Category Archives: Visible Thinking

Making meaning: collective concept mapping

It was our first day at school after Christmas break and we all looked a bit numb. There was a mixture of sadness that holidays had ended and happiness to see familiar faces again. We were also a bit tired and sleepy after a two-week period of waking up late. I felt it was important not to overwhelm students right from the get-go at 8:00 am on a Monday morning, but opt for a more open-ended, student-led activity.

Photo credit: Annabel Lee

This post reflects on how we worked with two groups of sixth graders, mixed-ability A2- English learners, on the concept of “change” by using the thinking routine Making Meaning.  The aim of the routine is to build collective meaning of words, ideas, concepts or events; a collective concept mapping. It is a new routine I had come across some time ago, but had not given it a try so far. I was a bit cautious not knowing how it was going to work with students. Yet, after having tried routines in my classes for a long time, I trusted in the results they can yield with students and the richness and originality of ideas they can trigger. In any case one can never find out until one tries and cautiousness was outweighed by curiosity and anticipation.

In our case the concept was “change” and it emerged after looking at a visual stimulus. It was a street art piece which read: Happy New Year. The change starts here.

We first discussed a bit what it showed and where it could be found. We identified that it was a street art piece, probably on a wall, and that the focus was the concept of change. Change was written in the centre of the board. The first step then was to ask students

1.Think of one word that you associate/connect with change. Which word is this?

This was done as a whole class brainstorming activity and yielded some first tentative responses. Students came up with the words: New Year, school, safety, technology, economy.



As a second step I asked:

2. Now, can you think and add one more word or phrase under any of these four so as to tell me something more about it?

Students began to warm up and were able to contribute more ideas, there was greater participation and more words and phrases were added under the initial ones.




In the third step I asked them to:

3. Look at all the words and phrases we shared on the board. Can you see any connections? Think and tell me about them.

The third step found me coping with the practical issue of how to draw joining lines between the connections the children found and talked about, and how to write on those lines. It was quite an enjoyable stage as we were all taking notes, trying to accommodate on our concept maps the new information that came up from sharing ideas. It was also a moment that reveals so eloquently that thinking expands in multiple directions, it “does not happen in a linear manner” (Ritchhart et al., 2011).

In the fourth step I asked students to look at the collective concept mapping our board was displaying and think and ask any questions about the topics that had emerged:

4. Look at all our ideas shared on the board. Do you have any questions to ask about what we discussed?


We ended by adding some interesting questions:




I tried the routine with another class on that same first day at school after Christmas. I did not have the time though to take proper snapshots of our board so here are the few hasty ones I captured:

What kind of map is this?

It was funny how on finishing with the four steps, students in both groups began making jokes about this kind of map they had in their notebooks, different for each one since their notes were personalized. Some of them had opted for a full diagram while a few others had opted for a mixture of diagram and listing ideas and questions as I noticed by a quick look at their notebooks. One student said that it was “a map not to find your way, but to get lost”, another added “yes, to get lost in ideas and thoughts”, a third remarked that “it’s a map of all the different, nice ideas we had in our minds” while some others were explaining to their classmates how they were able to navigate themselves in their maps through lines, arrows, colours, boxes and clouds. I told them this was a concept map and the term seemed to stick in their minds.

The new language that emerged out of the students’ need to express their ideas while working on this routine was: connect with, associate with, concept map, economy, sustainable, equipment, space, hybrid, citizens, develop, thefts, special needs (first group) and connect with, associate with, concept map, radical, gap, reduce, increase, tax, racism, origin, argument (for the second group).

The proper wrapping up of the Making Meaning routine is that students come up with their own definition of the word, concept, topic being explored. We did not have much time to do this individually as the session was coming to an end so I asked children to hierarchize the most important elements for them and came up with a joint very short piece of writing.

I found it interesting how in both groups the routine facilitated the expression of a diversity of ideas that captured aspects of the issue ranging from the personal/school/local one to the wider “big global picture”. They associated the concept of change not only with themselves, their school, their relationships with classmates, but also with the current state of unemployment in the country, feeling of insecurity, loss of homes and the more global issues related to sustainable environment, gap between rich and poor, racism, injustice, war/peace. Each one of the questions the students asked at the final step lends itself to a new circle of inquiry.

The Making Meaning routine helped smooth our way back into “school mode” and gain some energy after the Christmas-hynernation phase. It reminded me a lot of Chalk Talk, another routine that helps students build understanding collectively. For some pictures of classroom practice with the Chalk Talk routine you can have a look here and here.

Hope you have a Happy New Year.


Ritchhart, R. Church, M. and Morrison, K. (2011) Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.



Teaching English Through Art:Reflection on a MOOC session

Back in July I delivered a session for the International Teacher Development Institute (iTDi) Summer School MOOC. I had attended a couple of online events during the previous months, but this was my first time presenting in such a context. The session was ‘Teaching English Through Art’. It involved showcasing how artful stimuli and Thinking Routines can be integrated in the English classroom as a means of developing students’ thinking skills and creativity alongside their linguistic competence. It drew upon classroom experience from working with my students on a project integrating the use of art and the Making Thinking Visible approach. They were 6th grade primary school students (11 years old), two mixed-ability groups of 20 students each, their level of English ranging from pre-intermediate to upper-intermediate.

A great number of teachers from more than 20 countries attended the session. In this post I will try to make visible a medium part of the participants’ thinking and interaction during the session as shared in the rich chat box.

This blog has a separate section on Visible Thinking, but I will also offer some brief reference on thinking routines here:

Thinking Routines are flexible, simple structures such as a set of questions or a short sequence of steps. When applied systematically, these routines help develop students’ creative and critical.

Some of the routines that we worked on:


The participants were shown the image below and asked to answer the questions:

-What do you see?
-What do you think about it?
-What does it make you wonder?

Some of the answers offered were as follows:

I see a tree. I think it’s winter. I wonder if this is a graveyard.

I see a graveyard. I think it’s quite depressing. I wonder what kind of lesson it was.

I see abstract thinking. I think students have had quite a touch with art. I wonder how long it takes to develop this.

I see a different picture. I think they built a concept. I wonder why.

I wonder what experiences the students have had to produce this.

The See-Think-Wonder routine encourages careful observations and thoughtful interpretations. You can use it to stimulate curiosity and set the stage for further engagement with a topic. Paintings, photographs, interesting objects can be used to prompt learners’ observations, thoughts, and wonderings. In this case, I used it as a way to introduce the session participants to the idea of integrating artful stimuli and Thinking Routines in the English classroom. At the same time, I used it as a means of reflecting upon another routine, the colour-symbol-image routine.


What the participants saw was how a group of the students I worked with distilled creatively the essence of ideas explored through watching, reading, and discussing when we dealt with the theme of War/Peace. The Colour-Symbol-Image routine is a way to encourage individual or group expression, both verbally and non-verbally. It can be used at the end of a topic and asks learners to select a colour/a symbol/an image that they feel represent the ideas discussed, and to explain why they chose it.

The students who produced this image had chosen to represent war. During the theme they were exposed to a variety of art, audio/visual, and textual stimuli such as paintings, photographs, a short animation film. This enhanced their symbolic and metaphoric thinking. We needed eight 40-minute teaching sessions to complete the theme. The Colour-Symbol-Image routine was used at the last session.

Another routine that we tried was What makes you say that?

Painting: Matt Mahurin

Participants were asked to look at this painting and reflect on these questions:

-What’s going on?
-What do you see that makes you say that?

This routine helps learners describe what they see and invites them to build explanations. It promotes evidence-based reasoning.

Some of the sharing that took place among participants:

The bigger girl is bullying the younger one. She looks threatening and there must be some figures behind her.

Maybe the mediumer girl feels she has no support-teetering on the edge of a cliff. Bigger girl intimidating with support.

She’s going to push her over. Her clenched fist indicates an angry persona.

Shadows represent support even though we don’t see their bodies.

People watching, but not doing anything. The case with bullying usually.

What is fascinating in this picture…is that half of the girl is darkened by the shadow of the older one. …students are cognitively and emotionally engaged…and this would be a good base for a speaking and writing task.

This is very thought provoking…makes students think…and talk…

Open-ended activity, no right or wrong answers, students are encouraged to express themselves.

These routines also help the teacher to develop his own critical thinking.

The group of teachers who attended the MOOC was an amazing audience who took part actively and enthusiastically in the activities, sharing, and commenting. As one of the participants put it: “This is really a group of word artists”. These are some of their insightful comments on the use of art and thinking routines in the English classroom:

Helps students make strong connections between ideas and language.

It is a fantastic way to give students forum for free thought and associations.

It levels the playing field in learning.

Students express deep feelings. Become more sympathetic.

These activities stimulate creativity, critical thinking skills, English language skills, and respect for other people’s opinion.

Routines promote descriptive language and stimulate observation.

Stimulates your mind to think and to re-think again and again…

No right/wrong answer so sense of security for learners.

It taps into the students’ imagination, feelings, creativity, vocabulary.

These kinds of activities draw the language from them.

Consistent and prolonged use of thinking routines cannot but nurture a culture of thinking. Like breathing.

Diversity of thinking is stimulated like this. No set answers neither answers in the teacher’s mind the students try to guess. Very learner centred.

The last routine we tried in the session was

‘I used to think..Now, I think…’

It is a routine to have learners reflect on how and why their thinking has changed. It is best to use it at the end of a topic or issue. I asked participants to reflect on what they used to think about using art in their English classes before the session, and what they thought about it, at the end of the session.

I used to think it’s impossible to programme the thinking process of students. Now, I think art is a powerful way, which can make this process not only possible, but also enjoyable for students.

I used to think it was a great stimulus for my Dogme lessons. Now, you have given me some fresh ideas for thought.

I used to think my students wouldn’t like to work with art. Now, I think they will love it. I used to think teaching through art was tricky. Now, I think it’s fun.

I used to think that teaching through high brow art is too academic. Now, I think it can be very involving.

I used to think I had no need for art in my English classes. Now, I think I was wrong, and I’m looking forward to trying it out.

I used to think that teaching through art was mostly for older students but now I think it is good for my primary students too.

I used to think art could be useful in order to visualize some ideas. Now, I think it has a much deeper potential that could be explored in class.

I used to think that teaching grammar was enough. Now, I think art is a wonderful tool to explore language use.

I used to think there was no use for art in esl. Now, I think I can’t wait to try it.

I used to think art might have difficult notions for students to talk about, now I think that there are ways to motivate them.

I used to think very few children would appreciate works of art. Now, I think it can be turned into a very creative and amazing activity.

I used to think that art just belongs to artists but now I think it’s a perfect device for teaching.

This was a great group of teachers who made this MOOC session a truly worthwhile learning experience. Thank you all very much. Special thanks to Chuck Sandy and iTDi for encouraging, and supporting this session.

Making Thinking Visible

Visible Thinking is a flexible and systematic research-based framework stemming from Project Zero, an educational research group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Its original aim is to study and improve education in the arts.

Visible Thinking has a double goal: a) to cultivate students’ thinking skills and dispositions and b) to deepen content learning. The basic idea is to make thinking visible within the context of learning. Post-it notes, construction papers on the walls, taking notes, writing learning journals, keeping blogs; any sort of visible documentation through which students’ individual and collective thinking is revealed and promoted.

Thinking Routines are at the core of the Visible Thinking programme. The underlying idea is that classroom life is structured upon routines which regulate diverse aspects: student behaviour, organization of work and learning process, establishment of rules for interaction and communication. Thinking Routines are flexible, simple structures; a set of questions or a short sequence of steps that when used systematically promote the development of students’ thinking and the classroom culture. They can be used across a variety of context and can be subject to group or individual work.

Art least explores the possibilities of regularly integrating thinking routines attached to meaningful content as a means of nurturing a creative mindset.