Hey MTV, Welcome To My Students’ Thinking Made Visible

If the hit show MTV Cribs told us anything, it’s that people are nosy. Audiences are so entertained to get a sneak peak at how these celebrities live inside the walls of their home. I think this is a great analogy for us as teachers. Each year, we are gifted a brand new group of lavish, well-decorated, and mysterious minds that we wish we could peek into. Yet how are we to do this?

In the classroom, we often pass over the thirty seconds of thinking to the one second verbal answer because we don’t know how to access a student’s thought process. Fortunately, authors Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison have made this thinking visible, in their aptly named book, Making Thinking Visible.

I want to take you through three of my favorite strategies that come from this book to use in the science classroom. These strategies, with some adaptations, work well in drawing out a student’s own thoughts on any particular topic.

Without further ado, Welcome to Strategy #1:

1. Generate-Sort-Connect-Elaborate: Concept Maps

While the name of this strategy is a mouthful, the strategy itself is actually very simple. Concept maps have been around for a long time, and there is a plethora of research supporting their effectiveness as a tool for students to make meaning out of content. Check out some of this research in the biology, chemistry, and physics education realms.

This tool is a great way for students to organize their thinking and connect different concepts or vocab in new ways. The name of this strategy details some of the step for the best use of concept mapping. Let’s go through them with a relevant example!

Let’s give our hypothetical students the topic of Cells:

First, students will generate a list of vocab words and processes that relate to cells. They might document words like, chromosome, nucleus, mitochondria, cell wall, etc.

Next, students will sort their words into categories of their choosing. One student might sort her words into whether they describe prokaryotic or eukaryotic cells, for example.

Then, students will connect their words inside of their categories, drawing lines between related words or concepts. Nucleus and chromosomes might have a line between them, as well as ribosomes and proteins. Have students write small descriptions that highlight how the terms are related.

Finally, ask students to elaborate on their connections. This could lead to the creation of subcategories or further connections.

This strategy works especially well as a prior knowledge check and also as a study guide before a quiz or other assessment.

2. The Micro Lab Protocol

This strategy is a bit of a misnomer, as no laboratory equipment or experience is required, yet it is still a powerful tool to facilitate discussion and make sure each student has a voice.

It’s a pretty simple idea: students meet in discussion teams and the first person explains their opinion or perspective. While she is talking, the other students cannot talk. Instead, they actively listen and take notes if needed.

After the first speaker finishes, the team is given 20-30 seconds of silence to process what has been said before the next person talks.

After every member has had an uninterrupted chance to speak, then the team finishes with a 5-10 minute free discussion.

The power behind this tool is that each person has equal opportunity to make their thinking known. Also, between every speaker, the silence helps to recenter the team and protects against quick remarks or retorts.

This video shows an example of Micro Lab in practice, however, they opt to skip the silence in between speakers.

In a science classroom, this strategy could be used to discuss societal issues with ties to science like bioengineering or vaccines. While discussions of this nature are often dominated by a couple opinionated or talkative students, the Micro Lab can provide space for everyone to meaningfully contribute.

3. Tug-Of-War

The most fun-sounding strategy of the three, Tug-Of-War is a great method for students to think about evidence to support claims and weigh the strengths or weaknesses of the evidence.

And it even involves a rope!

Ok, it doesn’t have to be a rope, a string, a piece, of twine, or even a line drawn on the board will do.

The premise is simple; students are given a two-sided issue and asked to come up with pieces of evidence that support either side. Then, students must weigh how compelling each piece of evidence is. If it is a heavy hitter, it becomes the anchor of the tug-of-war and is placed at the far end of the string, effectively “pulling” the argument that direction. Weaker pieces of evidence go closer to the center.

Check out this blog that gives examples of all sorts of tug-of-war prompts to use!

This strategy can be adapted to fit any type of learning level or content because there are conflicts and disagreements throughout any field of science. For example, students could do this exercise to think about if viruses should be considered living or non-living, or if light better fits the wave model or the particle model.

More applicable situations that deal with current events can also make good scenarios for a tug-of-war.

Final Thoughts

There are so many more strategies that can be used to help students understand their thinking. The one you pick depends on your students, what they will respond to best. This might take some trial and error and definitely will lead to some groans or frustration. But ultimately, students will be better for it if they can learn how to process their own thinking. It will make them deeper and more critical thinkers that will be more equipped to live in the complex world that comes after school.

That’s all for today!

Catch you later,

Mr. Larson


  1. Hi Luke!
    I am a huge fan of concept maps and was really happy to see that you had that on there. I think concept maps work for nearly any content that you are covering, and it was cool that you connected links to research articles about how good they are in the post as well. I also like that they can be adapted for different ability levels and ages, such as sometimes giving the students the words and sometimes having them generate them. Do you think concept maps are best done individually or collaboratively?

  2. Hi Ellie!
    Thanks for the comment! I think that concept maps are a great way to encourage student thinking. I think the best way to introduce them would be to do one as a whole class on the board by starting with a central word or topic and letting students come up and write branches off the word with subtopics and other vocab.

  3. Hey Luke!

    Your connection between Making Thinking Visible and MTV was so funny! Loved the connection! You have some really awesome strategies in here that I loved learning about. Especially the way you talked about concept maps, I’ve never really thought about the way to do a concept map, it always just seems like something I knew how to do. How would you recommend introducing a concept map to students who might not have used one before? Or who have not necessarily taken the steps Making Thinking Visible recommends?

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