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Critical Thinking and the Connect, Extend, Challenge Thinking Routine

Posted by Samantha O'neil on Nov 6, 2022

Connect, Extend, Challenge Thinking Routine

Science teachers use thinking routines to encourage students to think critically about big ideas. When students learn how to extend their reasoning using thinking moves, they are challenged to go below the surface and build a deeper understanding of scientific ideas and STEM principles. When classroom requirements go beyond memorizing facts and vocabulary, our students are free to wonder and to ask and answer their own questions. The Connect, Extend, Challenge thinking routine provides a sequence of steps that support critical thinking, student-centered learning, and personal discovery in the classroom.

What is the Connect, Extend, Challenge Thinking Routine?

The Connect, Extend, Challenge thinking routine helps learners connect new phenomenon and their current knowledge. When students link classroom learning to their personal experiences, they begin to think critically about new ideas and build bridges across their knowledge gaps. These students are also taking ownership of their own learning process, which increases engagement levels.

This student-centered thinking routine encourages students to ask questions and use what they already know about the world around them in the classroom. By extending their current knowledge to new concepts, students can answer complex questions themselves. When they collaborate on activities that put theory into action, these students practice important skills they will use throughout their education and career.

Student-Centered Learning and the Connect, Extend, Challenge Thinking Routine

Using thinking routines encourages student-centered thinking. The Connect, Extend, Challenge thinking routine puts students in the driver’s seat. Instead of filling in blanks or memorizing vocabulary, it encourages students to ask questions and extend their classroom learning into the real world.

When students collaborate with peers during hands-on activities and classroom discussions, they learn that it’s okay to change your mind when you learn new information about a topic. When they tackle complex challenges and work together, students become scientists and engineers every day.

Teachers also use this thinking routine to get students to reflect on what science topics mean to them. You can challenge students to think deeper about a topic using prompts like:

    • What does this information make you think more about?

    • What new questions do you have?

    • Which of your ideas are being challenged by this information?

Introducing the Connect, Extend, Challenge Thinking Routine in the Classroom

Introduce the Connect, Extend, Challenge thinking routine by modeling it together as a class, using a hand-out like this. When students are introduced to a new phenomenon, they can use this tool to record their questions, current knowledge, and personal experiences.

You can use the Connect, Extend, Challenge thinking routine individually, in small groups, or with the whole class. To combine two of these, have students write their answers individually on post-it notes, then add them to a wall chart. Together as a class, discuss the responses, ask students to sort and group ones that come up more than once.

Step One: Connect

Begin the thinking routine with images, a reading or video clip that introduces new phenomena or information on a topic the students may already know something about. The new information should have the potential to challenge the students’ thinking about the topic. Ask the class to respond to the following prompt:

    • What personal experience or understanding do you have that connects to this topic?

Step 2: Extend

The Connect, Extend, Challenge thinking routine gets students to look below the surface and consider how the new information makes them think differently about the topic. Ask students to consider:

    • How does the new information change or extend your thinking about what you already knew?

Step 3: Challenge

Finally, the Connect, Extend, Challenge thinking routine is designed to get students asking their own questions, just like scientists and engineers. By gathering new information, we’re challenging our core beliefs and improving our understanding of key topics. Ask students to begin that journey with the prompt:

    • What new questions, wonders, or tensions are challenging your ideas now?

To help students make the connection between learning new information and changing their perceptions on big ideas and real-world phenomena, have them go back to the text or video with these prompts in mind. Ask students to share their responses in small groups, post them to the wall individually, or share with the class.

Connect, Extend, Challenge in Action with KnowAtom

The Connect, Extend, Challenge thinking routine is a great way to get students to think critically about how science topics relate to their daily lives. When a lesson brings up new ideas that make us question our current knowledge, this thinking routine helps students build a bridge between what they know, what they are learning, and how their views can change as a result. The student-centered thinking routine gives learners the tools they need to tackle big ideas in the future, including changing their views as new information is uncovered.

Connect, Extend, Challenge Example: Recycling

Here’s an example of the thinking routine in action. We may think of recycling as something good, an action that can have positive consequences on the planet and our own community. But what if we learn that recycling can cause results that we don’t expect and may consider harmful? This PBS news story on recycling electronics is a good way to start that conversation.

Step One: Connect

The U.S. leads the world in producing e-waste. When we drop off old computers, mobile phones, and other devices to recycle, do we know what happens next? Once the students have watched the PBS video or read the article, use the Connect, Extend, Challenge thinking routine to get them to think critically about recycling, asking:

    • Have you recycled e-waste?

    • What did you think was happening to the items?


Step Two: Extend

We can learn more about science-related topics from sources other than our science textbooks. The news is one resource for understanding how science affects the world around us.

Student prompts:

    • What information did you learn from this news story?

    • How did it extend your thinking about e-waste and recycling?

Step Three: Challenge

As we learn more about real-world phenomena, it’s common for that knowledge to generate even more questions! That’s what scientists and engineers do every day – ask questions, answer questions, ask more questions!

Student prompts:

    • What new questions do you have about recycling?

    • What will you do now with your old electronics?

    • Is there something we could do with this information to make an impact in our community?

What to Expect When Implementing Connect, Extend, Challenge

The Connect, Extend, Challenge thinking routine provides students with a clear record of the new ideas they are learning and how it changed their thinking. Taking time to compare and contrast the information they knew, they learned, and they are now re-considering is key. These students are developing an understanding of how new ideas, opinions, and information changes our thinking over time.

Ready to learn even more about thinking routines? Visit our page dedicated to the topic.


Connect Extend Challenge Anchor Chart


Ritchhart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K. (2011). Making thinking visible. Jossey Bass Wiley.


Topics: Thinking Routines

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