Thinking Critically About Thinking

Back in September 2015 I completed a Google online course entitled “Computational Thinking for Educators”.  This free online course was designed to “[help] educators integrate computational thinking into their curriculum”. It is available online at

At the time that I took this course I was deep in my grounded theory thesis and was thinking about inductive and deductive reasoning. When I read the definition and description of computational thinking (CT) provided in the course I started wondering if this approach was a repacking of traditional styles of reasoning and problem solving branded in a way that would appear novel and connected to technology. This isn’t a criticism. Sometimes old ideas need to be re-branded in ways that appeal to new audiences. The elements of Computational Thinking outlined in the course were:

  • Decomposition: Breaking down data, processes, or problems into smaller, manageable parts
  • Pattern Recognition: Observing patterns, trends, and regularities in data
  • Abstraction: Identifying the general principles that generate these patterns
  • Algorithm Design: Developing the step by step instructions for solving this and similar problems (

I think that it was the isolated elements of “thinking” that I found most interesting in this course. We know that we want to be better problem solvers and we want to teach students (at all academic levels) to develop their critical thinking and problem solving skills, but understanding how to do that requires us to really unpack the concept of “problem solving” – and “thinking” in general.

I wanted to learn more about this topic, so I went to my public library. When I saw a book in the catalogue entitled Making Thinking Visible: How to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learners I had to read it.

The book, Making Thinking Visible: How to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learners by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church and Karin Morrison (Jossey-Bass, 2011) is written for primary and secondary school teachers and includes examples from classrooms, but its lessons are applicable beyond the classroom.

The book begins with the argument that hierarchical models of thinking such as Bloom’s taxonomy do not reflect the messy, dynamic and reiterative cycles that people undergo when the learn and come to understand new concepts. They stress the importance of making “thinking valued and visible” (p. 12) and they describe THINKING ROUTINES as the tool for achieving that goal. They identify these as routines because “Whereas an instructional strategy may be used only on occasion, routines become part of the fabric of the classroom through their repeated used. (Richhart, Church & Morrison, 2011, p. 48).

The majority of the book is dedicated to describing various thinking routines and how teachers have employed them in their classrooms. Some of these routines would work just as well in problem solving and brainstorming sessions in the workplace or any other setting where people need to meet and work together to come up with strategies. A few of these routines that might be worth trying at your next brainstorming session include:

  1. Compass Points: The idea was that prior to making a decision about a new venture, policy, or proposition, one needed to explore the pluses and minuses of the situation and identify areas that needed to be further investigated. However, rather than just another pro/con list, this routine asks the group or individual who will act as the “decider” to identify things that excite them about the proposal and things that they find worrisome as their starting point. They then identify what they need to know more about in order to go forward. Having identified Excitements, Worries, and Needs; we noticed that we had three directions on the compass and so we turned our attention to the compass point “South.” Keeping not just an outcome, the “South” on the compass becomes the final step of identifying Stances, Steps, or Suggestions for moving forward. (Richhart, Church & Morrison, 2011, p. 93)
  2. Connect-Extend-Challenge: Active processing of new information can be facilitated by connecting the new information to what one already knows, identifying the new ideas that extend our thinking, and looking for how these new ideas challenge us to think in new ways or to question assumptions. (Richhart, Church & Morrison, 2011, p. 132)
  3. The MicroLab Protocol: MicroLab is designed to ensure equal participation and make sure everyone contributes. The rounds of sharing are timed by the teacher or facilitator. This keeps all groups on track and focused. The moments of silence provide time to think about what the last speaker said and a chance for the entire group to “recenter” itself. Groups of three provide for optimal interaction without asking people to be silent for long periods. (Richhart, Church & Morrison, 2011, p. 147)
  4. What Makes You Say That?: Helps students identify the basis for their thinking by asking them to elaborate on the thinking that lies behind their responses. Seemingly simple on the surface, this routine, when used as a regular part of classroom discourse, goes a long way toward fostering a disposition toward evidential reasoning. (Richhart, Church & Morrison, 2011, p. 165)
  5. Circle of Viewpoints: It is all too easy to fall into the pattern of viewing things from one’s own perspective and sometimes even being oblivious to alternative viewpoints. This routine helps learners to identify and consider these different and diverse perspectives involved in and around a topic, event, or issue. This process creates a greater awareness of how others may be thinking and feeling and reinforces that people can and do think differently about the same things. (Richhart, Church & Morrison, 2011, p. 171)
  6. Step Inside: By asking the learner to hypothesize what this person or thing observes, understands, believes, cares about, and questions, this routine helps students to delve even more deeply into the person or thing. It takes the learner outside himself or herself to understand that one’s perspective often shapes how events are understood. (Richhart, Church & Morrison, 2011, p. 178)
  7. Claim-Support-Question: Is a thinking routine designed both to identify and to probe these claims. Identification of claims calls on students to look for patterns, spot generalizations, and identify assertions. Sometimes these come from others, but we can also put forth our own claims about what is going on based on our analysis of events or investigation of phenomena. (Richhart, Church & Morrison, 2011, p. 191)
  8. Tug-of-War: Taking a stance on an issue and supporting that stance with sound reasoning is an important skill. However, taking a stance on issues too quickly and rushing to defend that stance before examining the complexity of the issue can lead to narrow thinking and an over-simplification of the problem. The Tug-of-War routine is designed to help students understand the complex forces that “tug” at opposing sides in various dilemmas, issues, and problems. It encourages students initially to suspend taking a side and think carefully about the multiple pulls or reasons in support of both sides of the dilemma. (Richhart, Church & Morrison, 2011, p. 199)

Featured image by @markheybo


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