What Exactly is Visible Thinking?


I have spent the past two weeks trying to clarify what we mean when we say “Visible Thinking.” So far what I have found is that the tangible tools to making thinking visible come from Harvard’s Project Zero and are referred to as Thinking Routines. So in the spirit of trying out what I am asking my students to do I thought I would try their 3-2-1- Bridge thinking routine which is used to activate prior knowledge and to make connections. This routine asks students to record their initial thoughts, questions, ideas, and understandings about a topic first. After engaging with the topic, they repeat the same thinking routine and then make a connection between their understandings.

My topic is Visible Thinking and here is my 3-2-1 bridge:


3 Thoughts or Ideas: this is a buzz word in education today; teaching students to make their thinking visible might help me to become a better teacher; making my own thinking visible as I teach would help my students.

2 Questions: how do you make thinking visible? how do you explain this concept to students?

1 Analogy: Making thinking visible is like water, it is needed to hydrate and activate our brains

The next step of this thinking routine is to engage in learning about the topic through reading an article, watching a video, engaging in an activity, etc. I chose to read the following in an effort to gain a clearer definition of Visible Thinking:

  • In “Making Thinking Visible” by Ron Ritchhart and David Perkins they outline the following six key principles of Visible Thinking:
    • “Learning is a consequence of thinking
    • Good thinking is not only a matter of skills, but also a matter of dispositions
    • The development of thinking is a social endeavor
    • Fostering thinking requires making thinking visible
    • Classroom culture sets the tone for learning and shapes what is learned
    • Schools must be cultures of thinking for teachers.”
  •  In  “Visible Thinking” by Shari Tishman and Patricia Palmer Visible Thinking is defined as “any kind of observable representation that documents and supports the development of an individual’s or group’s ongoing thoughts, questions, reasons, and reflections. Mind maps, charts and lists, diagrams, worksheets all count as visible thinking if – and this is an important if– they reveal learners’ unfolding ideas as they think through an issue, problem or topic.” Tishman and Palmer go on to state why this is so powerful in the classroom: ” Visible thinking expresses a powerful view of knowledge, demonstrates the value of intellectual collaboration, and changes the classroom culture.”
  • In Visible Learning for Teachers, John Hattie defines Visible Thinking in this way: “The ‘visible’ aspect refers to making student learning visible to teachers, ensuring clear identification of the attributes that make a visible difference to student learning . . . it also refers to making teaching visible to the student, such that they learn to become their own learners . . . The ‘learning aspect’ refers to how we go about knowing and understanding, and then doing something about student learning.”
  • In Harvard’s “Visible Thinking Resource Book” the authors state, Visible Thinking is a broad and flexible framework for enriching classroom learning in the content areas and fostering students’ intellectual development at the same time . . . some of its key goals are: deeper understanding of content, greater motivation for learning, development of learners’ thinking and learning abilities, development of learners attitudes toward thinking and learning and their alertness to opportutnities for thinking and learning, and a shift in classroom culture toward a community of enthusiastically engaged thinkers and learners.”

After reading these definitions and essential characteristics of Visible Thinking my 3-2-1 bridge now looks like this:


3 Thoughts or Ideas: Thinking routines are tools I can use in the classroom to make student thinking visible; making student thinking visible can help me to immediately see student strengths, interests, and misconceptions; making student thinking visible directly and positively impacts the culture in my classroom.

2 Questions: Who is already doing this at my school? Is there a twitter group for Visible Thinking that I could follow for more ideas?

1 Analogy: Making thinking visible is like breathing air, once it becomes a part of your teaching and learning you almost foroget it’s there


and my final step, the bridge, looks like this: I used to think that Visible Thinking was difficult to wrap my mind around as a teacher and was going to require lots of new “activities” but now I think that there are many practical approaches and methods to make student thinking more visible which could easily become a part of the fabric of the teaching and learning in my classrooom

So . . . you might be wondering what’s floating to the surface after becoming a visible thinker myself . . . I am wondering how am I going to integrate technology into this new fabric of teaching and learning? Stay tuned . . .

5 Replies to “What Exactly is Visible Thinking?”

  1. Dear Rebecca,

    I am currently in the middle of Course 1 and I stumbled across this blog posting when you were right up at the top last week. Since then I have re-read it about 20 times, and shared it with most of my colleagues. What a clever idea you had, and what a clever way to use a blog!
    I am the ICT facilitator at my school and we have some brave teachers blogging with their students. They are always trying to find meaningful and authentic reasons for young children to have an online presence. I cannot think of anything more meaningful than having them engage in their thinking routines on their blogs. Thank you, really …this idea totally does float.


  2. Great post! I’m sure many of us have similar questions. The strategy for starting to answer it was very pertinent… a thinking routine. A Twitter group you might want to follow is ‪#‎8culchat‬

  3. Visualization often calls for a good analogy.

    And good analogies often draw on images from nature.

    In the modern age, images from nature might be less familiar than images from our technological culture.

    Alas, our modern technology is populated by complex systems which are challenging to apprehend, even by engineers who help design them.

  4. I love this! I was lucky to work at ISBangkok that had really implemented visible thinking well (at least when I was there) and have been happy to take it with me wherever I go. I can totally relate to your change in perception throughout this process, and feel like I’ve been through that a bit myself – particularly when I was just starting at ISB and it was all new to me. I think you will find tons of ways to effectively use technology within the visible thinking framework as you go too, which will be fun!

  5. Hi …

    I think it’s always a great idea to think through a method, strategy or whatever it is in order to understand better. Once I did the same with the Inquiry Cycle of Kath Murdoch and it was a way for me to reflect my own learning. Same with visible thinking routines. I don’t know whether there is a group on Twitter but a first step would be to follow Ron Ritchhart @RonRitchhart (which you probably already follow). What about hashtag #cultureofthinking? Anyways, I’m looking forward to read about how you will make technology part of visible thinking routines.


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