making thinking visible

How do children learn best?

A powerful and thought provoking question to say the least! 

Most simply put, children need an opportunity to construct their own meaning about ideas and concepts. Then, they need the guidance and support to transfer their own meaning. Finally, they need a chance to apply their understanding. These three phases are fluid and children move back and forth through them in an on-going cycle.


One way our teachers help students construct meaning is to make their thinking visible. As students learn new ideas, it’s essential for them to notice the parts and pieces before being able to describe and explain, conversely being able to identify and break down an idea is a critical aspect of analysis.

Each Unit of Inquiry has a central idea, or focus for the unit. There are also three lines of inquiry that helps guide the inquiry towards the central idea (check out a previous post that further explains these areas of a unit planner). Our goal as PYP teachers is to plan and create learning experiences that allow students to come to answers on their own, in turn synthesizing the ideas and concepts presented in their classrooms. Throughout the year I’ll share different ways both primary and intermediate grades. This week we’ll focus on both Kindergarten and First grade and take a look at how some of the teachers have used different tools/strategies to help their students construct meaning of their Unit of Inquiry.

In their How the World Works unit, the Kindergarten was focusing on the following central idea, Resources are useful and have properties that can be observed and described.

As students read and learned about different rocks and resources, one classroom collected their thinking on a RAN (Reading and Analyzing Nonfiction) chart.

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While participating in class discussions, students first brainstormed things they thought they knew about natural resources (pink far left column). This information was then resorted, throughout the unit, as different books were read, experiments were conducted or short video clips were viewed. The RAN chart is an interactive tool used by both the teacher and the students, moving and adding sticky notes. Students were encouraged to ask new questions (blue), sharing new learning (purple) and confirm their initial thinking (orange). The chart is a valuable tool for both the teacher and the student. It gives the teacher information about how he/she needs to guide the inquiry and instruction and, additionally, models for the the students how thinking changes and progresses over time. As teachers explicitly teach and model reading and writing strategies, it is as equally essential that thinking strategies are modeled, practiced and applied in a similar manner. You’d probably find it hard not to find sticky notes on the walls of all of our classrooms here at Spicewood. All of our teachers use sticky notes as a way to document and organize student thinking throughout their Units of Inquiry.

In first grade, the students just completed their How We Organize Ourselves unit in which they were focused on the central idea, Organizations exist to meet people’s basic needs. As new learning of different organizations, wants and needs unfolded, Ms. Sanchez helped make thinking visible in her classroom by devoting a bulletin board with different graphic organizers, charts and sticky notes. This is not a traditional bulletin board that displays the final product of student work, however.



The bulletin board has the transdisciplinary theme posted at the top to guide beginning thinking towards the unit. Initially, the first graders then broke down part of the transdisciplinary theme and central idea as they investigated the role and purpose of organizations. Then, students helped gather and sort new information about wants and needs through classroom discussions and interactive group assignments. This was followed by several different learning experiences and speakers over the next few weeks who were involved in organizations in and out of our community. Throughout the unit, Ms. Sanchez thoughtfully added student created reflections, thinking maps and important vocabulary. She helped students document their learning in one communal place that they could use during classroom discussions and final written reflections. By making student thinking visible, she supported her class as they constructed new meaning about the structure and function of organizations on our world. At the end of the unit, this bulletin board will be cleared to prepare for their next unit of inquiry. Through her own reflection, she plans on adding a few different elements to continue to extend student thinking in her classroom.

It’s so amazing to see the progression of student thinking that comes about when the right structures are put into place!

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