Developing Critical Thinking in a VISIBLE Way

No matter the subject in school, students should be challenged to thinking critically and deeply about concepts. But what a lot of teachers forget is that students have to be taught how to critically think and problem solve. Students don’t come into our classrooms as blank slates. They have prior knowledge they can pull from, but may need specific scaffolds and supports to help pull out what they already know and make connections to new material. How do we make students thought processes visible and collaborative in the classroom?

check out this Ted Talk on Making Thinking Visible in practice!

The book, “Making Thinking Visible,” by Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison provides teachers with detailed, applicable strategies for promoting student engagement and understanding in any subject. These skills and strategies can be taught to students and they can hopefully take them with them for their future learning! We’re going to check out 3 specific Making Thinking Visible (MTV) strategies and apply them to the science classroom.

The 4 C’s

What are the 4 C’s? This thinking strategy could be used in any context, but specifically provides learners with a structure for a text-based or content-based discussion.

  • Connections: what connections do you draw between the text/video/content and your own life or your other learning?
  • Challenge: what ideas, positions, or assumptions do you want to challenge or argue with in the text/video/content?
  • Concepts: what key concepts or ideas do you think are important and worth holding on to from the test/video/content?
  • Changes: what changes in attitudes, thinking, or action are suggested by the text, either for you or others?
Here’s a real life example of the 4 C’s!

How do we use it? First, this strategy is most effective when used with texts that incorporate complex ideas and concepts that can be considered from more than one perspective, or require students to grapple with the ideas. So, choosing texts like opinion papers or articles, scientific and scholarly articles, or scientific reports would be useful for this strategy. If you’re hoping to incorporate more text into the classroom, the 4C’s provides a great framework for challenging students to think deeper and elicit a rich discussion.

Science Classroom Connection: To use this framework in a science class, I think that this would be helpful for guiding students to think about the content in a new way. I would differentiate the typical questions in a new way to use it after synthesizing new content or notes. Students could making connections between the new concept they are learning to their prior knowledge, challenge what they learned with questions they have or preconceived thoughts, identify the key ideas and concepts from the material or chapter, and instead, brainstorm changes they could make in their study habits or practices to learn this new concept.

Generate-Sort-Connect-Elaborate: Concept Maps

What is the Generate-Sort-Connect-Elaborate strategy when using concept maps? This is a guided way to engage students in creating their own concept map, which is a great tool for helping them make meaningful connections in the content. Concept maps help uncover a learner’s mental models of a topic in a nonlinear way!

  • Generate a list of ideas and initial thoughts that come to mind when you think about this topic of issue
  • Sort your ideas according to how central or tangential they are. Place central ideas near the center and more tangential ideas toward the outside of the page.
  • Connect your ideas by drawing connecting lines between the ideas that have something in common. Explain and write on the line in a short sentence how the ideas are connected.
  • Elaborate on any of the ideas or thoughts you have written so far by adding new ideas that expand, extend, or add to your initial ideas.
Use this strategy to generate a concept map like this one in your biology, chemistry, or physics class!

How do we use it? Select larger scope concepts for students to make their concept maps with, so that it can be as open-ended as possible. Guide students through the 4 steps, and explain what a concept map is before they start if they are unfamiliar. After each individual or group makes their concept map, share them as a class or in groups! It’s interesting and important for students to see the connections their peers are making. Sometimes, it helps students if you provide them with a topic or vocab list, and they can build the connections and map from there.

Science Classroom Connection: Concept maps are so beneficial in the science classroom, especially because concepts can be interrelated and connected to each other. This activity challenges students to connect concepts that are similar, but distinguish them by their differences, and rank and organize the concepts in their own way. For example, after a unit on thermodynamics, I would have students make a concept map by first, generating a list of all the concepts they can think of related to thermodynamics, then, sort the terms into categories or orders of importance and put thermodynamics in the center, draw connections and connection phrases between the words, and then elaborate by adding definitions, equations, and details to the map. This strategy can be a great way to help students summarize the content in a way that makes sense to them, and it shows teachers where they are making valuable connections!


What is Claim-Support Question? This strategy is a fantastic way for teaching students how develop strong claims, support them with evidence, but critically examine claims and raise questions about them. Because science is driven by claims and supporting them with research, this is an important skill for students to develop.

  • Make a claim about the topic, issue, or idea being explored. A claim is an explanation or interpretation of some aspect of what is being examined.
  • Identify support for your claim. What things do you see, feel, or know that lend evidence to your claim?
  • Raise a question about your claim. What may make you doubt the claim? What seems left hanging? What isn’t fully explained? What further ideas or issues does your claim raise?
Real life example of this strategy!

How do we use it? Similar to the claim, evidence, reasoning (CER) strategy, this strategy can be used to have students think creatively of claims that could be backed by scientific evidence that they have learned about or could research. Then, they can take notice of the claims presented and see if they hold up to scrutiny. Choose content to pair with this activity that could be debated, or students could think of it in different ways, such as scientific theories, or providing students with a diagram or figure where they need to draw conclusions from. Guide students with questions as they analyze their claims, too.

Science Classroom Connection: Science is based upon research and findings that were once claims that were then backed up with evidence and reasoning. By teaching students this strategy, they learn about scientific literacy and can be more thoughtful before they make claims about certain topics. I would use this strategy in a science classroom by presenting students with a graph showing the relationship between temperature and pressure of gases. Then, students would form individual claims about gas laws or ideal gases from their interpretation of the graph, support their claim with evidence from the figure or their prior, knowledge, and then raise questions to their peers about the claims they made about the graph.

A final note…

Make sure that BEFORE using each of these strategies in your own classroom, set them up for your students! Model the strategy yourself with an example as you walk them through what the strategy is and how they use it. Part of the set up may include explaining or reinforcing certain concepts they are using, or reviewing content or what a concept map is. It is important that they know why the strategy is useful and beneficial for their learning and that we equip them to be able to put the strategy to work!

Thanks for reading! Hopefully these strategies are useful for you and your students and transform the ways they can make their thinking VISIBLE!

-Miss Creeden


  1. Hey Rachel,
    Awesome Points that you brought up about the importance of making thinking visible. I think it’s important that as teachers we are constantly monitoring the learning progression of our students and their learning. This will allow us to give immediate feedback and be able to ADAPT to make the best change for our students and their learning. My question for you is at what point in the learning cycle should you start observing the learning? I would say start in the very beginning.

  2. Nice Post Rachel,

    I liked how you pointed out that with all the strategies that we should be modeling them for the students. That’s a great way to get your classroom to engage with the system they’ll be using. Your strategies seemed to have a lot in common and I think if you decide to use these three in your classroom then it’ll be easier for students to go from strategy to strategy, so that’s a great concept. I liked the 4 C’s strategy but do you think there could be a way to use it without just articles?

  3. Hey Rachel!
    Great post about Making Thinking Visible! I thought the strategies that you chose would all be very helpful in the science classroom! I also appreciated how you implored teachers to use scaffolding when setting up one of these strategies because a lot of them are very unfamiliar to students, so it’s very important they are coached through, especially on their first attempt. I also think modeling the strategies is really important, so that students can see how you are constructing ideas and in turn construct their own. How might you connect the 4 Cs strategy with the book unit we are preparing in literacy?

  4. Hey Grace!

    Loved your post and Making Thinking Visible strategies, totally excited to use these in my future classrooms! I especially love how you stressed the importance of taking the time to set these strategies up rather than letting students just dive into them head first, we really want to make sure students are making the most out of these strategies. What would you suggest doing for students who are eager to get thinking and want to skip right through the setup process?

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