Building Cognitive Skills: Thinking Moves for a Classroom or Remote Learning Environment


How would you teach differently if you couldn’t give your students a test until a year later? 

Ron Ritchhart posed this question in his book Making Thinking Visible. It’s also one of the favorite quotes of Judy Higgins, a veteran fifth-grade science teacher in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

When she first began teaching, she often wondered why her students would come in on Tuesday and not remember what they learned on Monday. This challenge led her to make changes to create a culture of thinking in her classroom. This culture shift helped her students make meaningful connections, prompting better learning—and retention. “I help my students become thinkers, become curious, and learn how to solve problems; I have seen them be able to do end-of-the-year tests with great confidence because they know how to think,” Higgins says.

How did she do it?

She shifted the thinking work back to the students. Higgins went from doing most of the cognitive work herself to using Thinking Moves to inspire students to take on that task. Thinking Moves are teacher-tested strategies designed specifically to propel students toward their own natural curiosity and cognitive abilities—an essential for meeting  Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

What’s especially convenient is that so many of her techniques are easily adaptable to a remote or blended learning environment. “This is something we are really going to need this year because we don't know what things are going to look like,” Higgins says.  

“It’s nothing really difficult; it’s more about what you model and letting them struggle,” she adds. It takes a while to create a thinking culture, but you can get started today.

Watch this 45-minute webinar to find out how Judy engages her students to do critical thinking.

Highlight #1: Observing Closely and Describing What’s There

Higgins found this method particularly useful in a remote learning environment. “My goal was to get a pre-assessment of certain properties,” Higgins says. She asked students to describe the properties of an object in their homes to a family member to see if he or she could guess what it was. 

“I deliberately did not tell them what properties meant,” Higgins says. When she looked at the various ways that students approached this, she noticed students chose things that were important to them. For instance, one student described the properties of his phone, citing the texture, state of matter, and shape.

Not only was it a great pre-assessment but it was also very engaging. “I don’t know how the students found the definition of properties, but they did it on their own,” Higgins says. The take-away? When students can connect a concept or idea to their life or environment, the more thoroughly it becomes encoded and remembered.

Highlight #2: Building Explanations and Interpretations

This Thinking Move is all about building expectations around thinking—it’s also an excellent tool for teachers to learn to ask questions in the right way. When students aren’t used to being questioned, they get defensive and start to justify their choices rather than explaining them. “My students expect me to question them in all stages of scientific investigation,” Higgins says. 

For example, Higgins may ask a question such as “Why did you use dirt as your first layer of your filtration system?” It sends the message that she is curious about their thinking, not looking to judge it. “Once they realize that if you are going to make a choice, the teacher will ask you why you made that choice, that promotes the thinking process,” Higgins says. At that point, students start to talk about why they chose dirt as opposed to sand or cotton balls. 

It’s also a great way to formally assess when a student is going off track to give them a little nudge by asking a probing question. 

“What I learned through the years is how to ask better questions,” Higgins says. In other words, questions that can’t just be copied from the textbook. She will often visit a group and read their examples aloud to the whole class to highlight the deep thinking. “The student has then taught the peers something about expectations,” she says.

Highlight #3: Reasoning With Evidence

Scientific inquiry, after all, relies on solid evidence. This Thinking Move could be applied in many ways. For example, in one lesson, Higgins asked her students to analyze a picture of an engineering design solution that used magnets that clearly weren't working correctly in the illustration. “I could hear that they were arguing about what was happening and why,” she says. One of the girls came up to her and asked to use some magnets to check their thinking. It was a great reminder to always have materials needed to test hypotheses in reach of the students.  

Allowing them time to reason it out and argue with each other before they share their ideas with the class takes time, but it’s time well spent. 

Highlight #4: Making Connections

It’s so exciting to see students make connections. However, sometimes teachers can get so consumed by giving students all the information or “stuff” they need to know that there isn’t enough time left in class for students to engage with their own and others’ ideas to make connections. Higgins can relate.

Why did she run out of time? “I was talking too much.” To combat this, Higgins shifted her instruction so the majority of time was focused on students actively working with their own ideas and using what they learned to make connections.

To spark interest in connections, she uses KnowAtom’s picture-thinking graphic organizer, which asks students to make predictions about what is happening in an image in order to infer meaning. “I would hear students say, ‘I remember this picture of the food web from third grade’—that’s them doing the thinking work,” Higgins says. And because they are thinking in a group, they become a catalyst for their peers to think too. At this point, their brains are already comfortable, so students confidently make connections quickly once they begin reading. 

Another tool she uses for making connections is the Frayer Model Four Square, a graphic organizer used for building student vocabulary with four quadrants in which students can define a concept in a different way. Higgins modifies the standard tool. For instance, she asked students to write words that were related to “translucent” in one of the squares. “It’s interesting to me when I see a word that I don’t understand,” Higgins says.  Sometimes students make an unusual but very personal connection that shows they absolutely do understand it. Rather than “step on” that thinking by saying that it doesn’t have anything to do with the term translucent, Higgins simply makes inquiries.  “My job is to ask questions and to help them make their thinking visible to me,” she says.

Explore More Strategies and Tools and How to Make Them Work for You

Watch this video to delve into these examples and learn about four more Thinking Moves that can help you ignite curious and confident thinkers. In the webinar, Judy specifically explores other thinking moves that teach students:

  • how to consider different viewpoints,
  • how to form conclusions,
  • how to ask their own questions, 
  • and how to uncover complex concepts.

With KnowAtom’s resources, you can create a classroom culture where questioning is encouraged and thinking is explored. “The object of teaching a child is to enable him or her to get along without a teacher … and I can guarantee when you start creating a culture where they're pushing each other, you learn so much,” Higgins says.

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“Growing up, I wanted to be an inventor, solving problems that would help people have better lives. Every day at KnowAtom is an opportunity to invent solutions that give thousands of students and teachers a better experience doing science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM). Providing educators with professional satisfaction and students with the opportunity to understand the world we live in is my way of helping people have better lives.”