“What is Going On Inside Their Head?” – Making Thinking Visible


Methods of making thinking visible in your classroom!

Have you ever looked around a classroom full of blank stares and wondered what your students were thinking about? Maybe they’re paying attention – or maybe they’re thinking about the latest memes. Disney’s Inside Out puts it perfectly, “Have you ever looked at someone and wondered what was going on inside their head?” Truth is, we have no idea what another person is thinking just by looking at them. Making your student think is crucial as an educator, but how could you possibly see into thirty student’s minds? Making Thinking Visible, a book by Ron Richhart, Mark Church, and Karin Marrison, outlines the importance of seeing how thinking and strategies of how to make thinking visible. This blog will share some of the strategies useful for expanding your own classrooms. 

Why is Making Thinking Visible Important?

Making your students’ thoughts on concepts visible you will be able to identify their understanding. This means having more opportunities to clear up misconceptions and foster deeper connections between students and the content through reflection and activity. 

Color Symbol Image (CSI) 

This strategy’s purpose is to make students build associations with a topic while also utilizing their inner creativity. Richart explains that this method helps students build metaphorical thinking in conjunction with making outside connections to class content. 

Here’s how to use CSI: 

  1. Present the topic of interest with a video, passage, or other engaging method. 
  2. Have students select a color that they associate with the topic. Make sure to emphasize choosing a color that has meaning, rather than assigning a color without thought. 
  3. Encourage students to choose a symbol they feel best represents the topic. It could be any symbol as long as they feel it connects to the topic. 
  4. Get out the art supplies! Have students sketch an image related to the topic. The sketch doesn’t have to be a masterpiece as long as they spend time working on their piece, they will be connected deeper to the content. 
  5. In teams or pairs, have students share their color, symbol, image and the reasoning behind them! 

Chalk Talk 

Chalk Talk is collaborative conversation done silently. While the quietness may sound boring, students will actually have the opportunity to share their ideas and thoughts freely while also being active. Chalk Talk has students pose their own questions and thoughts related to a prompt while simultaneously responding and thinking about their classmates’ different perspectives. This way, students will think about topics in a way they hadn’t before, making them ever more curious. 

Here’s how it works: 

  1. Write multiple prompts on large sheets of papers, on a whiteboard, or chalkboard. Set out the appropriate writing utensil. Students can either move freely between the prompts in the room or be teamed up for one prompt as they move through the others. 
  2. Explain Chalk Talk to students. They are meant to record any thoughts or questions they have while also remaining anonymous – this allows them to feel comfortable freely expressing themselves without fear of being judged. 
  3. Allow students to circulate through the prompts. 
  4. Encourage students to respond to each other and connect to concepts classmates bring up. 
  5. Discuss the responses and prompts as a class. What stuck out to the class? What did they like or dislike about ideas and responses? What was similar or different from their own thinking?

The Explanation Game 

The Explanation game is an explanation building exercise on known or unknown concepts. “Understanding often involves recognizing parts of a thing, what they do, how they function, their roles, and purposes.” (Richhart) This game has students evaluate smaller parts of a whole thing and its complexities. This allows students to understand a topic on a microscopic level. 

How to use it in your classroom: 

  1. Choose an object to bring your class’s attention to. This could be a diagram of a plant cell, a model of some kind, or any object with different parts. Have students observe the subject closely. 
  2. Name it – Have students share their observations. This could be written on sticky notes, shared in teams, or pairs. They should record their observations as they go. 
  3. Explain – Students should explain the aspects of the features they recorded in the previous stage. What is the aspect’s function? Encourage students to share multiple perspectives. 
  4. Give reasons – Have students support their explanations. Why is their explanation plausible? 
  5. Generate Alternatives – Ask students to look for other explanations to their previously generated one. This may make them notice things they didn’t realize before. 

If you’re interested in learning more about Making Thinking Visible, visit the article below! 


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  1. Hi Jack, this is a great post. I really liked how you explained the explanation game and even included a quote from Richhard. I think this was very nicely done. I also liked the article at the end of the blog you included. I think it was a nice wrap-up. I really liked how you mentioned reflection and activity when talking about making thinking visible. My question for you is, What concept/standard would you use for the explanation game?

  2. Hey Jack, I loved your post. It is crazy that both our minds went to the Inside Out quote. It seems to encapsulate the desire to understand what our students are thinking. With this in mind, how do you envision students visibly showing their thinking as they move through the steps of the explanation game?

  3. Great post Jack. I really enjoy the chalk talk strategy and your description of it, I feel like there are a ton of really good uses for this and there are a lot of benefits for all types of students. I had a question for you about CSI. Do you think this strategy is applicable to older or more academically advanced students? How might you adapt it to make it suitable for older ages in a science classroom?

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