Printer Friendly

Engaging young children in thinking routines.

In early childhood settings, it is evident that routines play an important role in shaping the dynamics of the classroom, including learning environments. This article will highlight the importance of classroom routines in building a learning community, reflect on the power of thinking routines in creating thinking dispositions in the classroom, and explore how to make thinking visible so that children can see their own thinking and teachers can learn from children and improve their practice. Early childhood teachers must rise to the challenge of helping children both to think, and to think about thinking in their daily routines. The article pulls together classroom experiences from two preschools that are participating in an ongoing action research project. It focuses on early childhood theories and research and recommends specific practices for engaging children in thinking activities.

What Are Routines?

It is easy to identify routines in an early childhood classroom. They are the simple steps that the classroom community follows to organize the students' and teachers' participation. Young children overcome the stress and anxiety of the first days of school as they learn the rituals and routines of the classroom. Organizing the day around routines provides children with consistency, confidence, security, trust, and a sense of safety, because the routines allow them to identify patterns that help them predict what is going to happen next. Children are continuously constructing real and imaginary places (Malaguzzi, Ceppi, & Zini, 1998), and the use of thinking routines provides children with cognitive strategies that help them construct their world.

Children understand the concept of a routine at young ages. Here is an example of a child's response to the teacher's question: "What is a routine?"

"When a gift is getting dressed, she always takes a bath first, and then puts [on] clothes, that's a routine." Nina, 5 years old.

This example caught my attention because it confirmed that children understand that a routine is a sequence or a regular course of procedures or actions. As a matter of fact, it is common to hear children describe sequences of events as they talk about their drawings (Gallas, 1994).

Structuring classroom routines facilitates communication, learning, and thinking. Routines are considered instructional strategies, because they engage the students in ritualized interactions that respond to a common goal: participation in activities as they shape a culture of learning.

Ritchhart (2002) classified classroom routines into four broad categories: housekeeping, management, discourse, and learning.

* Housekeeping routines manage movement and physical materials within the classroom

* Management routines are related to setting up the classroom to help children prepare for learning

* Discourse routines organize conversations between teachers and students

* Learning routines focus children's attention on the specific topic being studied.

This article focuses on thinking routines, a subset of learning or discourse routines that involve thinking.

Thinking Routines

The Visible Thinking Project Zero research initiative (Project Zero, 2009; Ritchhart, 2002) developed a set of thinking routines. These are short, easy-to-learn mini-strategies that extend and deepen students' thinking and become part of the structure of everyday classroom life. Teachers can use thinking routines during circle time, small- and large-group activities, and play. The following routines are the most common ones used by teachers:

* What makes you say that? (Interpretation with justification routine)

* Think/Puzzle/Explore. (A routine that sets the stage for deeper inquiry)

* Think/Pair/Share. (A routine for active reasoning and explanation)

* Circle of viewpoints. (A routine for exploring diverse perspectives)

* I used to think.... Now I think.... (A routine for reflecting on how and why our thinking has changed)

* See/Think/Wonder. (A routine for exploring works of art and other things)

Research suggests that the human brain is predisposed to seek, recognize, extract, and categorize information from schemata that are shaped by routines (Cohen, 1991; Nelson & Gruendel, 1986). Children can expand their repertoire of cognitive strategies when they are exposed to thinking routines, because routines constitute a major form of organizing memory and thinking. For Ritchhart (2002), classroom routines tend to be explicit and goal-driven in nature. Good routines are crafted to achieve specific ends in an efficient and workable manner.

The thinking routines are compatible with the recommendations of the National Association for the Education of Young Children for age-appropriate practices, because they help children construct knowledge from prior experiences and are meaningful and functional. For example, after being exposed to the routine What makes you say that?, 5-year-old Nichole drew her idea of thinking and dictated to her teacher what she was thinking about thinking in her drawing: "Thinking is when you use your imagination and you think in your imagination what you want to think." (See Figure 1.)

When thinking is part of the routine, children become alert to situations that call for thinking; as a result, they build up positive attitudes toward thinking and learning (Ritchhart, 2002; Ritchhart, Palmer, Church, & Tishman, 2006). The thinking routines help children make connections with familiar and relevant events in their lives. Ritchhart et al. (2006) stated that only repeated practices become a routine, and children can activate a routine just by naming it. Thinking routines are tools for thinking that support the development of students as self-directed learners.

A key element for creating cognitive awareness is to make children's thinking visible. This approach to teaching and learning emphasizes the use of thinking routines and documentation to make the thinking process more visible in the classroom. Visible thinking makes thinking a natural and overt part of the classroom discourse.

Learning From Student Work

Looking at student work for teacher learning is a key feature of the visible thinking initiative. This article draws examples from a study group integrated by a group of early childhood practitioners who were trying to adapt thinking routines to young children and engage them in deep thinking (Ritchhart & Perkins, 2008). Because thinking routines are flexible in nature, teachers and children are able to modify them to best meet their needs (Ritchhart et al., 2006). The research team was interested in exploring:

* How routines provide a vehicle for incorporating thinking language in the classroom

* How teachers can make thinking more visible in classrooms so that young children can see their own thinking

* How teachers can see thinking at work so they can get hold of it and improve it.


The group involved in the study consisted of six pre-K-3 to 1st-grade teachers from two preschools, two university faculty members, a doctoral candidate, and 60 children (mostly English language learners ranging from 3-1/2 to 6 years old). The teachers began their journey by exploring how to engage young children in thinking routines and observe their responses. During the process, the teachers tried to connect theory with practice while testing their understanding of young children's inner workings, in order to scaffold their thinking.

The participants were part of a study group that met on a weekly basis to share, discuss, and reflect on their experiences and to set goals. Research (President and Fellows of Harvard, 2006; Ritchhart & Perkins, 2008) shows that as adults seek to make thinking more visible in their classrooms through the use of thinking routines and documenting students' thinking, they uncover students' thinking about thinking. The weekly meetings were crucial for building on the team's understanding of developmentally appropriate practices that help children structure their thinking. They shared success stories and concerns and analyzed things that worked--and didn't work--in terms of promoting children's thinking.

A Journey With Thinking Routines

Before getting the children started, the teachers tested their own understanding of thinking about thinking. Ritchhart's (2002) research found that teachers' conceptions of thinking shaped the way they tried to promote students' thinking. When asked "What is thinking?," their responses ranged from strategies they use to understand something to ways of managing information. Only a few teachers talked about thinking about thinking, which is essential for promoting cognitive awareness or metacognitive skills. As Ritchhart and Perkins (2008) state, children and adults often greatly underutilize their thinking capabilities. Thus, the first challenge was to engage young children in thinking about thinking and talking about thinking (see Figure 2).

Young children usually externalize their thoughts through drawings, pretend play, building, and speaking. As they draw, role-play, build, or talk, they use narratives to construct mental models of their experiences (Gallas, 1994) that show what they know. When the teachers asked the children "What is thinking?," the children drew or talked about objects or events that had happened in their lives, such as "I am thinking about pizza or a particular toy." Other responses were related to household events, like "I am thinking of my mom." Incorporating a thinking language was a critical step toward engaging children in thinking routines, but it was also hard until the teachers became aware of the thinking process and used a word that reflected that thinking process. One simple problem with thinking is that it is invisible (Perkins, 2003), and our job is to find how to make young children's thinking visible.

Although there are natural ways of making sense of the world, such as observing an object or reading a book, children's natural thinking also needs to be nurtured toward what is often referred to as high-end thinking or critical and creative thinking (Ritchhart & Perkins, 2005). Research shows (Ritchhart & Perkins, 2008) those teachers with well-elaborated conceptions of thinking embrace strategies that better support and scaffold thinking in their students. Thus, the teachers' job during the study was to find ways to involve children in high-level and productive thinking, and to tie those thoughts to an agenda of understanding or learning by doing.

Children's "I Don't Knows"

One of the kindergarten teachers in the study who wanted to implement the thinking routines in the classroom was frustrated with her students' poor responses to the question "What is thinking?"; their common answers were "I don't know." Children's literature is always an entry point for creating learning experiences, so we began to search for children's books that could help children connect with the idea of thinking about thinking (Salmon, 2008). The first persuasive book that we found was The Dot (Reynolds, 2003). In the story, Vashti is a frustrated artist who thinks he can't draw. His teacher asks him to draw a mark and see where it would take him. The teacher in the story celebrated Vashti's first attempts to draw at least a dot, and this set Vashti on a journey of self-expression, artistic experimentation, and success. After reading this book, the children began to see the world from a "dot's" perspective, and began their own search for "dots" in the environment. With the use of digital cameras, the children went all over the school taking pictures of "dots." The book and its follow-up activity awakened their curiosity and inquiry. While searching for dots in nature, their own buddies, classrooms, and toys, they began to use the See/Think/Wonder routine (Project Zero 2009), which consists of shaping the students' thinking with the following questions:

* What do you see?

* What do you think about that?

* What does it make you wonder?

This routine engaged children in conversations that reflected their understanding about science and math concepts. The "I don't knows" were not part of the children's repertoire anymore, because the teacher had learned how to scaffold their thinking.

Similarly, when the 1st-grade teacher noticed that her students had a hard time providing answers to "What is thinking?," she decided to introduce the concept of thinking by reading to children Oh, the Thinks You Can Think (Dr. Seuss, 1975). This book provoked many good conversations in the class: Not only did thinking become an inquiry in this classroom, but the children also began to talk frequently about thinking (Salmon, 2008). Amazingly, each time that I (one of the university faculty members) arrived at the school, the children commented among themselves that the "Thinking Lady" was there. Their conversations also guided some of them to associate thinking with the brain. In an effort to talk about thinking, the children represented their thoughts with sophisticated drawings, some of which were related to brain functions. Some children wrote complex stories using imagery. While trying to find out what thinking is, the children decided to draw a face with a thinking bubble where they could post their ideas. One child said that there should be two faces, one for the boys and another for the girls, because boys and girls think differently. The use of Oh, the Thinks You Can Think led the students to work on the Circle of Viewpoints routine (Project Zero, 2007), which consists of brainstorming a list of different perspectives and then using this basic script to explore each one with questions, such as:

* I am thinking of ... (the topic).., from the point of view of... (the viewpoint you've chosen).

* I think... (describe the topic from your viewpoint). Be an actor... (take on the character of your viewpoint).

* A question I have from this viewpoint is... (ask a question from this viewpoint). What new ideas do you have about the topic that you didn't have before? What new questions do you have?


For the teacher, this routine was perfect for eliminating the children's worries about being wrong or right. It opened their minds, because it helped them make relationships between their thoughts and the author's message. The teacher used this routine for her language arts class. With the use of this routine, the students' responses to children's books showed that they were making strong connections between the reading and their thinking.

It is important to highlight the fact that as the teachers documented their students' work, they exposed the children to sharing memories and intellectual and mental viewpoints that were different from their own perspectives. Malaguzzi (cited in Rankin, 2004) believes that children continually reconstruct their identities as they discover that today they are different from how they were yesterday. By looking at the children's work, the teachers discovered that the use of thinking routines deepened their thoughts and created thinking dispositions.

Thinking dispositions are inclinations and habits of mind that lead to productive thinking and are teachable over time, across diverse thinking situations (Ritchhart, 2002). Thinking routines have the potential to create thoughtful classrooms and nurture children's thinking dispositions. Because learning is a product of thinking, preparing teachers to create thinking dispositions is essential to fostering a culture of thinking that will be reflected in students' learning. As teachers and children gain ownership and awareness of thinking processes, they will begin to shape their own culture of thinking (Salmon, 2008).

Thinking Through Art

One pre-kindergarten teacher decided to use the Think/Puzzle/Explore routine (Project Zero, 2009) to analyze one of Rousseau's Notre Dame paintings. This routine helps students connect to prior knowledge; because art makes people think, the routine also stimulates the children's curiosity and lays the groundwork for independent inquiry. The children were asked to observe one of Rousseau's artworks and consider three questions:

* What do you think you know about this artwork?

* What questions do you have?

* What does the artwork make you want to explore?


As expected, children made personal connections that helped teachers identify the children's zones of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978) and scaffold their thinking. By using this routine, children began to talk about customs, housing, habitat, and weather (Salmon, 2008).

An extension of the activity consisted of drawing the school surroundings from the perspectives of inside the classroom on one day and from the outside on the next day. The pre-K children used markers to draw on transparencies. Several days later, the teacher invited the children to use the overhead projector to share their drawings. The drawings revealed the students' thinking and a consistency in the messages that they were trying to convey through their drawings. One child drew the street and the lake next to his classroom. When he shared with the class, via the transparency, the teacher used the Think/Puzzle/ Explore routine to revisit his work. This is how he noticed that in his drawing, the street was on the right side instead of the left side, as in reality. This routine fostered deeper inquiry; as a result, the child changed the transparency to the correct position and explained to the other children the reason for doing this. The predictability of the activity provided the scaffold that allowed the child to acquire and practice communication responses in a naturally sequenced, discourse context.

Another kindergarten teacher decided to use the Parts/Purpose/Complexities routine. This routine, which is used for seeing the layers and dimensions of things, consists of the following questions:

* What are its parts? (What are its pieces, components?)

* What are its purposes? (What is it for; what does it do?)

* What are its complexities? (How is it complicated in its parts, purposes, the relationship between the two, or other ways?)

The teacher was interested in using the multi-dimensional mental model by identifying objects in the children's environment through the use of digital cameras. Initially, the children were taking random pictures; as soon as the teacher introduced them to this routine, however, their pictures became more intentional and had a focus and a meaning. In this experience, the use of the previous routine enhanced the children's thinking and helped them elaborate their thoughts about their pictures and let the teacher pull out their prior knowledge.

Implications for Language Development

This group of 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds was unique because many of them speak Spanish as a first language. We noticed that the use of routines helped them express their thinking using their first language, while giving the teachers a notion of what they knew and allowing the teachers to scaffold the children's language and thoughts. Language researchers (e.g., Cohen, 1991; Nelson & Gruendel, 1986) have reported that routines support language acquisition. The use of thinking routines engaged children in thinking activities in Spanish, and the teachers scaffolded their ideas in English.


The uses of routines are important not only for giving children a sense of security and confidence, but also to guide them in developing a culture of thinking (Salmon, 2008). The thinking routines are repeated practices that create patterns of thinking and learning and become part of the child's intellectual character (Ritchhart, 2002). Thinking routines are age-appropriate, because they activate children's prior knowledge and expand their thinking.

Having the flexibility to implement the thinking routines and to use documentation to make thinking visible allowed the teachers to shape their concepts about thinking and adapt thinking routines to young children. Although it was initially hard to engage young children in thinking about thinking, the thinking routines helped to involve children in cognitive activities as part of their routines.


Cohen, M. (1991). Individual learning and organizational routine: Emerging connections. Organization Science, 2(1), 135-139. Special Issue: Organizational Learning: Papers in Honor of (and by) James G. March. Retrieved September 18, 2007, sici?sici=1047-7039%281991%292%3A1%3C135%3AILA ORE%3E2.0.CO%3B2-F

Gallas, K. (1994). The languages of learning: How children talk, write, dance, draw, and sing their understanding of the world. New York: Teachers College Press.

Malaguzzi, L., Ceppi, G., & Zini, M. (1998). Children, spaces, relations: Metaproject for an environment for young children. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children.

Nelson, K., & Gruendel, J. (1986). Event knowledge: Structure and function in development. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Perkins, D. (2003). Making thinking visible. New Horizons. Retrieved August 3, 2007, from strategies/thinking/perkins.htm

President and Fellows of Harvard College. (2006). Artful thinking: Stronger thinking and learning through the power of art. Retrieved August 30, 2007, from www.pz.harvard. edu/Research/ArtfulThinkingFinalReport.pdf

Project Zero. (2009). Visible thinking. Retrieved January 20, 2009, from

Rankin, B. (2004). The importance of intentional socialization among children in small groups: A conversation with Loris Malaguzzi. Early Childhood Education Journal, 32(2), 81-85.

Reynolds, P. (2003). The dot. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.

Ritchhart, R. (2002). Intellectual character: What it is, why it matters, and how to get it. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ritchhart, R., Palmer P., Church, M., & Tishman, S. (2006). Thinking routines: Establishing patters of thinking in the classroom. (Paper prepared for AERA Conference, 2006).

Ritchhart, R., & Perkins, D. (2005). Learning to think: The challenges of teaching thinking. In Cambridge handbook of thinking and reasoning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ritchhart R., & Perkins, D. (2008). Making thinking visible. Educational Leadership, 65(5), 57-61.

Salmon, A. K. (2008). Promoting a culture of thinking in the young child. Early Childhood Education Journal, 35(5), 457-461.

Seuss, Dr. (1975). Oh, the thinks you can think! New York: Beginner Books.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Angela K. Salmon is Assistant Professor, Curriculum and Instruction, Florida International University, Miami.
COPYRIGHT 2010 Association for Childhood Education International
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Salmon, Angela K.
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 10, 2010
Previous Article:Children were punished: not for what they said, but for what their teachers heard.
Next Article:Using song picture books to support early literacy development.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters