thinking visible

5 ways to make thinking visible

Alan November webinar gives advice on how to incorporate new ways of determining whether students have understood what they were taught.

Provide chances for explanation: Another benefit of facilitating student-to-student communication is that if one student has misunderstood a concept, there’s a good chance that another student will provide the needed correction. Even better, the second student will explaining things in terms that other first-time learners can understand.

Have students design problems: During the webinar, November talked about another tactic for making student thinking visible: having students design problems. He said research shows having students as problem designers make for a much more engaging classroom than one where the teacher presents all the problems. He gave the example of Jessica Caviness, a Texan geometry teacher who has

students design their own problems as an out-of-class, no-credit activity. During the webinar he showed attendees a photo of a soda cup that she used in her ‘design your own problem’ activity. November noted that this would be a great activity to perform with the itslearning platform.

The first of Caviness’ students designed a problem that required not just an understanding of geometry but also of buoyancy and ice displacement: “The height of the soda in this right cylindrical cup is 5 inches and Mr. Caviness wants to add 3 cubes of ice to the cup, can he do so without the cup overflowing?”


“There’s no way you would cover that in the curriculum, there’s too much to do,” November commented. “But as a stimulus to get kids to think, it really works.” He also informed attendees that the class’s test scores have gone up and that Caviness was named 2015 Texas Teacher of the Year.

Admit not knowing: While student-designed problems are an excellent way to gauge students’ understanding of a concept, November acknowledged that some attendees might be worried about being embarrassed by problems that are beyond their expertise. However, he pointed out that most students have never seen their teachers learn, and actually think that when they struggle with a problem, they’re failures. He recommended that teachers admit when they don’t know something and then show how they learn so that their students can change their attitude to “It’s ok that I’m struggling. My teacher’s struggling.”

Plus, seeing teachers struggle can prepare students for another useful approach: “messy problems” (also called “ill-structured problems”), which do not have one clear-cut correct answer. Because of that ambiguity, messy problems require students to justify their chosen solutions with reasons and evidence as well as confront their underlying assumptions. That critical thinking approach enables educators to teach for understanding (versus teaching for memorization).

Are there any other approaches you use to make thinking visible? Do you have any messy problems to share with fellow educators? Talk about it in the comment section.

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