrived yesterday. He had been hoping to find a quiet place to get a hot meal and sleep in a bed on his way to fulfill his next contract, but the uproar was made apparent to him as soon as he walked past the entrance. Apparently, the shaman’s apprentice, a young Ata-kai girl, had heard tell of an artifact housed in the temple atop this mountain, a shield that once belonged to the Dragon God Terrakov. Ignoring the elders’ warnings that the mountain was swarming with monsters and that the temple was cursed, she went anyway, hoping to claim the shield’s power for herself. 

Of course, this led us to where we are now. Despite the normal animosity between the ata-kai and humans, Gerenex wasn’t about to have the death of a young girl on his conscience. After getting the townsfolk to begrudgingly tell him where she was going and how to get there, he had Aucherai, his raven familiar, scout out the mountain before he began his journey to the temple. 

During his tip up the mountainside, the young monster hunter had noticed something: a lack of monsters to hunt. However, he did encounter several reasonably fresh monster corpses, which suggested that the girl was actually quite skilled with her magic after all. Be that as it may, from what the villagers said, the ancient temple’s curse would surely be the kid’s end, and as he crept deeper and deeper into the ruins, he couldn’t shake the feeling that it might be his as well.

He reached the bottom of the stairs, taking a cautious look around the huge, empty room he found himself in. Dim afternoon sunlight shone in through a series of slits carved into the walls, illuminating the narrow sandstone bridge that Gerenex was standing on. At the other end of the bridge was a large statue of a dragon’s torso with a stone door beneath it. 

The wizard hadn’t taken ten steps onto the bridge before the whole room began to shake violently, sending large pieces of debris and stone flying across the room as two large stone claws rose from the temple depths below the bridge. The statue’s eyes began to glow with a strong white light as the dragon’s head roared to life. It spoke with a deep rumble.

“Who desires to enter this sacred place?” The dragon shouted, its ancient stones scraping one another.

Startled, the wizard replied. “Um, my name is Gerenex Cinderfang. I’m here looking for an ata-kai girl. Did she pass through here?”

“Only the worthy pass.” The statue replied angrily. “The rest die, as I suspect you will, human. If you wish to know the girl’s fate, then prepare yourself for my challenge.”

“This is bad” Gerenex thought to himself. This thing was made entirely of stone, so his signature fire magic would have a negligible effect on its body. What’s even worse, the bridge’s narrow dimensions would make it difficult to outmaneuver the statue’s claws in case it tried to take a swing at him. Fighting this thing would not end well, and Gerenex’s mind raced as his eyes drank in the room, attempting to find something he could use to his advantage. 

It seemed the dragon had taken notice of the wizard’s thoughts, as it spoke with a chuckle. “You are correct. Our fight is one you will not win, boy. Make no mistake: if you fail my challenge, you will wet my claws. If you wish to pass, you must answer my question.”

“Very well then, I shall answer.” Gerenex said, feeling relieved. He had always been pretty good at riddles, and if he was able to answer the guard’s question, he would be able to press on without having to fight a losing battle. Sadly for him, this relief would be short lived, as with the dragon’s next words, the young man felt his heart race as fear crept its way into his chest. 

“What is your greatest weakness?” The dragon asked. 

The next hour or so would prove to be very difficult for the young wizard as he contemplated his many shortcomings under the dragon’s intimidating gaze. He was fairly certain he only got one chance to answer the crumbling statue’s question, and unfortunately, he was more than aware of the fact that he had weaknesses to spare, making the process of choosing which was his most crippling quite difficult. 

Was it the fact that he was a cripple with only one functional arm? Was it the fact that he couldn’t cast a single spell without it blowing up in his face? Was it how he always tended to dodge to his left when given the choice? Was it his lack of stamina and coordination? What about the fact that casting magic left him physically exhausted afterwards? Or was the dragon talking about his biggest weakness as a person? In that case it could be anything. As a monster hunter, his place in the world is to literally burn living things to death in exchange for money, and no matter how he justified his profession, Gerenex still couldn’t help but feel as though it sort of made him an evil person. Even with that aside, there were a number of things he knew that made him weak. Was it his indecisiveness? Or could it be his fear of failing his quest to find his birthfather? Was it his guilt regarding “the incedent” that lost him his arm? Was it his inability to control his temper?

“This is no use.” The wizard thought to himself. “There’s no way I’m going to be able to pick just one. Maybe that was the dragon’s point. I can’t answer his question because I AM unworthy. If I answer wrong, I’ll get crushed by that left claw. If I try to run, I’ll get crushed by the right. I’ve failed. That girl is going to die because I’m not good enough…”

Suddenly, he realized exactly what he was doing. It was the same thing he did every time he failed, every time he felt guilty or encountered hardship. He understood what the dragon was asking. Finally, he spoke. “My greatest weakness is my lack of confidence.” Gerenex said, positive in his answer. The dragon said nothing as the glow left its eyes and its claws returned to the wall where they came from. The door on the other end of the bridge slowly opened, revealing a dimly lit passageway. “Good grief…” Gerenex said to himself with a chuckle, feeling emotionally exhausted “Maybe fighting him would’ve been easier…”

The power of metacognition seems to be quite understated. A person who understands the way their brain works has an advantage in any area of life. Are you always running late? Make sure that you set your clocks back a few minutes to give yourself a cushion. Are you really forgetful and easily distracted? write important things to remember on your arms to remind you later. Doing this sort of thing can be a really good way to compensate for your natural shortcomings, but it can also be a great way to learn more effectively.

In his book “Making Thinking Visible” Ron Ritchhart describes a number of techniques and exercises that can help readers understand their own thought process and make connections. As one could assume, these exercises have tremendous potential to enhance a student’s educational experience. Not only does understanding their thinking help the student, but it also gives a teacher extremely valuable information about what’s going on underneath the surface. For instance, if I know for a fact that this kid can’t sit still and I notice that he bounces between ideas fast, why would I ever try lecturing at him and giving him worksheets to do? It might be better to try and explain concepts to such a student by having him build something or giving him a bigger problem with a number of moving parts to consider, allowing him to spread his thoughts out the way he likes.

That being said, it’s impossible to make judgments like these until you’ve had some insight to who your students are as people and how they think, and the focus of the book and its techniques is, of course, to make the thinking visible, allowing for everyone to see how it works and how it can be controlled to expand learning.

I used to think… Now I think…

One of the techniques discussed in the book is called “I used to think… Now I think…”. The idea is pretty simple: you have students think back to a specific time in their lives and ask them to try to remember what their thoughts and feelings were on a specific topic at that point and why. The focus of the exercise is to highlight the differences and how certain thoughts have changed over time.

For instance, one potential topic could be “Does homework help me learn?”. Students would try and reflect on how they felt about homework in elementary school, middle school, and high school, and then try to figure out what it was that made them change their opinions. Was it the way homework was presented? The subject matter? Or was it you who changed? Maybe your passion for schoolwork has died down since then, or maybe you just feel like it’s busywork that doesn’t help you study.

Having students analyze their thought patterns and the way they change over time gives everybody involved useful information about what does and doesn’t work for that student as well as information about how that student perceives/used to perceive the world. Sometimes, it can even be beneficial to have students do this exercise regarding non-school topics as well.


The main point of the “Headlines” technique is to have your students try to decipher what’s important about a certain topic and create something that symbolizes it. Students are supposed to try to decipher what a subject’s “main idea” is, and then make a headline, something that catches attention and emphasizes importance.

For instance, let’s say that you’re talking about kinetic energy in physics. One student might think that the important part of that lesson was the equation for kinetic energy: “KE=1/2mv^2”. For that student’s headline, they could calculate the kinetic energies of various objects like bullets, cars, planets, ETC. and graph them against one another, having sort of a “grand tournament” of kinetic energy that compares things that move and ranks them in terms of their speed and mass.

A different student might have thought the important part of the lesson was the conservational aspect of kinetic energy, so for their headline they might build a roller coaster with various loops and bumps to show how much energy is needed to clear each obstacle and how the car needs to start from a higher point in order to have that energy. The thing about headlines is that it lets each student focus on what they thought was important, and, even better, it forces them to focus on why they thought it was the most important aspect of the lesson. Plus, it serves as a great outlet for your students to flex a little creative muscle.

Chalk Talk 

Classroom discussions are great, but they have one sort of big “Achilles’ Heel” weakness. It’s often hard to have a discussion on certain topics without having students actively arguing and disagreeing with one another. Of course, while diversity of thought is an extremely part of education and intellectual growth in general, the idea that somebody could yell at you or that you could be socially ousted hangs over the classroom during a group discussion, and it can definitely discourage students from throwing in their valuable input.

This is where the chalk talk comes in. In this technique, teachers set up a number of stations that have whiteboards or large sheets of paper on them and have students write anonymous responses to main point statements as well as to one another. For instance, one board might say “Thomas Edison Invented the Lightbulb”. One student could say “Yeah, he did!”, and another might respond to that student’s comment with “No he didn’t! He just patented it!”. Yet another might say “He didn’t invent it, but he popularized the original design and made it easily shared with the public.”

The great thing about the chalk talk is that it allows students to focus not only on their thinking regarding the main topic, but also to their classmates’ responses. This helps everybody share ideas in a great non-judgmental way.


These are only a couple of the ways “Making Thinking Visible” suggests to help your students think about their thinking. The best way to ensure that they work, however, is to be vigilant! Constantly have your students reflect on what they’ve done. Have them write everything down and draw concept maps and other organizers to analyze their thinking processes. Always ask them not only what they think, but also why they think so, and make sure that you keep that fourth wall down. Tell them what the pedagogical purpose of your lesson is. Ask their opinions on what helps them learn personally. The more of this information you have, the more help you can give students so they can reach for the stars.


  1. Aesa,
    Great blog post! Once again, spot on with the use of stories! Always a good way to grab the attention and draw a reader in! The part about metacognition is great, it really is think about your thinking, which we often fail to do. Your description of the different strategies that you did are so well thought out and I love it! I never really thought of the whole idea of breaking down the fourth wall in the classroom. What kinds of ways would you keep this kind of transparency within your classroom? Since some teachers definitely struggle with this concept with their students.

    • Dillon,

      I agree! Ideally, students and teachers alike should be able to understand their own brains and use this information to game the system and get as much out of classroom events as possible. I feel like more transparency between the teacher and their pedagogical reasons for doing things will help students think more about their place in the learning process and why it’s important for them to think in certain ways or do a certain task. Thanks for the input!


  2. Aesa,
    I love how creative you are! I can see in so much of your work the creativity and thoughtfulness you put into your blogs/assignments. The introduction with the dissected idea of metacognition you gave… awesome. The chalk talk was one of my favorites so I’m glad you brought it into your blog. I’d love to see a science example/application for the “I used to think… now I think…” strategy. Great work with your unique and intriguing blog!

    • Hayley,

      Thank you! I’m really glad you liked my introduction! You’re totally right, I should have used a more concrete example for the use of the chalk talk in a science setting. Thank you for the input!


  3. Aesa–
    I love how you always tell a story! It’s a great way to get people intrigued. As for your discussion on MTV, it’s so important to keep students reflecting and thinking on what they’ve been doing, and you made that very clear throughout your post. I loved your description of why the metacognitive is so important, and how we daily do things that have to do with our thinking/tendencies that we don’t even realize! I’m totally one of those people who sets my clock back five minutes so I’m on time to things, hahaha. I would love to hear how you would challenge students to apply this metacognitive/MTV thinking into their daily lives beyond the classroom! Great post!

    • Naomi,
      Yes! I love your point about the application of thinking strategies outside of the classroom. Having an idea of how your brain works and moves can be super instrumental in finding peace with yourself as a person, but it can also help you “game the system” a bit to squeeze the most out of your thinking. I hope that all of us can come up with cool ways to get our students to do this!

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