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March 4, 2014


Visible Thinking – A View from the Past :-)

by Peter Skillen

Transfers on the Train of Thoughts

As colleague, Brenda Sherry, and I prepare for the OTF CONNECTS webinar session titled Making Student Thinking Visible: How Can Technology Help?, I came across this article from the distant past <g>.  We didn’t call it ‘visible thinking’ back then – we usually referred to it as ‘making your thinking explicit’.  But, as with many solid, worthwhile constructs, they are not readily adopted and so often reappear decades (or centuries!) later under a new name with new advocates and with a new dream that maybe this time things might stick and better the lives of students.

So it is with ‘visible thinking’.  Of course, there are LOTS of new ideas and strategies that Brenda and I are bringing to the presentation – based on Project Zero’s “Making Thinking Visible“!

I have replicated “Transfers on the Train of Thoughts” here as is — except I have parsed it and added a couple of titles for clarity. This was written for, and delivered at, a SIG-Logo conference called “Look to the Learner” that some of us ran for the Educational Computing Organization of Ontario (ECOO) in March, 1986.

Look to the Learner Poster SmallerTRANSFERS ON THE TRAIN OF THOUGHTS

©1986 Peter A. Skillen
Program Leader – Computing in Education Centre
North York Board of Education

People caught in unfamiliar contexts…are liable to be judged as stupid…”

For decades, if not centuries, a persistent problem for educators has been that of getting the student to apply knowledge learned in one domain to another distinctly different domain. It is not that the knowledge does not exist within the learner. It appears to be a problem of triggering the retrieval of that knowledge when immersed in a different problem-solving context. Carl Bereiter, Marlene Scardamalia and others (Whitehead, 1929) refer to this contextually restricted knowledge as “inert knowledge”.

“Human beings learn through participation in various contexts and spheres of action. Home, street, workplace, supermarket, bank, airliner, the faceless but nonetheless real world of bill-paying – these are a few of the many contexts with which one must become intimate in order to function as a modern adult. People caught in unfamiliar contexts, such as a person taking an airline trip for the first time, will blunder, hesitate, and act not quite right in a dozen ways that people familiar with the context never even think about. Newcomers to a behavioural context are therefore liable to be judged as stupid. By the same token, people behaving in a context that is much more familiar to them than it is to the observer are likely to be admired for their mental efforts.” (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1983, p11)

…So, we’d better teach students to think about their thinking!

We need to explicitly teach students to think about their thinking.

“The hope is that we might be able to find ways to help students discover knowledge about knowledge, thereby setting the stage for acquiring truly domain-independent skills, such as how to reflect on the knowledge they already have, and to identify the causes underlying the mistakes they make.” (Brown, 1985, p184)


“Cognitive skills of information management; strategies for problem solving that cut across domains of knowledge; such metacognitive skills as planning, monitoring, and learning how to learn; communication and critical inquiry skills will come to be valued more highly.” (Pea, 1985, p93)

Schools have traditionally taught subjects and therefore emphasize knowledge specific to that domain. This method, of course, is replicated in other domains. But this methodology perhaps leads to a collection of “knowledge packets” that can only be accessed when one invokes the context or culture in which the knowledge is embedded.

How do we solve this dilemma?

1. Thematic Integration

In order to overcome this dilemma two distinct approaches have occurred in educational environments – one more strongly than the other. I shall propose a third. The first scenario is familiar to most elementary school teachers: thematic integration. One should not teach a period on reading, then one on writing, followed by math, etc. There rather should be a thematic approach to the classroom environment. In this way “Pioneers” maybe the chosen theme and the classroom is alive with multidisciplined activities dealing with pioneers. For example, a centre might be set up for students to write about pioneers; a candle-making centre might be arranged to allow the students to explore early candle-making methods; the dress-up centre may have 18 and 19th century clothing and so on. This approach is certainly more meaningful than a “traditional” one, in that there is a connectedness and relevance to the use of the subject matter skills to learn about pioneers. But it does not meet the needs of learning generalizable skills outside of that domain.

2. Teach Heuristics

Another approach, although less popular, is that of teaching heuristics to students. These are generally problem-solving strategies that are studied in either a domain-free or a single domain environment. The hope here is that the student is able to recall the appropriate heuristic when confronted with a new problem.

3. Teach Thinking Techniques – an Eclectic Approach

What I propose is a more eclectic approach.

But before I describe techniques that have been successfully used in classrooms, I would like to draw one further observation. Some people, when adopting Logo, have understood its attendant philosophy as one of a playground where unfolding of learning and development will occur naturally as a result of interacting with the Logo environment. I encourage free exploration and a playfulness as an integral part of any learning activity – but not to the exclusion of other forms of activity. Ron Ragsdale (OISE) reminded me of a quote from Corinthians.

“Everything is permissible,
But not everything is beneficial.
Everything is permissible,
But not everything is constructive.”

A sense of extreme permissiveness sometimes invades the Logo world. I don’t think this was the intent of the originators of the language. It was designed to allow people to become reflective about their own thought processes – to think about their thinking. The activities which I propose allow the learner to be self-determining and in control yet focus the student on developing reflective skills. (This does not, by any means, negate the need for play and exploration!


Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 12.17.19 PM

In the thematic approach I outlined earlier in the paper, I suggested that people usually choose a content theme – but at other times I would recommend a process theme be the focus. As an example I use a theme called AFTERBUGS.

“What a refreshing change to see young excited learners reveling in learning from their mistakes – rather than being ashamed of them.”

The intent of this activity is that students monitor their own learning processes by actively looking for mistakes, or bugs, as evidenced in the outcome of their task. The importance of children taking charge of their own minds cannot be over-emphasized from both and the affective and cognitive perspective. (Incidentally, the social, interactive payoffs are quite high too!)

When children are enthusiastic and analytical about going back to their tasks (hence analyzing their previous and present thinking processes) they have taken a large step toward the more profound goals of education. How can this be achieved in the classroom? It started with Logo and the original idea arose from the grade 2-3 students in the class. In working with Logo it became clear that one rarely got it right the first time.

Children soon got used to the notion of having “bugs” in their programs. These are not bad things – rather they were things that had to be fixed.

Bug hunting became an game.

With some nurturing of this attitude the children started bug collections. They had imaginary (to an adult!) jars in which they collected their bugs. Whenever they solved their difficulty (bug) they would remove it from the jar and squish it. Now, because we had constructed a large papier-mâché turtle as part of our classroom Logo culture, one of the children suggested that we feed the bugs to the turtle rather than destroying them indiscriminately. This was very entertaining and motivating.

The next occurrence was astounding and revelatory for me as an educator. The children started looking for bugs elsewhere in their classroom lives – not just with Logo! They would actively seek mistakes in their math, spelling, reading and so on.

An unusual situation for a classroom one must admit! What a refreshing change to see young excited learners reveling in learning from their mistakes – rather than being ashamed of them.


Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 12.18.56 PMAnother technique that can be used is WATCH ME THINK. This is essentially a situation where a more novice student would watch a more expert student as he/she performs the task. In addition to watching the student, however, the ‘expert’ is asked to think out loud. This allows the ‘novice’ to get at some of the thinking processes that the expert is using.

The outcomes, once again, are not specific only to Logo. This strategy can be used during the solution of other problems; in arithmetic, or writing stories, spelling, reading text. This technique of ‘thinking aloud’ has normally been used in research settings where the researcher is attempting to understand the strategies underlying the actions. Again, the payoffs are not only cognitive ones.

It is assumed by many people that experts solve tasks with ease, with little difficulty. This is clearly not the case. It is therefore of affective benefit to the novice in that he/she can observe that:

“Oh, I’m normal – it’s okay to have ups and downs when I’m trying to solve a problem. It’s natural.”

Think about young writers. The models they have for writing are generally the finished product; a linear, error-free piece of text. One could easily assume that the author sat down at a blank page (or screen!) and wrote fluidly from beginning to end and voilà it’s complete! This, as we are aware, is rarely the situation.

The novice benefits greatly from getting at the procedural knowledge that the expert uses in pursuing this task. Similarly, in Logo, looking at a finished product does not always help the novice in achieving similar goals. To watch someone use his/her techniques for proceeding with a task can be a powerful tool. “What” does not necessarily help with “How”.

(One must not assume from this discussion that I negate individual explorations of problem-solving. This is certainly not the case. Remember, my preference in educating is to be eclectic; providing as wide a variety of techniques as possible to suit and enhance idiosyncratic learning styles.)

It is clear, once again, that the Watch Me Think exercise focuses the students attention on thinking about thinking.


Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 12.22.59 PMThis is an activity that emphasizes the use of metaphor – specifically what I call procedural analogy. I make the distinction and use the term ‘procedural’ quite purposely. The rationale for this is that I wish to emphasize the “how“, or process knowledge, as opposed to the “what” or propositional, declarative knowledge.

Metaphors are used widely in cultures to clarify the meaning of a construct or idea, but they’re also used to ground the information in an emotional or affective context. Metaphors have been used to illustrate the flow of control of Logo procedures or to teach recursion.

“Metaphors can ground information in an emotional or affective context.”

I believe these to be valuable tools in assisting learners to understand constructs or operations which might otherwise be too difficult for them. What is more important (and more difficult to implement) is to encourage the learner to create his/her own metaphor for that abstract concept under focus. This may only be possible after the construct is understood by means of using a given metaphor. But the ownership over the self-created idea is certainly more powerful, less extinguishable and more generalizable than a teacher-given one.

“Ownership over self-created ideas is more powerful, less extinguishable and more generalizable than teacher-given ones.”

And once again, of course, the student is thinking about thinking. So the child is essentially saying to herself, “Okay, I have this idea and way of doing things – what else is like that?”

An example, published before – but worth mentioning here, from a grade three child (Jeffrey) who was coming to grips with the notion of a larger problem being broken into its smaller parts is repeated here for the sake of continuity.

Our grade 2/3 class had the opportunity to watch the overpass of the space shuttle piggybacked on a jumbo jet. When we returned to class, a discussion about space naturally erupted. One child asked if Earth was in space, and in asking the question, we determined that yes, it must be, because it wasn’t sitting on anything. The discussion continued until Jeffrey piped up.

You know it’s sort of like Logo.”

The class stopped, and looked at him curiously, as I did myself.

“What do you mean?” I asked him curiously.

“Well, Earth is like a procedure. It’s like a sub-procedure inside of the solar system. The solar system is the super-procedure and the solar system is like a sub-procedure inside the universe. The universe is like the super-procedure.”

Jeffrey personalized and consolidated his understanding of procedures and sub-procedures through making this analogy. Again it is to be noted that the learning is moved from the context of Logo to other domains. This helps to remove the “functional fixedness” that is common to many types of learning situations. The child not only may be able to transfer the knowledge about breaking a large problem into smaller parts – but more importantly may use metaphor or analogy in other learning situations.

“The child…more importantly may use metaphor or analogy in other learning situations.”

To summarize, the activities that I have described here serve two purposes. Firstly, the children will learn the content more efficiently and will be able to transfer that knowledge to other learning domains more readily. Secondly, they will acquire some metaskills of learning which they can apply in new learning contexts – analyzing work for errors of thought, watching a more expert person in solving a task, and metaphor usage to better understand the concept.


Bereiter, C. & Scardamalia, M. (1983) Schooling and the growth of intentional cognition: Helping children take charge of their own minds. In Z. Lamm (Ed.), New Trends in Education. (pp. 73-100). Tel-Aviv: Yachdev United Publishing Company.

Brown, J.S. (1985). Process vs. Product: A perspective on tools for communal and informal electronic learning. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 1(2).

Pea, R. D. (1985) Integrating human and computer intelligence. In E. L. Klein (Ed.) Children and Computers. New Directions for Child Development, no. 28, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

1 Comment Post a comment
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