What makes you say that? Reasoning with evidence

We worked on the topic of urbanization with my 6th grade students (12 years old). The idea was to discuss the evolution of cities from antiquity to present time, urban growth around the world and relevant issues, and to deal with aspects of modern city life as they and their families experienced them. On starting the topic I presented them with two paintings by Cyril E. Power and LS Lowry, 20th century English artists of the emerging modern city.

First, I showed them Power’s painting, The Tube Train. I did not give any background information about the painting just encouraged students to observe it quietly for a couple of minutes. Then I asked them:

Cyril E. Power, The Tube Train
Cyril E. Power, The Tube Train


What’s going on in this painting?

What do you see that makes you say that?

What more can you find or think about when looking at this painting?


We used sticky notes to document the ideas that we shared during classroom discussion.


Their answers to the What’s going on? prompt fell in two groups: some obvious remarks about the scene depicted in the painting suggesting that these were people sitting on a train or on the metro and their thoughts about the people in the painting. They noticed that the people looked angry and sad. By asking What do you see that makes you say that? they began to observe more carefully searching for details that would justify their responses such as: “I can see handles at the ceiling, I see the place has a circular shape, I see they are holding and reading newspapers and people often read newspaper at the metro”, but also “I see that they aren’t smiling, they don’t care about what’s going on around them”. Some more final thoughts were added like “they are tired because they live a routine life or they are only interested in themselves”.

The activity we first worked on was the What makes you say that? routine. It taps into students’ background knowledge and asks them to:

  • look carefully at works of art
  • talk about what they observe
  • support their ideas with evidence through the emphasis on details to enhance understanding
  • listen and consider the views of others
  • discuss many possible interpretations

 We worked on the same routine with Lowry’s painting Returning from work.

LS Lowry, Returning from work
LS Lowry, Returning from work

What’s going on?

What do you see that makes you say that?

What more can you find or think about when looking at this painting?

Documentation of classroom discussion:


Apart from using sticky notes to document our ideas, students also kept notes during the discussion:

We needed two forty-minute teaching sessions to complete the What makes you say that? activity. In the end, we discussed how the people in the paintings might feel, how we felt by looking at them and what the common elements in the two paintings were. By the end students had identified that we would be dealing with aspects of modern urban life.

The activities were also an effective springboard into writing yielding results like:

When we finished the topic of urbanization we worked on a short improvisation. First, we brainstormed around city life and reflected on the questions: “What do you think someone living in a big city may be thinking? How do you think he/she may be feeling?” Think of your personal experience, your family’s and friends’. Students’ ideas were diverse and after sharing them we shot a short video where their body language was highly influenced by the details we had discussed in Power’s and Lowry’s painting. You can watch the video City Life here. The full lesson proposal on urbanization is here.

The What makes you say that? routine draws on the Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS, Housen, Yenawine & Arenas, 1991). You can read more about the VTS method here and the VT routine here.

5 thoughts on “What makes you say that? Reasoning with evidence”

  1. Mary, thank you. I’d say that it’s more into creative thinking than into critical thinking in the sense that what we’re aiming at here is having students observe closely and describe, generate a multitude of ideas, make connections and, of course, reason with evidence. Thanks again for your comment. Happy the extra links are useful. Take care.


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