Making Thinking Visible

Together with Pam Mason, I help to design professional development for Math for America Los Angeles. Right now we have about 85 Teaching Fellows and Master Teaching Fellows in our program.

This year, we decided to implement something new to help “make thinking visible”–that’s my best version of what to call this thing. It’s not new, just new for us. But, I think it’s important enough to write about, hence this post.

Here’s what I mean by “making thinking visible.”

We teachers use phrases like “Say your ‘because’s” as a signal to students and each other that we care about student thinking. We want our students to understand mathematics, not just calculate, though that is important too. So when a student talks about mathematics in our class, we always press them to justify their answers. They need to say their “because”s. For example, we want students to say things like “I think the next step should be to square both sides of the equation because we are trying to find an equivalent equation without square roots.”

Well, the same thing should be true for us teachers too. When we talk to each other as professionals, we should also be making our reasoning and thinking more visible to each other so that we can learn from one another.

At least in Math for America Los Angeles, we haven’t been so good at that. We have been really good at sharing things with each other. We share our lessons, we share our resources, we share our struggles.

But when we say “I like this lesson”, do we explain why to each other?

When we say “I think students struggle here”, do we explain why?

When we say “This unit is going to take 2 more days than we expected”, do we explain why?

Some of the conversations behind these statements are actually the conversations we need to have with each other. They are meaningful and juicy because they reveal our beliefs, logic systems, and understanding about teaching and learning. If we want to really share our knowledge with each other, we should be sharing about these things rather than just sharing lessons and ideas.

Put another way, if we simply shared lessons with each other, that would be equivalent to students just telling us answers without justification. They might be arriving at the right answers for the wrong reasons! Of course we don’t want that to happen, with our students and shouldn’t let that happen for each other either.

I think making our thinking visible is not a complicated thing to do. We don’t need special training to do this, since we teachers are already in the habit of asking good questions and pressing for understanding with our students. We just have to be vigilant to do that we each other because we value each other as professionals in a craft that is deep and worthy of study.


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