#4. Making thinking visible

Posted on February 11th, 2014

From the Institute for Learning, this is Pam Goldman.

One of the most useful things about Accountable Talk® discussions is that they make thinking visible.

I'm going to talk here as if the person putting his or her ideas on the table is a student, but the benefits of making thinking visible apply equally to a group of adults.

Before I proceed, two caveats. First, the benefits of making thinking visible presuppose that the discussion occurs in a respectful environment. After all, putting your thinking on the table is a risk, especially if you are trying out new ideas. If you remember back to podcast #2, this is what we mean by Accountability to Community and I will talk about it more next time.

Caveat number two: the class or group must be working with a question or problem that does not have one set answer or solution and that is challenging for those involved.

So now, let's consider making thinking visible from three points of view: that of the student putting forward the idea, that of the teacher, and that of the other students in the room.

A student who presents her thinking gets immediate feedback. Some students might agree, disagree, extend, or revise the original idea. Others might challenge the source or logic behind the idea. "Where did you find that in the text?" Or, "Are you sure your computation is correct?" Or, "What's your reasoning?" Any one of such comments is likely to help the student extend, amend, and generally improve her initial idea.

As the teacher listens to students struggle with tough ideas, the teacher gains insight into the students' thinking—what they know, what they don't know, what they're confused about, who can help whom, all kinds of useful formative assessment.

Meanwhile, the other students, whether they contribute to the conversation this day or just listen, also benefit. Everyone benefits by listening to polite challenges to make arguments precise, attempts to refine reasoning, and different ways of thinking about the same question or problem. As students hear the ways other people approach the question or problem, they build an intellectual toolbox. A student might think, "This time I approached the problem by doing this and that, but now I see how Juan did it differently and the ways that worked well. I can try Juan's method the next time I have a similar problem to solve."

Students who are English learners, students who are not adept at using academic language, and students who are shy, can benefit by hearing others use academic English. First off, it provides them with a variety of models for using academic English. Second, especially in small groups or partner talk situations, it gives students an opportunity to try out articulating ideas and using academic English. It also gets them feedback before taking a risk and presenting those ideas to the entire class.

Accountable Talk is important because it helps students develop their ability to reason well, using evidence. When students put their reasoning out for everyone to hear and to grapple with, there is great opportunity for everyone to build this skill. This skill is crucial for meeting the Common Core State Standards and also for college readiness. An added benefit—by working through reasoning orally, students can practice what they will have to do in writing.

Pam Goldman

Pam Goldman is the Institute for Learning (IFL) Instructional Design Fellow. In this role, she designs, authors, produces, and edits a series of learning tools for educators based on the Institute's theory of action and practice of district and school reform.

More information on Pam Goldman.