Using Thinking Routines to Teach Students How to Learn Science

All teachers have experienced the dreaded silent ‘no response’ from students when you ask them ‘what do you think about this?’ If this is a challenge you know about firsthand, ask yourself – what am I expecting from my students when I ask them to think? Thinking routines are used to help students understand what’s expected of them and to learn how to think critically. They show students that there are many different ways to think and help them build the confidence to engage in the classroom.

In the book Making Thinking Visible, researchers Karin Morrison, Mark Church, and Ron Ritchhart note that learning happens at the point of challenge. By creating a safe place where students encounter different challenges and learn the skills to overcome them, we can help them learn how to think critically and collaboratively while studying science. 

Engaging Students to Think Like Scientists and Engineers with Thinking Routines 

When you think about scientists, their daily work is all about thinking critically. Engineers also know that they have to look at a problem in many different ways to find the best solution for their project. Understanding how to evaluate sources, incorporate peer feedback, and learn from mistakes are skills that scientists and engineers rely on that students can practice while learning science. By implementing thinking routines, we can teach our students how to ask good questions, like ‘what is happening here,’ ‘why is this happening,’ and ‘where have I experienced this phenomenon before?’ 

KnowAtom’s Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)- designed curriculum provides tools that educators can use to help students engage in thinking moves. Thinking routines also add formative assessment into the daily classroom routine, providing opportunities for teachers to engage with students in real-time to evaluate their thinking and support their hands-on learning. Thinking routines like the picture-thinking routine help demystify the process of thinking critically for students, as they practice connecting to the world around them with inquisitive eyes and minds, just like scientists and engineers do. Student-led inquiry helps improve engagement, as students work together to ask and answer complex questions about real-world science phenomena

Improving Student Engagement with Student-Led Inquiry

One of the challenges teachers focus on is engaging students in the classroom every day. When we allow students to test their ideas with hands-on investigations, sparked by their own questions about the world around them, we give them the opportunity to make personal connections to the topic at hand. In more traditional models of instruction, classroom environments are highly structured, with students asked to come up with one correct answer. This isn’t encouraging students to think critically or respond to different scenarios, giving them the opportunity to build true mastery of the subject. It also discourages intellectual risk taking.

As K-8 teachers, we should engage students to think creatively about science phenomena and make personal connections to it. Together, we can ask and answer tough questions as a class. Instead of teaching ‘the one thing’ that we might think is on the end-of-the-year test, we can teach our students how to develop deep understanding, think critically, and respond to concepts in real life. It's not about trying to learn every possible situation. It's about learning a skill set that's useful in every possible situation. Practicing these critical thinking skills in the context of phenomena gives students the tools they need to become life-long learners. But, if our students don’t know how to reflect and ask good questions, they can’t make the most of this opportunity. That’s where thinking routines can help – giving students the tools they need to understand how to think and improve on it.

Making Thinking Visible for Students and Teachers

One of the best ways to demystify thinking is to make the thinking process visible for students. As teachers, it’s also important to understand what our students are thinking, how they reached their conclusion, and if they can communicate clearly what resources and reasoning they used to get there. For students, explaining the act of thinking by introducing simple thinking routines into the classroom allows for more creative thinking within set parameters. When students follow a simple thinking routine and turn their own ideas into questions and their hard work into complex answers that they understand, they are learning the power of critical thinking and hard work to better understand the world around them. 

No matter what topic the class is poised to investigate, the primary objective of teaching every day should be to make students’ thinking visible to themselves, to their peers, and to their teachers, so that we can all learn from one another. When students have the tools they need to think critically and explain their thinking, we can ask tough questions as a class and work together to answer them. We can better identify mistakes and learn from them. And we can better perform the expectations of the standards in unique ways. 

Making Thinking Visible with Eight Thinking Moves

In the book Making Thinking Visible, Ron Richart and researchers at Harvard’s Project Zero outline eight thinking moves that help students think deeper:

  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 

What do we really mean when we ask students to think? We’re asking them to make connections. We’re asking them to go below the surface of what they’re hearing, seeing, and reading. We’re asking them to uncover the complexity, to wonder, to ask great questions, and to think critically about what they are thinking themselves. 

When students engage in thinking moves we’re not asking them to find one answer we as teachers want. When students think that their teacher is looking for one right answer and they can’t be sure that they know it, they’re going to stay quiet. When students aren’t sure exactly what our expectations are for them, they’re going to stay quiet. That’s where thinking routines can help build a culture of thinking in the classroom where students understand the expectations, have the time and space to think deeper, and can track their own thinking step by step from inquiry to understanding. 

A thinking routine is a framework to help students understand how thinking moves are involved in developing understanding. It gives the class a shared language and set of expectations to use to engage in the study of science together. It’s a powerful way for students to set expectations for themselves and for one another. When working in groups, it gives students the responsibility and language they need to say, “I don’t understand why you want to [put A right next to C]. Help me understand how you came to that decision.” They’re learning what to expect of themselves and each other. 

How Thinking Moves Come Together to Form Routines

Thinking becomes a team sport when a class is collaborating intellectually, working together to solve a complex problem they’ve identified and have the agency to shape. Thinking routines provide the framework students need to build confidence in their ability to think, to question, to reason, and to share their thoughts. Thinking routines help focus the energy of the class on collaborating to understand rather than question-answer-response. 

Thinking routines provide a framework for students to apply thinking moves. They can be used to create an individual opportunity for students to think deeper and make personal connections. That can quickly turn into a group opportunity to share our thinking. As students share, they’re learning from other perspectives and changing their thinking, just like scientists and engineers do. When thinking moves come together to form routines, teachers can step back and let our students take the lead in classroom discussions and hands-on investigations. We can engage with students one-on-one and in small groups to understand their thinking in real time and model critical thinking and active listening as a learner ourselves.

Using the Picture-Thinking Routine with Non-Fiction Reading

The picture-thinking routine can be implemented successfully with students of different ages. Use the picture-thinking routine with students during non-fiction reading that includes images on the page. During the picture-thinking routine, we want students to focus on the images included in the text before we ever read it. This routine is a visual reading strategy that can help improve student engagement, especially for students reading below grade level and for English learners. 

To start the picture-thinking routine, ask your students to look at the images and to identify one object, one action, and one property that they notice. Then, come up with one word or phrase that they think they’re going to learn about on the page where the image is. There is no ‘right answer.’ Their peers may come up with different things, and that’s okay. 

Next we share these observations and inferences, then you read the page aloud and ask the students to share what the text was really about. Then, ask them to consider how their thinking has changed and share that out. Our goal with the picture-thinking routine is to get students to take risks and be incentivized to think deeper as they consider what they noticed at first and what they first thought the reading was going to be about. When students listen as their peers share, they can start to identify the different ways of thinking, what informs our thinking, and how we make connections in different ways. We also learn to change our thinking and form a new understanding. 

Taking Risks and Uncovering New Perspectives with the Picture-Thinking Routine

The picture-thinking routine is a stress-free way to introduce new phenomena. Students are more relaxed when they’re asked to focus on the pictures and afterwards, they’re more engaged in the reading. Now  they want to know if what they noticed is what they are about to read about. Students have taken a risk. They are more invested. With a small release of responsibility, we’re empowering them to invest in their own learning process  and sparking their curiosity. The students have a real desire now to listen and understand the reading, to unpack the real meaning of the reading, and to connect it to what they know, what they thought, and what they now understand. 

This thinking routine is a powerful way to get students to consider how their thinking has changed without the stigma of believing they were right or wrong. We’re getting students to be more aware of different perspectives and to consider how much they can learn from others. We’re collaborating on building new knowledge together, rather than racing against one another for the one right answer. Introducing the picture-thinking routine can really change the dynamics of a class by promoting critical thinking, curiosity, and active listening. 

Wondering and Asking Why with the Picture-Thinking Routine 

The picture-thinking routine makes thinking moves into a routine as students work together to uncover complexity, make connections, wonder, and ask why. The framework of the picture-thinking routine creates student-led tasks that focus on the thinking. It incentivizes students to think deeper and listen for understanding, while offering a risk-free way for all students to engage in the classroom. 

The picture-thinking routine improves engagement in non-fiction reading, because students are listening to figure out if the connections they made and what meaning they have inferred is actually what the passage is about. They’re actively making new connections and thinking about their own thinking. It’s a low-risk activity for students because their original thinking isn’t right or wrong. Their inference may be unrelated to the particular context of the passage, but it’s still a connection to the subject matter.

The Concept Mapping Thinking Routine

Concept mapping is another really powerful tool that allows students working at different levels to engage with the subject matter. It’s a visual brainstorming technique that uses the big ideas from each unit to identify key ideas and takeaways. This simple thinking routine of connecting big ideas and giving a word or phrase for how they are connected, can be used at all grade levels and can really help engage visual learners, students reading below grade level, and English learners. 

Concept mapping is a thinking routine that can be used as a pre-assessment without expectations of how students are going to connect the words and concepts at first. Just like with the picture-thinking routine, we are giving students the time and space to think deeper and make connections between new phenomena and their own knowledge. As they make connections between the vocabulary words, we can also ask them to jot down a note or two to justify that connection. With this routine, we’re setting the expectation that connections are backed up with reasoning and evidence. We’re also visualizing how we build on our knowledge and experience to create new understanding. 

Making Connections and Taking Risks with Concept Mapping

When implementing concept mapping, we can increase engagement by all students by reducing the risk of that engagement. With concept mapping, we’re not looking for a total number of connections or for specific responses. In fact, some students may make no connections the first time around. But we will save the concept map in our binder and bring it out throughout the unit, as students begin to make new connections. It’s a great tool for assessing students as they work through the unit and begin to build new knowledge – what connections are they making and what should we focus more on? 

It's a low-pressure formative assessment that gets everyone involved in thinking deeper and making connections to their current knowledge. “Oh wait, I learned something about this last year!” It gets students thinking about what sounds familiar and how they can use that knowledge to build new connections. If they have personal experience, they may make another connection. The concept map can be updated throughout the unit – as a pre-assessment and then before the reading, during the reading, after the reading, etc. During the reading, it can be used as a tool for students who struggle with taking notes. It keeps students engaged in reading as they look for connections.

Improving Student Engagement with Concept Mapping

Students can work on their concept maps alone or in small groups. We can use their maps to inform our class discussions. As a tool for engaging all students in group discussions, it’s a great way to get them to think about their thinking and to talk about the most important concepts and the connections they have made. They can also ask questions about their concept map – has anyone else made this connection? Or, I couldn’t figure out how to connect that, did you? It provides a wealth of opportunities for really good discourse. 

For teachers, it helps visualize the students’ thinking so we can ask, tell me about that. Even if it’s not a great connection at first, this provides an opportunity for students to share personal experiences or connections that we can build on together as a class. It’s a stress-free formative assessment where we can identify how students are making connections and what we need to focus on next.  

Concept mapping is a thinking routine that provides an opportunity for students to use their thinking moves to make new connections, to reinforce their current knowledge, and to consider different possibilities. They have to look at a bunch of possibilities and decide what is really connected. This can be done individually, as a group, by sharing out in a larger group, through gallery walks, and more. There are many different ways to implement concept mapping in a lesson routine to really showcase how students’ thinking is growing and changing. 

Building a Culture of Learning in the Classroom

Thinking routines like the picture-thinking routine and concept mapping help build a culture of learning by thinking where everyone feels comfortable taking part. We’re giving students low-risk opportunities to engage in the subject matter and to evolve their thinking over time. Three days from now they may go back and change that connection. And that's something we're encouraging as part of this authentic learning experience.

With thinking routines like these, we’re building a safe space for intellectual risk taking. It’s not about finding the answer we think the teacher is looking for at that moment. Instead, it's about participating in a process of growth, just like scientists and engineers do. Sometimes that process gets lost in the everyday routine, and that can make learning scary for students and for teachers. Instead, by giving up control over the learning process to our students, we can make learning fun, engaging, and more accessible for everyone. 

Building a culture of Thinking means promoting diverse thinking, hunches, questions, wonders, confusions, realizations, and connections. It means celebrating vibrant discourse, changing our thinking based on other perspectives, and learning together from our mistakes. 

Thinking Routines and the KnowAtom Lesson Routine

When you think about a lesson unfolding, thinking routines make up a series of habits and behaviors that we have shared with students to make them comfortable engaging in complex thinking. As we engage in reading, Socratic dialogue, planning an investigation, and more – students have these tools to focus their thinking and track their connections. These routines aren’t special to the classroom. In fact, they are helpful outside of it, as we read the newspaper, have a conversation with friends, or take a standardized test. 

As teachers, we can think of thinking routines as a way to teach the process of thinking and learning, while giving up some control to our students. There are so many steps in the process of developing understanding, using a routine helps teachers realize that we can teach students to learn better. We don’t have to accomplish everything all at once. Students can learn and process at their own pace and they can go back and make new connections throughout the unit. It makes the reading more accessible, the hands-on learning more relevant, and the classroom discourses more vibrant.

Learning and Understanding Each Step of the Way

Thinking routines also help take the pressure off students and teachers that they have to learn every detail the first time around. It’s okay if we don’t understand everything the first time. We are all entering the discussion at different levels and together, we’re going to work to learn more about the new phenomenon, make new connections, and use our thinking routines to build on that knowledge every step of the way. 

The whole purpose of thinking routines is to create a space for thinking and then to make the product of thinking visible to the learner, to the teacher, and to their peers so that everyone can see it, attempt to understand it, work with it, build on it, and connect it. It allows us as educators to take a step back and give students more time to be creative, think deeper, and work collaboratively to tackle big ideas.

NGSS Standards, Standardized Testing, and Thinking Routines

Thinking routines are vital to mastering the next generation science standards (NGSS), including the foundation of disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and cross-cutting concepts. The standard itself is that students are expected to be able to perform their understanding in a novel context. Thinking routines help teach students how to think, how to get to understanding, how to make connections, and how to use those standards connections.

It's impossible to think that we can cover everything students might be presented with on a standardized test. Instead, we can create thinkers and life-long learners. We can teach them it’s okay to play with things, to consider different perspectives, and to change our thinking. The standards require a new partnership between students and teachers. We’re all doing this together – having discussions, learning, and making connections. But to accomplish this, we have to create a safe learning environment where students are asked to take risks and are rewarded for doing so.