Making Thinking Visible: Developing Habits of Critical Thinkers

Have you stood in front of a room full of 30 students, all eyes are on you, maybe your lecturing about the carbon cycle, and all you see are blank faces? You’ve probably thought to yourself, “gee I wish I knew what was going on inside their heads”. If you could take a look inside ala Disney’s Inside Out you could a clear picture of each student’s level of understanding and see how engaged they are with the material. Then with a snap of your fingers, you could address each student’s specific needs and probably solve world peace while you’re at it.

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Unfortunately, life isn’t a Disney movie. So we have to find other ways to get inside the minds of our students. Luckily for us, the folks at Project Zero at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education have created a list of strategies that help students take what’s inside their heads and get it out into the world, along with expanding, curating, and enriching their mindset. Here’s a video made by the folks at Project Zero that elaborates on their message:

I think a really important element to pull from this video is that through the use of all these skills that students are creating habits of mind. The wildly popular book The Power of Habits author Charles Duhigg writes about the importance habits play in our lives, and how they have more of an influence in then we might think. This why I think the strategies are so great, and why they are essential to a science classroom.

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A major goal in science education is to have our students develop a critical eye to view the world through. Whether this is assessing the validity of data, potential bias in the author, or how results may influence future research. These skills, or rather, habits, can be honed and sculpted through the MTV strategies. Let’s take a look at a few.

1. Headlines!

In this strategy, students pick out the main ideas or important concepts and condense them into a single headline. I really like this strategy for a few reasons:

  • it’s quick! You can ask students to come up with headlines on the spot without taking up a whole bunch of time.
  • it’s creative! Headlines need to be eyecatching, so students would need to come up with a creative way to present their idea.
  • it’s a formative assessment! By seeing the students headlines you can gauge whether students are following along and grasping the content.

As with all MTV strategies, it is important to have the students reflect on their thinking and provide justifications for their reasonings. This is also a good way to introduce media literacy into the classroom, while headlines are an important part of journalism and reporting, they are often limiting in the amount of information that can be conveyed.

2. Concept Maps

I am a big fan of concept maps, especially in science classrooms where one big idea can have multiple branching parts. Some other benefits of concept maps are:

  • They’re a visual medium. Students can see the physical lines that connect many topics, and what those connections are. These maps can also hang on a wall and can be used as a reference throughout a unit.
  • They can be creative! Concept maps allow students to use their creative skills through their choice of mapping, symbolism, or structure. Concept maps can become pieces of art!

Concept maps are one of the strategies that actually make thinking visible, literally. The students actually map out the connections that they are making to their prior knowledge and they can place their new knowledge into the map, and it’s all visible there on the paper.

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3. Circle of Viewpoints

In a science class, it can be easy to lose sight of the social aspects of the topics being discussed. Circle of Viewpoints gives students the opportunities to take a step back and view the problem from another angle. Activities like this challenge students to look at the world through multiple lenses and evaluate their feelings about science in a social world.

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  1. Hi Aaron, this is a great post! I love how you talked about Disney’s Inside Out, I’m sure we would be able to understand what is happening in our students’ heads more with the strategies you mentioned. I enjoy using concept maps as well, do you think it is more effective when students use concept maps on their own or as a group?

  2. Hey Aaron!
    Something that I always love about your blog posts is how you always make a reference to some other type of media or literature. I am always just so interested to explore whatever you referenced and see how it connects to teaching or even just to my personal life. In your own classroom, how do you plan on getting students out of the “habits” that were discussed in the video? Do you just plan on only techniques that make thinking visible or do you have other strategies in mind? Is getting your students out of these habits one of the most important things for you to do as a teacher as opposed to teaching content?

    • Thanks for the questions Anna, as someone who really loves the content and teaching it, it’s not my main goal. I think it is much more valuable and worthwhile to work on these habits, but through a framework that’s founded in the content. One way that I think is effective in breaking bad habits is by calling them out when they happen. This was an approach my chemistry teacher used in his class, and I don’t mean it in a demeaning way, but by acknowledging it, students begin to recognize it themselves. As for developing these habits, I think mtv strategies are the best way to go, but another way that we are lucky enough to have in science is through experimentation. Doing real experiments, where students are creating their own hypotheses, designing a procedure, and drawing conclusions from raw data is another way to foster a critical mindset that utilizes these habits.

      (I also really recommend the power of habits. It was very eyeopening, and it’s a great read.)

  3. Hi Aaron!
    This was a great post! I really liked how you talked about the book Power of Habits! I’ll have to put that on my reading list. I really enjoyed how you discussed different strategies that take different amounts of time so we can manage our time better in the classroom. Could you give an example on how circle of viewpoints could be used in a science classroom?

    • Circle of viewpoints could be used for any number of social conflicts in science, such as GMOs. One student could play the part of a farmer and the other could play the part of conservationist. The two could discuss the potential benefits and harms that those two people might see in the issue. This way students would come to understand the many sides of the story there are and how most things aren’t a black and white issue.

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