Visible thinking routines

Developing student metacognition

Asking students to reflect on and talk about their ideas can be difficult. Matthew Kloosterman suggests that getting students into the right visible thinking routines makes all the difference.

Confidence and thinking

We all want our students to think about what they are learning and to develop their metacognition. In my experience of teaching the MYP program and leading the IB Diploma, they really benefit from a structured, repeated approach that will both develop thinking skills and give them confidence to express their ideas about what they have learned.

Visible thinking routines do just that, supporting students in becoming more metacognitive, kindling reflection, and encouraging genuine cross-disciplinary approaches to problem-solving. IB educators will also find these routines useful, because the visible thinking routines give strategies that support teachers in encouraging high level thinking, or, if you like, ‘how to IB’. One reason is because visible thinking routines align explicitly with the IB’s ‘approaches to learning’ or ‘ATL’. However, although this article has an IB lens, visible thinking routines are easily applicable to any educational framework or curriculum such as A Level or AP.

What are Visible Thinking Routines?

Visible thinking routines were originally created by Mark Church and other research personal at Harvard’s Project Zero. Church wanted to find ways to engage learners and kindle discussions about thinking in the classroom. The routines they came up with help students stucture their ideas in a repeating written process, thereby making their thoughts visible.  Project Zero now houses over 40 visible thinking routines on their website. At first glance, these routines can seem daunting as there are so many options, but have no fear! Once you have tried one or two out, kids quickly get the hang of them, progress will soon be noticeable and in Sinek’s words, “progress is more important than perfection.”  Persistence will be rewarded!

2 routines to get you started

Here are 2 basic routines that I think are good starting points for making thinking visible in the classroom and in leadership meetings. Do note that these routines are not just limited to the classroom – anyone can use them: school leaders can use the routines with staff and parents to get thinking going.

Routine 1: ‘Chalk Talk’

You will need several large pieces of butcher’s paper. Write a different question on each and leave them at different stations in the room. Have markers by each paper and ask students to circulate quietly through the room, writing their response to the question on the paper. As more answers are written they can comment on what others have written as well as answer the question itself.

‘Chalk Talk’ is one of my favorite routines as it encourages quiet students to engage in what’s happening and provides an opportunity for educators to generate a range of responses to questions that are more conceptual or open to discussion. It also gives students an opportunity to respond to their peers, which promotes discussion. In my experience, students are often keen to see what peers wrote back to them when we rotate stations. Be sure to emphasize that this routine should be done in silence in order to encourage students who are not so confident to participate.

I like to start the session by drawing attention to the question in the middle of the paper, encouraging students to circle individual words in the question and build their response from there. Point out that disagreements are likely as the responses are written down. You can also do a demonstration before getting under way properly, asking 3-5 students to approach the whiteboard. Write an open ended, conceptual, or debatable question on the board and then have students write their responses around the question. Explain to students the process that is happening and guide where necessary.

When you feel the process has run its course, even quiet students might feel confident enough to express their ideas as you round off the session.

Routine 2: I used to think . . .  now I think

This routine gives students an opportunity to reflect in the middle of a unit. Often we will leave reflection until the end. Although reflecting at the end of a unit is good, it is also important to consider mid-unit reflection, because then students have an opportunity to implement any reflections that may stem from the process. This routine also encourages metacognition because it makes students aware of how their thinking may have altered about a particular topic.

I like to make a poster board for this routine where students make use of sticky notes to attach their reflections to the board – but you can easily print a worksheet for this routine if you like or use a digital format.

After you have finished teaching new content to the students, have them reflect on how their thinking has changed. By making their thinking more visible, students become more reflective.

Why thinking routines are different

A ‘visible thinking routine’ is different from ‘an activity’. Activities may occur once in a classroom or a leadership meeting and are then ‘done’. Routines by contrast and by definition are repeated. This reassures students because of the predictability. Educators that are new to the visible thinking routines have an opportunity to learn the approach in the very reusing of the routine.

A Sojourn

Visible thinking routines are one of many ways of learning ‘how to IB’ or do things in an IB way, but as I have argued, can be used in other programmes or situations – for example, in a faculty meeting. It can feel different and it can be daunting, but once you are up and running it becomes . . . . routine. We are sojourners that are on this journey together.


Matthew Kloosterman is an MYP English Language and Literature teacher at Shenzhen Foreign Languages GBA Academy. 


Please see the QR code opposite which leads to a Padlet repository of resources on how to implement the visible thinking routines.


FEATURE IMAGE: by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Support images kindly provided by Matthew