What Thinking Moves and Routines Can Help Students to be Successful Learners?

Image of Child Engaging in Thinking Moves

 “The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without a teacher.”        -Elbert Hubbard

Why do students need to develop thinking moves?

Enabling a child to become an independent and motivated learner is one of our most important responsibilities. 

While it won’t happen overnight, incorporating experiences where students explore different thinking moves to increase their understanding of a concept, claim, or situation, can pave the way to deeper learning and transform your science classroom. Skillful thinking increases student competency to perform deeper cognitive work, raising their level of engagement and making your teaching more joyful and effective.


Eight Essential Thinking Moves We Need to Teach in Science Class

In the book “Making Thinking Visible,” Ron Richart and researchers at Harvard’s Project Zero outline eight thinking moves that help students move toward deeper understanding of concepts across all subject areas. They also identified routines to build habits around thinking moves as a way of learning. Below, we will briefly introduce each thinking move and one thinking routine you can use to explore deeper learning in your classroom.

Observing and Describing

Noticing the different parts and features of objects, ideas, phenomena, etc. provides the necessary fuel for great insights. Creating space and a purpose for diving in and looking closely at a concept is the first step toward meaningful explanation and interpretation.

Thinking routines that allow students to look closely at content that introduces objects, ideas, or phenomena, such as “See, Think, Wonder,” allow students to slow down and zoom in. Perhaps more importantly, this routine provides a framework and purpose for observation. When used in groups, students discover details they otherwise might have missed. These details spark new observations and learning.

Explaining and Interpreting

By asking good questions, we can profoundly impact the quality of student explanations and interpretations. Questions like “Is this what you expected?” or “What do you think would happen if..?” will go a long way toward helping students build solid explanations and interpretations that communicate their evolving understanding of a concept. It is also essential to reflect on the tasks you provide students and ask yourself what those tasks ask students to explain and interpret.

Using a thinking routine like The Explanation Game will help students to practice conversational moves with their peers about concepts they are exploring. During these conversations, they will work together toward understanding why something is the way it is by noticing details and following up their observations with questions. Their peers will then have an opportunity to provide explanations and ask further questions. When students engage in discussions and practice crafting explanations like this, it helps them develop the habit of providing reasoning and evidence for their thinking and seeking reasoning and evidence from others when they make claims.

Reasoning with Evidence

Are your students excited to ask and answer: “why”? This simple one-word question will help you understand more about how your students think and arrive at their conclusions. When “why” becomes part of the culture of thinking in a classroom, students and teachers have developed the habit of pushing each other for evidence as their thinking evolves and looking for ways to test their thinking.

Using a thinking routine like Claim, Support, Question, can help students build their capacity for reasoning with evidence as they practice formulating interpretations of a topic, supporting that interpretation with evidence, and asking further questions about their interpretation. Incorporating this routine in your instructional practice helps students learn that reasoning is an ongoing process that evolves as we learn more.

Making Connections

We are constantly building on what we know. Making connections allows us to draw on previous experiences, link ideas to see how they impact one another, and connect our learning to the world around us. Making connections also helps us anchor our learning in our experiences so we can more easily recall what we have learned. Creating connections that combine knowledge of different ideas in unique ways is also the necessary foundation for scientific breakthroughs.

Connect, Extend, Challenge is a thinking routine that challenges students to identify connections to new ideas and concepts. As part of this process, students identify ways that new ideas extend their knowledge and thinking. They then consider how their thinking has changed and what challenges or puzzles they now face because of these new ideas. Engaging students’ thinking moves in a Connect, Extend, Challenge routine builds a culture of student thinking where relating new ideas to what students already know becomes a way of learning and a source of confidence, enthusiasm, and curiosity.


Perspective-taking is the practice of considering different viewpoints and perspectives. This skill sets students up for success not only in learning but in future relationships and business endeavors as well.

There are many times when students face situations where they may want to disagree with someone or ask someone to explain themselves. They need the necessary language to do that and the courage to explain themselves when questioned. Sentence frames like “I don’t understand what you mean by x” or “Can you give an example of what you mean by x?” can be helpful for students when learning how to elicit and challenge different perspectives. The courage to suspend our own perspective and attempt to see from the perspective of someone else, including those we may disagree with, is a vital skill in life and innovation.

Circle of Viewpoints is a powerful thinking routine that can help students understand how people can see the same idea or concept differently depending on their context and background. This is a great tool when dealing with complex, potentially controversial topics as it prompts them to describe and ask questions about the topic from a viewpoint other than their own.

Capturing the Essence and Forming Conclusions

To get to the essence of an idea, we have to communicate why it’s important. At Project Zero, Professor David Perkins often asks, “What’s Worth Learning in School? As educators, we should constantly be asking ourselves this same question and helping our students to achieve deeper learning by encouraging them to ask, “Why are we learning this?”, “Why does this matter?” and “How will understanding this concept help me later?”

Try the Color, Symbol, and Image thinking routine to engage students in unpacking the essence of a concept. This routine helps students identify and connect their thinking about the essence of a concept or idea with why it is important in a creative way. Frequent use of this routine will help students form abstract thinking habits to distill the essence of ideas and concepts.

Wondering and Asking Questions

Creating the opportunity to wonder and ask questions sets the stage for deep and engaged inquiry of a topic. The intrinsic desire to know and learn easily follows when student curiosity is ignited. Allowing students to wonder throughout the process is also powerful. It can help them ask even more questions and give them a personal experience of the well-known Einstein quote, “the more we know, the more we realize we don’t know.”

Consider using the Think, Puzzle, Explore thinking routine the next time you’d like to get students wondering and asking questions. This routine focuses on activating prior knowledge and engages them in identifying areas of interest they are curious about. By using this routine regularly, you can encourage students to form a habit of recalling what they already think they know about a topic and what they are curious about as a way of learning.

Uncovering Complexity and Digging Deeper

This thinking move pushes students to look beyond the obvious and not be satisfied with easy answers. It inspires them to understand how context can impact our understanding of any topic. This thinking move can also be a great introduction to systems thinking and exploring how the idea, phenomenon, or object is related to and impacted by other considerations.

Parts, Purposes, and Complexities is a routine you can use in your classroom debrief to explore complexities in the realm of design during engineering units. The goal of this routine is to get kids to develop a sensitivity to the design of objects, systems, etc. and ask, “How do these parts work together as a whole?”, “Why was this designed this way?” and “What was the creator/designer thinking when they made the decision to do X?”

Are you ready to get started with thinking moves and routines to make thinking visible in your classroom? Download a free Thinking Moves Poster from KnowAtom to share with your students and use it as an anchor to draw students’ attention to the types of thinking they need to master when engaging in science learning experiences.

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