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Inspire Skillful Listening with The Explanation Game Thinking Routine

Posted by Tatum Moser on Oct 9, 2022

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“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.” - John Berger

What is the Explanation Game?

The Explanation Game thinking routine, developed by Ron Richtart and researchers at Project Zero, supports students in increasing their understanding of a concept by crafting multiple explanations based on evidence. The routine is designed to push students’ thinking as they explore complex topics and attempt to understand the whole by examining various parts and features.

Flexible in its application across subjects, you can use The Explanation Game to deconstruct almost anything, including objects, complex processes, systems, or documents. Engaging in this thinking routine will help students learn to work together toward understanding why something is the way it is. In addition to observing, crafting explanations based on evidence, and asking questions, students will also pay close attention to effective listening and how it can provide a path to deeper learning.


Choosing Content for the Explanation Game

The content chosen for The Explanation Game should be somewhat complex, with various parts and features. Complexity naturally prompts us to take a second look and inspires close observation. For this routine, it is ok to use content that students may have seen before. What’s essential is to engage in skillful thinking to understand why something works the way it does. Integrating this routine when exploring scientific phenomena provides an excellent link to the scientific process. Students can use the explanations they generate during this routine to identify theories and hypotheses to test.

Steps for The Explanation Game thinking routine

It’s important to note that the steps of this game do not have to be done in a lock-step sequence. Authentically engaging students with phenomena gives teachers the perfect opportunity to engage students in The Explanation Game. The purpose of this game is to press toward early answers as a group of scientists and engineers. As a thought partner in the process, teachers should press students for specific language, evidence of their observations, explanations, and reasoning, as well as possible alternative interpretations. The more students engage in this routine, the more they will take on the role of thought partner and thinking coach among their peers.

Take note of the different steps below, but we caution you against the following elements of The Explanation Game as steps everyone should do simultaneously. Instead, view these steps as threads of a conversation. Another way to view these steps is as a way students can learn to chase after and investigate individual ideas in conversation. Most importantly, the process of thinking and figuring out with The Explanation Game should be allowed to unfold organically as a game.

Name It

Begin the routine by giving students a few minutes to observe the chosen content. Encourage students to use sticky notes to record and name the things they notice. Students can also collaborate and share with a partner, paying particular attention to things their partner noticed that they might have missed. Gather the group and create a space where students can share what they named.

Explain It

In the next part of the routine, students follow up on what they have named with an explanation for what they think it is or why they think it’s there. Share with students that being able to generate multiple thoughtful explanations lies in making connections that go below the surface of what we might think at first. It can be challenging to think outside of our own initial assumptions and interpretations. When we work in groups and are exposed to the thinking of others, the ideas of others can spark our own thinking and can make creating multiple explanations much easier because we can build off each others’ thinking.

Give Reasons

Explanations require reasoning. This next part of the routine is an opportunity for students to press each other for evidence. A valuable tool for this step is the sticky notes students used when they first observed the content. This is also where teachers can model effective listening. Again, frames like “What makes you say that?” are a great place to start, although your best questions will come from tuning into students thinking as they share.

Generate Alternatives

This last step in the routine is where students push for alternative explanations. It’s essential for teachers to model having a different lens on the same content. Looking again, allowing ourselves to be influenced by the thinking of others, and challenging ourselves to think beyond initial assumptions, protects against arriving at a false conclusion. If students need extra support in generating alternatives, help them go below the surface and tune into different relationships between concepts and encourage them to think about alternative explanations for these relationships. If you find that many students offer up the same or similar explanations, push their thinking further by asking a question like, “what if this had nothing to do with __________.”


Ensure a Student-Centered Experience and Becoming an Expert Listener During Thinking Routines

Teachers who model effective listening behavior for students develop students who become effective listeners. Showing genuine interest in what students say during a thinking routine like The Explanation Game helps build a community centered on exploring ideas and a culture of skillful thinking. Students also respond more enthusiastically when they are given agency to develop their own ideas. When teachers value student thinking by listening, students are further motivated by the sense that someone is invested in them and their ideas. When we try to complete thinking routines without paying attention to our role as listeners, we send a clear message to students that we are more interested in hearing what we think is the right answer than exploring the concept together. While you can use powerful prompts like “What makes you say that?” the best questions won’t come from a scripted list. They come from careful listening and responding to individual students' thinking.

The power of effective listening in groups is that it allows us to build on one another’s ideas. Effective listening also requires us to be open-minded and protect against arriving at false conclusions. The Explanation Game can be a great tool because it asks all participants to think, listen, and provide more than one explanation. Listening closely and allowing ourselves to be inspired by the thinking of others is a great way to take one’s thinking beyond obvious first assumptions.

Would you like to explore the Explanation Game Thinking Routine? Download a free anchor chart and graphic organizer for your students and support them in developing a habit of moving beyond first assumptions and pressing for evidence as a way of learning. 

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


Explanation Game Thinking Moves


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


Topics: Thinking Routines

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