Building a “culture of thinking” to help students become lifelong learners

Student at Sanborn High School

Educators can help students build a “culture of thinking” that challenges them to deepen their understanding of the world around them and become lifelong, independent learners, according to KQED’s MindShift.

When students stop to think about whether they’re fully understanding what they’re learning (monitoring) and can use specific strategies to redirect or challenge their thinking (directing), they become “meta-strategic thinkers”:

“When we have a rich meta-strategic base for our thinking, that helps us to be more independent learners,” said Project Zero senior research associate Ron Ritchhart at a Learning and the Brain conference. “If we don’t have those strategies, if we aren’t aware of them, then we’re waiting for someone else to direct our thinking.”

Helping students to “learn how to learn” or in Ritchhart’s terminology, become “meta-strategic thinkers” is crucial for understanding and becoming a life-long learner. To discover how aware students are of their thinking at different ages, Ritchhart has been working with schools to build “cultures of thinking.” His theory is that if educators can make thinking more visible, and help students develop routines around thinking, then their thinking about everything will deepen.


In a culture of thinking, students recognize that collective and individual thinking is valued, visible and actively promoted as part of the regular day-to-day experience of all group members. This type of culture can exist in any place where learning is part of the experience including school, after school programming or museum programs.

To help make these ideas more concrete, Ritchhart and his colleagues have been working to hone in on a short list of “thinking moves” related to understanding. To test whether these moves were really crucial, researchers asked themselves: could a student say she really understood something if she hadn’t engaged in these activities? They believe the important “thinking moves” that lead to understanding are:

-Naming: being able to identify the parts and pieces of a thing

-Inquiry: questioning should drive the process throughout

-Looking at different perspectives and viewpoints

-Reasoning with evidence

-Making connections to prior knowledge, across subject areas, even into personal lives

-Uncovering complexity

-Capture the heart and make firm conclusions

-Building explanations, interpretations and theories.

These thinking moves all point to the conclusion that learning doesn’t happen through the mere delivery of information. “Learning only occurs when the learner does something with that information,” Ritchhart said. “So as teachers we need to think not only about how we will deliver that content, but also what we will have students do with that content.”

One easy way to start asking students to be more metacognitive is to build in reflection time about thinking. Ask students to think about the lesson and identify the kinds of thinking they used throughout. That not only builds vocabulary around thinking, but it often gives kids confidence to name specific thinking strategies they used. Taking this time to reflect also reminds students that they did real work during the lesson.

To get at how teachers make thinking visible, Ritchhart studied teachers who were very effective at helping student dive below surface level retention of information into really understanding material as it connects to the rest of their studies and their lives. He noticed none of them taught a lesson on thinking.

“They had routines and structures that scaffolded and supported student thinking,” Ritchhart said. This discovery led him and colleagues at Project Zero to develop “thinking routines” that all teachers can use to help students develop the habits of mind that lead to more understanding.

One way to develop a culture of thinking is to pick one of the thinking routines Project Zero has designed and use it over and over in a variety of contexts. Rather than trying each routine once, applying one routine in multiple ways will help make thinking in that way habitual. It becomes almost an expectation in a classroom, like other class norms.

Source: When Kids Have Structure for Thinking, Better Learning Emerges | MindShift