Helping Students Think Better

As complexity increases, simple routines can help students develop the habits of mind they need for comprehension and analysis.

February 2018, Volume 41, Issue 6

What does it mean to think well?

Over the span of five decades, researchers at Project Zero have probed the question, concluding that the act of thinking well is not just about mastering a cognitive skill. It’s also, in equal parts, about developing a disposition—a mindset that combines capacity with readiness, motivation, and an alertness to the opportunity to use our skills.

Thinking is a necessary precursor to learning, the researchers say, so the idea is not just to think; it’s to think when it counts—to take advantage of opportunities to use the thinking skills we have, to notice the times when they might be useful, and to activate your learning.

So, can “good thinking” be taught? Project Zero research suggests that it can.

Building on insights developed by David Perkins, Ron Ritchart, and Shari Tishman, Project Zero has created a large suite of “thinking routines”—exercises, activities, discussion prompts, and practices— that help students develop habits of mind that support good thinking in a variety of situations and contexts. (For example, the video below illustrates a routine called +1, part of a collection of tools in Pathways to Understanding, which Project Zero designed to develop note-taking and memory skills.)

Usable Minute: A Notetaking Activity

Thinking Well, When It Counts

According to Project Zero’s approach, the habits of mind that foster good thinking include:

  • Having a repertoire of thinking moves to draw on;
  • Having an inclination to use those moves;
  • Being sensitive to the times when thinking would be helpful.

Good thinkers are in the habit of observing, analyzing, and questioning, Project Zero researchers have theorized. Thinking routines—a set of short questions or a sequence of steps—build those habits by:

  • Helping students become close observers, go beyond the superficial, and dig deep;
  • Teaching them to organize their ideas;
  • Giving them tools to navigate complexity;
  • Prompting them to reason carefully;
  • Prompting them to reflect on how they’re making sense of things.

Thinking routines are simple structures, designed to be practical, easy to remember, and easily transferrable across subjects or disciplines. A classic example is See, Think, Wonder.

  • What do you see?
  • What do you think about that?
  • What does it make you wonder?

When used repeatedly and intentionally, this exquisitely simple routine can encourage close analysis and thoughtful interpretation—and it can become a habitual part of the way students approach a new topic or idea. It stimulates their curiosity and provides a path forward.

There are many other routines to sample, but just as most habits develop from repetition, PZ researchers say that habits of mind do, too. They suggest that practitioners who are new to the technique choose one core thinking routine and try it out in as many contexts as possible. Once they’re comfortable with the way that one thinking routine has worked in their classroom, they can branch out and focus on different kinds of inquiry, like Here Now/There Then, which could be used in a civics class to help students understand how past perspectives change over time; or Parts, Purpose, Complexities, which encourages observation and understanding of art objects or mechanical systems.

Routines like See, Think, Wonder might seem almost too simple—but they were designed that way, to be easy to remember and use. The intention is not to simplify ideas; it’s to simplify the ways to approach and engage with ideas. By breaking down the thinking process and by making thinking visible, thinking routines foster a community of thinkers in a classroom and a culture of thinking in a school or district.

From Usable Knowledge at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Learn more at

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