Visible Thinking Strategies

I love the book Making Thinking Visible. It is one of the few books I was given to read in university that I regularly reference. This was one of the things I brought with me into the classroom. Here are a few strategies my students really enjoy:

C(olour) S(ymbol) I(mage)

My students are currently working on a critical challenge from Learn Alberta about the impact of various groups on the Canada’s national Identity. Rather than rating the impact, we decided to look what the impact was and how they shaped Canada. After researching the several groups, we created Colour, Symbol, Image charts to show our understanding of these groups.  Our grade 7s are quite familiar with the CSI strategy and partnered with us one Friday to teach us the strategy. This helped my students express their thinking and reasoning in a more clear way. The great thing is that these are easily scaffolded for students. You can have students work at their level. I have a large variety of levels and each of my students was able to explain why they picked the their colour, symbol and image. The great thing is that it is low key and personal. I really start to see how the kids take in information and process it.

Here are a few examples from my students:

Emma  JoshGillian

I scan a lot of the work my kids do to share with parents, which parents appreciate. This piece of work in particular, received a lot of parent support.

“WOW.  Thanks for sending us the material.  Gillian mentioned how much fun she had collaborating on the project with the grade 7 student.  Gillian was really thinking outside the box to come up with the open door aspect.  Great job teaching those kids to think for themselves!”

Chalk Talks

Another strategy that my students really enjoy are Chalk Talks, which are silent conversations about a topic. I will give a photo or word prompt in the middle of a sheet and the students will write what they think, know, or wonder about the prompt. Some students will add a picture. There is also the opportunity to respond to others and build off their thoughts.

Some of the practical uses are:

Assessing prior knowledge of students – It often surprises the students to see what they already know about a topic of study. Also, their questions help me shape my planning. I try to find ways to answer many of their questions. For Electricity, I taught the unit through their questions, often referring back to the chalk talk sheets which were up on the wall.

Assessing what was learned – My students chose to reflect on their learning in their Science unit on Electricity through a Chalk Talk. We came up with statements for them to respond to in the activity. It was a good way for me to ensure my instructional goals were reasonable and achieved.

Communicating with others – I have a really great group of kids but they often work with the same people over when given the chance. This gives a chance for all my students to interact with each other and support each other.

Differentiation – Students are able to challenge themselves to work at their own level. Some of my students draw a picture, others write many ideas and some only write a question they have or something they don’t understand. No matter their contribution, they take away from the fact that they are a community of learners and are there to support each other.

Discussing difficult issues – Many of my students shy away from verbalizing their thoughts in tough conversations. We saw this as there was a lot of name calling and teasing going on at one point in the year. I used a chalk talk for students to respond to how they felt about the things I was hearing from them. I mixed in positive expectations as well. It was a very powerful activity and drove the point home that no one actually wanted to make someone feel hurt or bad about themselves.

Below are some samples. The first photo is of the Chalk Talk the Grade 7 students at our school did for their structures unit. The rest are my students working on their first ever Chalk Talk. Since then, we have completed many more of them and the students really enjoy working on them.

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Compass Points

I used Compass Points when I introduced my students to Socratic Circles to help them look at the various facets of an idea or proposition. When we practiced Socratic Circles, we used the idea of a school wanting to segregate Phys Ed classes. Students originally started with a Pros/Cons list but their thinking did not go much deeper than “I agree or I disagree because…” For their second practice we used the proposition school wanting to implement school uniforms. We used to compass points to direct or preparation for their socratic discussion. This allowed for students to dig a little deeper as to the information needed to understand the topic further rather than just positive or negatives.

The compass points stand for:

  • E = Excited. What excites you about this idea or proposition?
  • W = Worrisome. What do you find worrisome about this idea?
  • N = Need to Know. What else do you need to know or find out about it? What additional information would help you?
  • S = Stance, Steps, or Suggestions for Moving Forward. What is your current stance on the idea or proposition? What steps might you take to increase your understanding of the issue?


By placing a statement on the board, students are asked to come up with questions they have. I have used this a few times to help develop a guiding question for our inquiry projects or for our upcoming units.  The directions are fairly simple:

1. Write as many questions as you can.
2. Do not discuss, judge or answer any questions.
3. Write down every question exactly as stated.
4. Once all questions are written, change any statements to questions.

Next we look at ways we could improve the questions. Each student picks 2 of the question they think will help guide their study. We looked at open and closed questions together to start. Students co-created criteria for powerful/open questions and go through the process of improve the questions selected. The students really enjoy these because a lot of their initial questions are answered or have encouraged them to continue investigating on their own.



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Other thinking strategies I have used in teaching and in my practicums include and the students enjoyed because they allowed them to come back to their initial thoughts and questions through out their learning include KWL charts, See Think Wonder and Connect-Extend-Challenge.

Along with posting their thinking strategies. I keep an inquiry wheel up on the board for students to see the process. We visit it together to see where we are, what we have done and where we are going. It helps the students be involved in the planning as well as have input into the process. This was our first inquiry wheel until the school provided us with an laminated poster we can write on directly. I have also added to the board the 3 Es from the Ministerial order and the competencies so the the students are familiar with the vocabulary.

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Pride in our learning and reflecting back

I am so proud of the things we accomplish in our class. The kids work so hard to push themselves to do great things. They see success in some many ways. I sat down with a few of my students over the last few days to see what they take pride in. There were many answers but the one thing they had in common was that they were pushed and encouraged to keep going until they were they created something they wanted to share.

We do a lot of reflections in my class but my favourites are not blog posts but the videos we film and the photos we take to document the process. I think in the “birthday party” of sharing the product, we forget about the process. The process is where all the learning is and where the cool things we do happen.

Here are a few examples of our learning being shared a long the way:
Day 135 – from PSD 70’s 184 days of learning

Day 105 – from PSD 70’s 184 days of learning and our LC 5A class blog

Tile’s Blog  and  Day 78 – from PSD 70’s 124 days of learning

It is awesome to see the work we are doing being recognized and not just the product. It wasn’t easy getting the students to a point they could recognize the importance of the learning along the way. Usually that recognition comes towards the end and they look back at their reflections. This is part of the reason it is so important to have the students reflecting as they are learning and not just at the end. This year has been about getting the students comfortable with their blogs and posting about their learning.

I started out with quite structured posts. Some of my students still need a lot of support to guide their reflections through sub-topics or questions, while others can write fluidly once given the topic. A few just write what they want to write. It is great to see that we are all at different spots in our journey but the students enjoy having a chance to blog and look back at their learning. I have been trying to tie it into their reading groups and various activities that we do. Each week we write a “This Week At School” post to look back at what we have done. I’d like to get to the point students see blogging as the next step in any task they are working on as it lets them explain their learning in a different way and it helps in the assessment because I start to see why they do the things they do. I read all their posts, even their incomplete drafts.

I am excited to watch the students grow through their use of their blogs and hope that they see the same value I have in my blog. Looking back at where I was at the beginning of the year to now, it is something I find valuable to my development as a professional. My hope is that when they look back next year on what we did this year, they will feel that same pride.

From Class Blog: A world without Canada

Today we were challenged by the statement “A world without Canada”. It left the students with a number of questions. Here is our brainstorm:


We would love to hear about what questions come up for you or what might change for you in a world without out Canada. Please leave a comment or use the hashtag #WithoutCanada and on twitter.