Cultures of Thinking PD program, with Ron Ritchhart

I have become part of a semester long professional development project called “Cultures of Thinking”. It is lead by Visible Thinking and Harvard Project Zero researcher Ron Ritchhart. It focusses on creating an environment where “a group’s collective as well as individual thinking is valued, visible, and actively promoted as part of the regular, day-to-day experience of all group members.” a.

One of the key components of this program is class observation – not to evaluate the teacher but to learn and become more aware of your own habits, cultures and teaching strategies. Our first day consisted of two sessions, in the morning we were introduced to the cultures of thinking program and questioning techniques. The second was a plenary session in which teachers from four schools came together to learn about how to objectively and non-judgmentally observe a lesson and how to record data so that it is useful for the person/school being observed.

My notes and relevant resources are below.


How can we use discourse and questioning to develop our students as thinkers?

Reflection on my own teaching in terms of discourse, discussion, questioning and language: I am very aware of trying to make my classroom a place where students discuss, test and challenge their ideas, and sometimes that happens, but where I want to improve is that I often fall in to the trap of either taking over the discussion, not giving students enough thinking time, or leading the discussion too much where I feel that I am telling the students what to think. It’s a fall back / default position. I would like to change that default and make the students do far more thinking than they already do. Learning about history is learning to interpret, challenge, analyse, evaluate, discuss and I want to make sure students do that as much as possible. I don’t want any free rides in my classroom.

Microlab protocol:

How to use the Microlab in your classroom. Create groups of 3

  • 1st person shares (2 min)
  • Silent Reflection (20 sec)
    • 2nd person shares (2 min)
    • Silent Reflection (20 sec)
      • 3rd person shares (2 min)
      • Silent Reflection (20 sec)

    A protocol like this changes the nature of a conversation, creates equality of voices, ensures the conversation is finished in the time given. Stops people from waiting for the opportunity to jump in and give their opinion, frees you up to listen. It means that all the ideas are out on the table before the open discussion. It trains students on how to listen to one another. It brings the volume back down for silent reflection, the 20 sec are like a reset button. Do a handsup if you are nr1, handsup if your’re nr 2 etc. Put a big clock on the whiteboard.
    If you talk less than 2 minutes, the group must wait in silence until the 2 minutes are up.
    Some other considerations: Three is the optimal number, otherwise one person has to be listening for too long. You can play around with the timing (less than 2 min, or less than 10 minutes). Give people time to gather their thoughts before hand. So give them at least 4 minutes to prepare for their 2 minutes. This is not just an activity, it is a tool we use, and we use it frequently.
    Tell students to lead with what’s important, don’t save it till the end. If you use this protocol again, the students will get better at it. Ask the students to reflect on how they went the second time around.
    Teacher can walk around to listen in. Teacher should set it up to make the conversation feel purposeful, it should not feel like a simple discussion with no outcome. It can be an outcome for the teacher too, the teacher is just gathering information by listening in.

My General Notes Session 1:

  • We watched videos of two different styles of teaching / questioning. Difference between the two was huge. What I got from the videos is that restraint is needed, let the students create the knowledge by asking facilitative questions.
  • As a workshop facilitator, I notice that Ron himself was a very good listener, let people talk, rephrasing what people said, He pauses, he’s not afraid of silences.
  • Teachers can ask between 50 – 100 questions in one single lesson.
  • A procedural question can be quite ineffective because it asks for a response or an action, rather than a real answer. It’s better to make a directive statement. So, rather than asking: Does everyone have their pencil? Say: Everybody, get out your pencil. Procedural questions can create fuzziness, directive statements are more efficient.
  • Generative questions are designed questions, they are explored. They are the big inquiry questions which are explored over a unit. Aka “an authentic question”, a content question to which the teacher does not know the answer. When teachers ask an authentic question, the learning goes up!
  • Constructive questions build new understanding.
  • Facilitative questions facilitate thinking, they relate to the reflective toss. What makes you say that, what are you basing that on?
  • Keep a good mix of types of questions, don’t fall into trap of focussing on just one type.
  • My question: How to you create an equal environment, where not one person dominates and keeps on talking for a long time?
  • Rather than asking: Are there any questions? Ask: What are your questions? Because second statement states that there should be questions.
  • If you observe a class, YOU are the learner. You are not evaluating, you are learning and becoming more aware. For instance, if you focus on someone else’s questioning, it will make you more aware of your own question. It’s easier to observe someone outside your learning area or year level.
  • For next meeting: Try some protocols, observe others and look at their questioning, keep

Good idea for class room management: Never ask a kid why they are doing something. Make the statement and tell them what they are doing. So never: Why are you playing with the blinds? But: You are playing with the blinds. The second statement makes students think and act. The first makes the students justify and perhaps argue.

My General Notes Session 2:

Instructional core, if you fix up one element, you have to work on the others too. b
“The task predicts performance.” Richard Elmore. c


Eight Cultural Forces

  1. Time Allocating time for thinking by providing time for exploring topics more in depth as well as time to formulate thoughtful responses.
  2. Opportunities Providing purposeful activities that require students to engage in thinking and the development of understanding as part of their ongoing experience of the classroom.
  3. Routines & Structures Scaffolding students’ thinking in the moment as well as providing tools and patterns of thinking that can be used independently.
  4. Language Using a language of thinking that provides students with the vocabulary for describing and reflecting on thinking.
  5. Modeling Modeling of who we are as thinkers and learners so that the process of our thinking is discussed, shared, and made visible.
  6. Interactions & Relationships Showing a respect for and valuing of one another’s contributions of ideas and thinking in a spirit of ongoing collaborative inquiry.
  7. Physical Environment Making thinking visible by displaying the process of thinking and development of ideas. Arranging the space to facilitate thoughtful interactions.
  8. Expectations Setting an agenda of understanding and conveying clear expectations. Focusing on the value for thinking and learning as outcomes as opposed to mere completion of “work.” d
  • Cultural Forces; rather than talking about what we expect OF our students (being on time, bring a pen etc), have expectations FOR our students (work together with students to create independence.
  • A target of advancement will be connected to one of the cultural forces.
  • Problem of change in education: People take on the actions as the goal itself (“we are going to do thinking routines”, “we are doing inquiry”) but these are tools that should lead to an outcome. The tool should not be the goal, there should be a broader greater outcome.
  • CoT Rounds process: Observers come not to evaluate or judge, but as the eyes for the observees. The Host school should have a clear goal to make the visit more effective and useful.  Sweet spot between Evidence, Action and Focus.
  • CoT Rounds process: Target of Advancement needs to link to one of the cultural forces. The hosts discusses the puzzles/targets to frame context.  Visitors will go to 6 different classrooms for about 15 to 20 minutes. This is because we are after a sample, looking for a pattern, we are not observing individual classes. Looking for certain teacher or student behaviours, it’s a sampling data, it’s not an evaluation.

Six Key Principles of the Cultures of Thinking Project

  1. Skills are not sufficient; we must also have the disposition to use them. Possessing thinking skills and abilities alone is insufficient for good thinking. One must also have the disposition to use those abilities. This means schools must develop students’ inclination to think and awareness of occasions for thinking as well as their thinking skills and abilities. Having a disposition toward thinking enhances the likelihood that one can effectively use one’s abilities in new situations.
  1. The development of thinking and understanding is fundamentally a social endeavor, taking place in a cultural context and occurring within the constant interplay between the group and the individual. Social situations that provide experience in communicating oneʼs own thinking as well as opportunities to understand othersʼ thinking enhance individual thinking.
  1. The culture of the classroom teaches. It not only sets a tone for learning, but also determines what gets learned. The messages sent through the culture of the classroom communicate to students what it means to think and learn well. These messages are a curriculum in themselves, teaching students how to learn and ways of thinking.
  1. As educators, we must strive to make students thinking visible. It is only by making thinking visible that we can begin to understand both what and how our students are learning. Under normal conditions, a studentʼs thinking is invisible to other students, the teacher, and even to him/herself, because people often think with little awareness of how they think. By using structures, routines, probing questions, and documentation we can make studentsʼ thinking more visible toward fostering better thinking and learning.
  1. Good thinking utilizes a variety of resources and is facilitated by the use of external tools to “download” or “distribute” oneʼs thinking. Papers, logs, computers, conversation, and various means of recording and keeping track of ideas and thoughts free the mind up to engage in new and deeper thinking.
  1. For classrooms to be cultures of thinking for students, schools must be cultures of thinking for teachers. The development of a professional community in which deep and rich discussions of teaching, learning, and thinking are a fundamental part of teachersʼ ongoing experience provides the foundation for nurturing studentsʼ thinking and learning. e
  1. See more at:  (back)
  2., an interview with Richard Elmore  (back)
  3. Interview with Richard Elmore:  (back)
  4. Taken from Intellectual Character: What It Is, Why it Matters, and How to Get It by Ron Ritchhart (2002), Jossey-Bass Publisher. © Ron Ritchhart, 2002 THE 8 CULTURAL FORCES THAT DEFINE OUR CLASSROOMS CULTURAL FORCE DIRECTED TOWARD THINKING  (back)
  5.  (back)