Harvard Graduate School of Education | Project Zero

Cultures of Thinking

For more information, please see the Visible Thinking website.

We define “Cultures of Thinking” (CoT) as places 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. Drawing on previous research by Ron Ritchhart (2002), the CoT project focuses teachers’ attention on the eight cultural forces present in every school, classroom, and group learning situation. These forces act as shapers of the group’s cultural dynamic and consist of language, time, environment, opportunities, routines, modeling, interactions, and expectations. As teachers strive to create cultures of thinking in their classrooms, they make time for thinking, develop and use a language of thinking, and make the classroom environment rich with the documents of thinking processes. They also look for opportunities for student thoughtfulness, use thinking routines as supports and scaffolds, model and make their own thinking visible, interact with students in a way that demonstrates an interest in and respect for students’ thinking, and send clear expectations about the importance and value of thinking in learning.

However, this work doesn’t happen by teachers merely implementing a defined set of practices; it must be supported by a rich professional culture. Indeed, a core premise of the CoT project is that for classrooms to be cultures of thinking for students, schools must be cultures of thinking for teachers. In 2005, we began our work at Bialik College by forming two focus groups of eight teachers with whom we worked intensively. These groups were all heterogeneous, including K-12 teachers of various subjects, representing a departure from traditional forms of professional development that target specific subject areas or levels. 

We have found that by working with a diverse range of teachers, they broaden their perspectives on teaching and a sense of shared mission develops. Team teaching efforts have emerged out of the group that might otherwise never have arisen. In addition, the group helps teachers gain a developmental perspective on students’ thinking. In 2011, we published Making Thinking Visible, which captures much of the great work being done by teachers in the project.

Over the last decade, the CoT project’s research agenda has sought to better understand changes in teachers’ and students’ attitudes and practices as thinking becomes more visible in the school and classroom environments. Toward this end, we developed measures of school and classroom thoughtfulness to capture these changes. We also conducted case studies of teachers and looked at how students’ conceptual understanding of the domain of thinking developed. Our research to date has shown that students recognize CoT classrooms as being more focused on thinking, learning, and understanding, and more likely to be collaborative in nature than those of teachers not in the project. Teachers in the project notice that as they work with CoT ideas, their classrooms shift in noticeable ways. Specifically, they find that they give thinking more time, discussion increases, and their questioning of students shifts toward asking students to elaborate on their thinking rather than testing them on their recall of facts and procedures. Our research on students’ conceptual development found that over the course of a single school year, the average CoT classroom students’ growth and maturity, with respect to understanding thinking processes that they themselves use and control, increased by twice the normal rate one might expect by virtue of maturity alone (Ritchhart, Turner, Hadar, 2009). Recent data on students’ language arts performance has shown superior performance by students coming from strong CoT classrooms/schools on standardized tests such as the MAEP Writing Assessment (Michigan), MCAS ELA (Massachusetts), VCE English (Victoria, Australia), and IB English exams.

The new book, Creating Cultures of Thinking, provides a resource for teachers, schools, and disctricts interested in transforming the culture of their schools to support the development of students as powerful thinkers and learners. The book draws on case studies from teachers around the world to demonstrate the power and importance of each cultural force in shaping classroom culture.

As a development as well as a research project, we seek to serve the needs of the school while creating materials for broad educational use. These include frameworks and tools for professional learning communities, videos, and frameworks for understanding classroom questioning. Though the formal research phase of the project ended in 2009, the project continues through 2013 in a support phase to develop internal leadership and outreach around these ideas. The research ideas are also being taken up by many new sites, including Oakland County Michigan and Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

Funding: Bialik College (Melbourne, Australia) under the patronage of Abe and Vera Dorevitch 

Project Staff:

Ron Ritchhart
Mark Church (consultant)