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p Acknowledge the confusion and move on.

p Re-explain.

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p Isolate the point of confusion with pinpoint questions.

p Have a student explain his or her own current thinking.

p Persevere and return.

The first option, doing nothing in the moment, means making no response to the perceived confusion and continuing with the lesson.

The second option, acknowledging the confusion, means making it known to students that we are aware of it but want them to stay with us a little longer before dealing with it. “I know this is a little difficult to see just yet, but hang in there, and I think it will make sense with a few more examples.”

A third option is to launch into a re-explanation of the item. It may be slower or more detailed than the first explanation, or it may be a re-explanation using a different explanatory device. In either case, we are presenting the same thing over again without any venture into the students’ thinking, relying heavily on what we perceive to be the source or the nature of their confusion, and re- explaining from that perspective.

A fourth option is to pose pinpoint questions to discover precisely where in the sequence of learning the student became confused. When that point is isolated, we swing in, economically omitting re-explanation of anything the students have already assimilated, and move on with the re-explanation from there.

A fifth option is to ask students to describe or explain their thinking, probing for how a student thinks about the concept or operation. This means truly lis- tening to students and trying to understand their frame of reference or way of conceptualizing the item.



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Questions or prompts like these can draw out the understanding:

p “How did you get that answer?”

p “How do you approach this kind of problem?

p Tell me what you did or thought about?”

p “What did you try first? Why?”

p “Tell me what you do understand. Let’s start there.”

You will notice that as we move through this continuum of choices, we gather more evidence about the source of confusion from the student, and thus we are more informed about what we need to do to clarify or reteach effectively. When we choose to get students to explain their own thinking we sometimes discover that apparently “wrong” answers aren’t really wrong at all if we under- stand the student’s assumptions and logic. As well, using the student’s frame of reference with its meaning orientation enables us to re-explain the concept (or ask a series of questions that will bring the student closer to self-discovering the concept) from a vantage point that will have more meaning for the student. We might also discover that the concept turns out to be outside the boundaries of the student’s thinking system, in which case, it’s an inappropriate objective altogether. That is quite an important thing to find out. For example, if we are working on clarifying the different powers municipal governments have from county governments, we may discover some students don’t really know what a municipal government is!

The final option, persevering and returning, might be an integral part of the previous three but with an additional element: the return. We persevere when we find a student confused. We stick with the student, perhaps have several ex- changes with him. Other students may then contribute missing elements of the explanation. Then, most importantly, we come back to the first student to have him summarize or fully state the explanation. This “return” visit is not only a check for understanding of that first student but is also an important signal of confidence in the student. It gives him an opportunity to emerge in triumph as the final synthesizer.

Sometimes there isn’t time in the period for us to unscramble all the confusions of all the students—a reality we all live with. In that case, what a perseverant teacher does is note or record who specifically is still foggy on the new con- cept, and make some provision for a return engagement with those students (e.g., arranging for a short small-group session right then and there perhaps, or



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asking Rafael and Olivia to stop by after classes for a few minutes to ensure that they will receive the support they need). Notice how this option ties in with sending high expectations messages. In Chapter 14, “Expectations,” we include returning to students who don’t get it yet as one of the 10 arenas for sending the three key messages: “This is important; you can do it with effective effort; I won’t give up on you.”

Making Students’ Thinking Visible

The context thus far for having students explain their thinking has been to un- scramble confusions. The notion of making a student’s thinking visible, how- ever, has far greater reach. It is about creating a robust talk environment for all students where they are both challenged and enabled to think deeply, fre- quently, and critically, and to interact with one another while developing deep understanding of the concepts we are teaching.

Over a five-year period, District 2 in New York City went from sixteenth to first place in achievement by investing in the development of these skills broadly in all their teachers (Alvarado, Elmore, & Resnick, 2000). Making Students’ Thinking Visible (MSTV) was not the only focus of their improvement efforts, but it was a major factor in the improvement of teaching and student cognitive engagement.

We take the phrase “Making Students’ Thinking Visible” from an article pub- lished by David Perkins (2003) and a title repeated in recent years in a book by Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison (2011). The design of this complex teaching skill has origins going back to 1975 (Easley & Zwoyer) and a rich history in the ‘80s with clear examples in the work of Deborah Loewenberg Ball, Magdeline Lampert, and Deborah Schifter. Lauren Resnick advanced “Accountable Talk” in the ‘90s as another version of these powerful ideas. During that decade, Lucy West and others in New York’s District 2 developed these skills further as a key element of their groundbreaking instructional coaching model.

Making Students Thinking Visible brings together six strands of successful teaching and learning (Figure 11.12). It’s the combination of these strands that produce the results. Consider the following:

p If you can both listen to children and accept their answers not as things to be judged right or wrong but as pieces of information which may reveal what the child is thinking, you will have taken a giant step toward becom- ing a master teacher (Easley & Zwoyer, 1975, p. 25).

p It was listening to their own students solve problems that made the greatest difference in [teachers’] instructional practice (Borko & Putnam, 1995).

Videos: Making Thinking Visible—Explain Your Thinking 1 & 2

Videos: Agree/Disagree, Teachers Getting Students to Talk



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p My definition of a good teacher has changed from “one who explains things so well that students understand” to “one who gets students to explain things so well that they can be understood” (Reinhart, 2000, p. 478).

These authors argue for the special importance of knowing what is going on inside students’ heads. The behavior they are urging, however, goes beyond the checking and unscrambling behaviors we have profiled previously in this chapter. They are part of a tradition of educational research that advises teachers to:

p Structure your interaction with students so you have frequent access to what and how they are thinking about the topics you are teaching. This means asking them to frequently express, verbally or in writing, what their thinking is.

Figure 11.12 Diagram of MSTV Six Strands

Classroom Climate

M A K I N G S T U D E N T S ’ T H I N K I N G


Key Concepts

Student Engagement

High Level and Critical


21st Century Skills and

Common Core

Academic Vocabulary

Social- Emotional Learning



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p Get students engaged in explaining the rationale for their thinking and supporting it out loud.

p Cause interaction and discussion among students about the thinking that surfaces.

p Build a climate of safety and mutual inquiry among students so they are not afraid of being wrong and will actively speak their minds (see Chapter 16, “Classroom Climate”).

Making Students’ Thinking Visible means creating a classroom environment where students:

p Do the majority of the talking.

p Are expected to explain their thinking.

p Show they are listening to one another.

p Are willing to admit confusion or not knowing.

p Challenge each other’s thinking nonjudgmentally.

p Take initiative to explain another’s thinking (including how s/he might have made an error).

p Take responsibility for helping others who don’t get something as quickly as they have.

In the long run, these behaviors become a way of being and interacting for the teacher and students, thus permeating the environment. So what does it take to make all of this happen? Figure 11.13 represents the multiple dimensions that it takes to create this learning environment, beginning with the constellation of teaching skills involved.

24 Operating Principles

“Constellation of Teaching Skills” on the concept map includes the use of 24 operating principles, the ability to dig into content and identify the most im- portant concepts that should be the focus of instruction, and designing sub- stantive questions that will guide classroom exploration and lead to student understanding of those concepts. A repertoire of 24 operating principles one can use to facilitate student talk and check how one’s practice is develop-

Videos: Struggle— Normalizing Mistakes, MSTV Demo


24 Operating Principles



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ing is available on The Skillful Teacher website at www.RBTeach.com/TST7. These operating principles name and explain choices a teacher makes during a discussion to engage more students in the conversation, to facilitate student-to- student dialogue, and to get students to reveal and evaluate their reasoning in support of developing genuine understanding. Many of the operating principles can and should be taught to students so they can adopt and apply them when working independently in peer-group learning experiences. They can be used as a checklist for how one’s practice is developing. Our online course (www. RBTeach.com) is a carefully designed three-credit experience to learn how to

Figure 11.13 MSTV Concept Map

Deeper Understanding

Talk Ratio and Participation

More Complex Thinking

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