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Bring “Visible Thinking” to Evolution Education


Lately, I’ve been reading the book Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding and Independence for All Learners, by Ron Ritchart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison.

It’s a tour de force, a practical handbook for fostering critical thinking in the classroom. This work reminds me strongly of the Center for Science & Culture’s emphasis on analysis, evaluation, and examining the evidence in public school evolution education.

Project Zero

Making Thinking Visible is connected to Project Zero, a research center in Harvard’s School of Education. The phrase “visible thinking” refers to helping students to see and understand their own thinking processes as they explore subjects. The authors identify several kinds of thinking (pp. 11, 13, 14):

  1. Observing closely and describing what’s there
  2. Building explanations and interpretations
  3. Reasoning with evidence
  4. Making connections
  5. Considering different viewpoints and perspectives
  6. Capturing the heart and forming conclusions
  7. Wondering and asking questions
  8. Uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things
  9. Identifying patterns and making generalizations
  10. Generating possibilities and alternatives
  11. Evaluating evidence, arguments, and actions
  12. Formulating plans and monitoring actions
  13. Identifying claims, assumptions, and bias
  14. Clarifying priorities, conditions, and what is known.

These kinds of thinking are much needed in our schools — and indeed our world — today!

Deeper Understanding

One point that particularly caught my attention was the emphasis on doing in the classroom what professionals do in a given discipline. Discovery Institute emphasizes that evolution should be taught using scientific inquiry, not just by regurgitating facts. That leads to deeper understanding. Here’s what the MTV authors say:

Here’s a quick exercise to help you identify the possible discrepancy between students’ classroom activity and teaching that is likely to lead to understanding. Begin by making a list of all the actions and activities with which your students are engaged in the subject you teach (if you are an elementary school teacher, pick a single subject to focus on, such as math, reading, or writing). You might want to brainstorm this list with a couple of colleagues or teammates. Now, working from this list, create three new lists:

  1. The actions students in your class spend most of their time doing. What actions account for 75 percent of what students do in your class on a regular basis?
  2. The actions most authentic to the discipline, that is, those things that real scientists, writers, artists, and so on actually do as they go about their work.
  3. The actions you remember doing yourself from a time when you were actively engaged in developing some new understanding of something within the discipline or subject area.

To the extent that your first list — what students spend the bulk of their time doing — matches the other two lists, your class activity is aligned with understanding. If the three lists seem to be disconnected from one another, students may be more focused on work and activity than understanding. They may be doing more learning about the subject than learning to do the subject. To develop understanding of a subject area, one has to engage in authentic intellectual activity. That means solving problems, making decisions and developing new understanding using the methods and tools of the discipline.

Wow! This is one reason I hate the idea of simplifying topics ad nauseum for children. Their brains are more plastic than ours are by far; they are little sponges. Often, what is needed is not simplification, but making the topic relevant to life by drawing connections to what the child enjoys (and, of course, incorporating a bit of movement or fun!).

“Constructive Questions”

Ritchart, Church, and Morrison also delve into the role of questioning in education:

[W]hen teachers focus on making thinking valued and visible in their classrooms, their questioning shifts away from asking review or knowledge-based questions to asking more constructive questions.…Constructive questions can be thought of as those that help to advance understanding. These are questions that ask students to connect ideas, to make interpretations, to focus on big ideas and central concepts, to extend ideas, and so on. In studying teachers’ questions in secondary mathematics classrooms, Jo Boaler and Karin Brodie (Boaler & Brodie, 2004) note that such questions not only serve to activate students’ thinking but also to “guide students through the mathematical terrain of lessons” (p. 781). Constructive questions act, not as nice add-ons to make sure some so-called higher-order thinking is happening, but as the guideposts and goals for the lesson itself. Teachers’ constructive questions navigate the important ideas and conceptual anchors in such a way as to ensure that they are not missed by students. Whereas teachers asking review-type questions tend to do so because they want to assess what students know and remember, teachers who ask constructive questions do so because they want to guide, direct, and push forward students’ understanding of important ideas.

The authors present many different ways to engage students with questions to make their thinking visible. Among my favorites is a “chalk talk” where a teacher writes prompts on large sheets of butcher paper, placed around the room. The teacher asks the following questions:

  • What ideas come to mind when you consider this idea, question, or problem?
  • What connections can you make to others’ responses?
  • What questions arise as you think about the ideas and consider the responses and comments of others?

Students circulate and write responses on the butcher paper.

The philosophy of this book reminds me a lot of a quote in a previous Evolution News article I wrote:

Jay Labov, a senior education advisor from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, describes active engagement as “learning content not as something you memorize and regurgitate, but as raw material for making connections, drawing inferences, creating new information — learning how to learn.”

Making students’ thinking visible through active engagement is exactly what we hope for in biology classrooms nationwide: “[Discovery Institute] believes that evolution should be fully and completely presented to students, and they should learn more about evolutionary theory, including its unresolved issues. In other words, evolution should be taught as a scientific theory that is open to critical scrutiny, not as a sacred dogma that can’t be questioned.”

Amen. Let’s focus on creating learners.

Photo credit: Yustinus Tjiuwanda via Unsplash.