Making Thinking Visible with Technology

Making Thinking VisibleBackground

Last week I taught a 3-day institute for a school district near Memphis. The forty teachers participating in the professional development represented the full spectrum of grade levels and subject areas. I enjoyed having several special education, PE, and music teachers participate as they helped push everyone’s thinking about teaching every child and broadening our ideas about the classroom environment.

Big Ideas

You can see from the title slide (the slides are embedded below) that the name of the institute is long, but it conveys the three big concepts that were woven through this immersive experience.

“I believe that if we keep the focus on learning, embrace the thinking routines,
and dedicate our efforts to teaching for understanding
then learners will exceed the benchmarks.”

Making Thinking Visible (MTV)

The Teaching for Understanding framework provides a nice frame for a deep exploration of teaching and learning. It helps put the primary focus back on thinking, learning, understanding, and creativity, rather than on technology, standards, etc. which sometime seem to drive teaching and learning. The Visible Thinking Routines are excellent strategies for encouraging deep, reflective thinking and making it evident. While engaging with thinking routines students can make their thinking visible through conversation or the use of pen and paper, art supplies, Post-It notes, music, drama, etc. The routines are easy to use because the reflection and higher-order thinking are “baked in.” The instruction and management are also integrated into the routines.

MTV with Technology

Technology provides many additional possibilities for making thinking visible. When connected with the visible thinking routines word clouds, digital posters, videos, podcasts, slideshows, digital sketches, online concept maps, cartoon strips, timelines, and much more can be used to help students provide evidence of their thinking and understanding. With a bit of strategic planning it’s possible for teachers to integrate the curriculum, use of technology to promote thinking and learning, digital citizenship, and 21st century skills into a single activity built around a thinking routine. These can sometimes be seemingly disparate items that many teachers describe struggling to “fit in” to the school year. Integrating them around thinking routines as described and exemplified in the slides below can minimize these obstacles.

Exceeding Standards

I have never been a teacher that wanted students to simply “meet” the standards. I may be oversimplifying things a bit, but I view standards as benchmarks — as the minimum level of “acceptable.” Simply meeting the minimum isn’t what we should be aspiring to achieve; it won’t make one competitive when it comes to some extracurricular opportunities, advanced course placement, college admissions, scholarship opportunities, or in the marketplace. I admit that my point-of-view can cause even more anxiety for some teachers who already feel overwhelmed by all the transition to and expectations of the Common Core Standards. However, I encourage teachers to consider what it means to cultivate a culture of thinking with their students. I believe that if we keep the focus on learning, embrace the thinking routines, and dedicate our efforts to teaching for understanding then learners will exceed the benchmarks. They won’t just be minimally proficient, but rather they will develop true understanding. This isn’t simply a pep talk, my opinion, or platitudes. I make these recommendations based on the decades of rigorous research from Harvard and on the personal stories I’ve heard from many teachers that have embraced these principles — two of whom helped me develop this workshop and you can “meet” in the slides below.

Share Your Ideas and Examples

I’m always looking for examples of student thinking being made evident through the use of technology. This can be accomplished through the use of software and websites, but it can also be done with connections to more traditional means. For example, students might demonstrate their thinking with markers and poster paper, or they may accomplish this with modeling clay, wooden blocks, and pipe cleaners. These wonderful, non-electronic artifacts can be captured (archived, curated) and shared through digital photos, videos, or even through an audio narrative or interview. I invite you and your students to consider sharing examples of thinking being made visible through technology, so that it can serve as examples and inspiration to other educators.

There’s More

I intend for this to be part 1 in a series of posts around these ideas. Keep an eye out for upcoming posts with recommended strategies for implementation, a discussion of some of the implications for professional development, the connections to multiple intelligences, and more.


I’d like to acknowledge the important contributions that Amy Lange, Julia Shaffer, and Fair Wicker made as guest speakers and teaching assistants during the institute.

I would also like to thank Sande Dawes, Par Wohlin, and Jessica Ross for being thought partners as I’ve batted these ideas around for the past couple of years. I’ve enjoyed the conversations, meals, and phone calls. Each of you have impacted my ideas about learning in significant ways and I am greatly appreciative.

Thanks also goes to Philip Cummings for helping me make some of the practical classroom connections and for sharing some of his ideas and experiences.

Event Tags: #pzc2013 #hgsepzfol

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Clif Mims is a Christian, husband, father, teacher, cancer warrior, and fan of the Mississippi State Bulldogs and Memphis Grizzlies.

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