What is Visible Thinking Really?




When you think about it, defining thinking is harder than you think.

And getting students to think hard is even harder.

Think back to when you last had to build something and you didn’t have exactly the right tools (or skills) for the job. If you’re anything like me, you probably got it done, but it was very likely not a great job, or it was more time-consuming and difficult than it should have been – or else you were surprised that it actually worked. (You may even have gotten someone else to do it for you.)

Thinking works the same way: We often arrive at a conclusion (with varying degrees of validity) through a cumbersome, haphazard process that is not as refined as it could be. Or, without fully understanding how we got there. We use whatever tools we have at hand – even if they are not completely suited to the task. And sometimes we just let someone do our thinking for us.

Almost every teacher has asked kids ‘to think about it’, or ‘to think more deeply’. But how exactly do they do this? What does it mean to think? How can we expect students to think better if we don’t show them how?

Now, what if we gave students a set of well-designed and research-based tools that helped them to structure and thus deploy their own thinking better?

What if we could help them to build, connect, and refine their thinking in more overt ways by providing the (meta)cognitive tools and skills to build better thinking?

Knowing how to think makes all of us, especially kids, better thinkers. The best way to do this is to use a set of appropriate tools to structure better thinking.

This is Visible Thinking in a nutshell.

But wait. There’s more…


Thinking About vs Thinking With: A Thinking Toolbox.

Much of our learning, especially our foundational knowledge, becomes internalized to such a degree that we often forget that we know it.

But we don’t really forget it. Instead, most of the basic materials of foundational knowledge become fashioned into tools, not that we think about, but that we can think with.

This distinction between thinking about and thinking with is extremely important.

Whether it is the rudimentary components of language and numbers, the scientific method, or even historical knowledge which provides a perspective with which to understand modern conflicts, ingrained core knowledge is more useful as a device, rather than as a finished product.

Here’s an example: I teach map skills to high school students. Frankly, because much of this is paper-based, it seems to have very little value in the digital world. However, I do spend a long time coaching them to interpret maps. This becomes an exercise in deductive thinking: what evidence can you find to justify your conclusion? To answer questions like “Does this area receive reliable rainfall?”, or “Is the golf course well located?” demands that kids search for evidence, evaluate this evidence; connect evidence; ‘zoom in’ and analyze things closely; as well as to ‘zoom out’ and see the bigger picture. My hope is that these methods of thinking will become tools that they can use beyond my classroom and beyond school. Hence, the thinking mechanisms behind the map skills I teach are more important than the actual content and skills.

Visible Thinking takes it a step further. Rather than holding thumbs that specific knowledge items and subject-specific skills will evolve to become a set of tools to think with more broadly, the approach specifically provides these ‘thinking-with’ tools (or mental models) and advises educators to infuse their content into and around these thinking structures.

Thus, rather than fantasizing that knowledge will become a set of cognitive tools through some sort of alchemy, those thinking tools are taught explicitly.

The result is a set of thinking dispositions and strategies that allows students to explore ideas and issues more readily, more deeply, and more confidently.


Thinking about Thinking: Knowing, Understanding and Doing

Back to thinking. What is it to think? The words ‘thinking’ and ‘thought’ are among the most difficult words to define in any language. They seem almost ethereal. Most understandings of the process of thinking will yield a taxonomical description of skills, in the same way that we would describe a thing like a bird: based on a description of its parts and what these parts do.

In most cognitive taxonomies, thinking is categorized from the ‘easy’, ‘lower order’ or ‘superficial’ learning to the more difficult ‘higher-order’ or ‘deep’ thinking.

But there are well-known problems with these sorts of hierarchical arrangements.

Understanding, as the chief example, is generally listed as a lower to middle-order skill, and thus a precursor to higher-order skills. This is not true. Understanding is a very complex process. True understanding is often the most difficult cognitive skill there is.

Understanding is the result of some very advanced mental processes – not the precursor to them.

Understanding might best be conceived of not as a type of thinking, but as the chief goal of it. And the best way to understand is not just to know, but to apply, analyze, evaluate, generate and all those other lovely taxonomical verbs.

Thus, the most useful definition of thinking is this: Thinking is the process of approaching understanding. And an essential aspect of this process of ‘thinking-as-understanding’ is learning to apply and utilize knowledge in various ways.


Thinking Moves to Move Thinking

So how best to teach children to apply their knowledge in order to achieve understanding? What tools can we give them to think with?

Visible Thinking identifies a core set of ‘thinking moves*’ around which we can begin to build these structures:

  • Observing and closely describing what’s there
  • Building explanations and interpretations
  • Reasoning with evidence
  • Making connections
  • Considering different viewpoints and perspectives
  • Capturing the heart [of an idea] and forming conclusions
  • Wondering and asking questions
  • Uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things
  • Identifying patterns and making generalizations
  • Generating possibilities and alternatives
  • Evaluating evidence, arguments, and actions
  • Formulating plans and monitoring actions
  • Identifying claims, assumptions, and bias
  • Clarifying priorities, conditions, and what is known

These are by no means exhaustive. (I would add on something about empathy and imagination, for example.) Nevertheless, they do offer an extremely useful bank of thinking techniques that can be used in designing activities aimed at fostering understanding.

These are the thinking tools that become embedded and which we can think with.

These thinking techniques become the guiding principles behind the thinking structures we associate with visible thinking. The structures themselves mean very little without an understanding of the importance of thinking moves.

Consider how many of the following well-known Visible Thinking routines refer back to the thinking moves listed above:

  • What Makes You Say That? (Interpretation with justification routine)
  • Think Puzzle Explore (A routine that sets the stage for deeper inquiry)
  • Think Pair Share (A routine for active reasoning and explanation)
  • Circle of Viewpoints (A routine for exploring diverse perspectives)
  • Compass Points (A routine for examining propositions)
  • Connect Extend Challenge (A routine for connecting new ideas to prior knowledge)
  • Headlines (A routine for capturing essence)
  • Colour, Symbol, Image (A routine for distilling the essence of ideas non-verbally)
  • Generate, Sort, Connect, Elaborate (A routine for organizing one’s understanding of a topic through concept mapping)
  • Reporter’s Notebook (A routine for separating fact and feeling)
  • Tug of War (A routine for exploring the complexity of fairness dilemmas)
  • True For Who? (A routine for exploring truth claims from different perspectives)
  • Claim / Support / Question (A reasoning routine)



What Visible Thinking is all about is intentionality. At its heart, it’s about getting right to the very core of what makes good thinkers: having a carefully chosen set of embedded cognitive and meta-cognitive tools to think with and to use to understand better. Once we know and understand the core motivation behind Visible Thinking methods, we can begin to use them to even greater effect.

Of course, there is a lot more to Visible Thinking. Most notably, the fact that as thinking becomes more visible, it becomes easier to diagnose and thus remediate thinking errors.

But the real lesson for teachers has to do with the intentional teaching of thinking moves. Rather than planning which centers around content and skills, planning should involve first identifying the type of thinking involved in a particular learning module and then latching the content and skills onto those.

Something very exciting happens when Visible Thinking is properly implemented. Classrooms become more student-centered, more thinking-centered, and, ultimately, more focused on life-long learning.

Says David Perkins:

“Learning is a consequence of thinking. Retention, understanding, and the active use of knowledge can be brought about only by learning experiences in which learners think about and think with what they are learning.”  (Perkins, David. Smart Schools (pp. 7-8). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition. Quoted by Ron Ritchhart in Making Thinking Visible, 2011 p. 26.)


‘Making Thinking Visible’ by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church and Karin Morrison (Jossey-Bass, 2011)




Click to access AERA06ThinkingRoutines.pdf




* The authors distinguish between ‘thinking moves’ and ‘other kinds of thinking’. I feel they are part and parcel of the same thing.


  1. Hello Sean, Thank you for this helpful post. As a teacher I always believe developing critical thinking skills in students is very important. They should be able to think, analyse and connect their learning across the areas. I always try to incorporate visible thinking routines in my lesson plannings. So far it has been really helpful in letting my kids to think, explore and share.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Sean, Thank you for this, I also loved the book.I think that the word “routine” is critical, as developing thinking skills in students requires continuous and deliberate practice. Sharon


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