Using Visible Thinking Strategies to Develop Expert Learners

Supporting Inquiry with Scaffolded, Collaborative Journal Writing

Communicating peopleVisible thinking is all the rage. I’m glad!

Back in the day–we usually referred to visible thinking as explicit thinking. 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.  The basic idea is to uncover the implicit and inert thinking and to make that thinking discussable and perhaps available to others. For it is by objectifying knowledge that we can come to understand it.

John Seely Brown once suggested,

“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)

So, how do we support students in making their thinking visible?

There are many perspectives, frameworks and strategies. A favourite of mine is that of David Perkins, one of the pioneers on making thinking explicit. His recent work with a team at Harvard’s Project Zero has resulted in a book Making Thinking Visible. A worthwhile read! Also, visit the Making Thinking Visible website for wonderful resources.

What are Novice and Expert Learners?

I personally love the literature on expertise and how it may serve us. We can think about novice learners and expert learners and ask “how do we move novices towards greater expertise in learning”? Scardamalia and Bereiter have done a great deal of work in this area and the following has arisen from their research over the years.

This graphic shares some of the differences between novice and expert learners.

(Click it, then click it again to see full size.)
Novice/Expert Infographic

Novice/Expert Infographic

What is Scaffolded, Collaborative Journal Writing?

So, how can we help students become more expert?

I have used journal writing extensively–both offline and online. But not simply private, individual journal writing. I prefer collaborative, scaffolded, journal writing environments.  This provides all the benefits of journal writing, collaboration, and the use of scaffolds or procedural facilitations. (You can set this up in a blog, wiki, or other social space–although it is a bit of a ‘hack’!)

journal medSome Benefits of Journal Writing:

  • Cappo & Osterman suggest that “as students communicate their ideas, they learn to clarify, refine, and consolidate their thinking”.
  • Countryman says, “I believe that to learn mathematics, students must construct it for themselves. They can only do that by exploring, justifying, representing, discussing, using, describing, investigating, predicting–in short by being active in the world. Writing is an ideal activity for such processes”.
  • Journal writing allows for the externalization of knowledge through language. Language plays an important role in making knowledge explicit by objectifying experience. So as students engage in writing about their knowledge they are indeed exploring, stating and questioning what they know. Journal writing allows students to state their understanding of a topic or problem replete with all the associate bugs. These buggy statements are then explicit and can act as a medium for mediating new understanding in collaboration with others.

Some Benefits of Collaboration

Cloud Computing Small textA collaborative form of journal writing leads to unique experiences that have qualitatively different results than individual journal writing. Students not only reflect on their own thoughts and processes, but also exchange information about both the subject content and the processes and strategies used by others.

Stated somewhat differently, Perkins and Salomon maintain that “learning takes place in a social context (e.g., reciprocal teaching), whereby justifications, principles, and explanations are socially fostered, generated, and contrasted”.

In the Zone Scaffolding

Scaffolding in the zone (as in Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development) can encourage students to consider their own higher level strategies and promote the active decontextualization of knowledge. It may allow the user to decenter from personal thoughts and think about other considerations. Confused roadsignIt facilitates an internal dialogue when no other partner exists to bounce ideas off. In the zone scaffolding can take many forms, but I have used prompts, questions or sentence starters and make these available to students in a blog template as they write their entries.

You will see that the scaffolding prompts (below) tie directly to the characteristics of the novice-expert continuum in the infographic–although they are categorized as planning and reflection starters.

Comment Starters

Usually students quite naturally respond with social commentary, but often not with substantive assistance that might help their classmates to reconsider, or to think more deeply, about how they are doing in their project. So I recommend to also include comment or discussion starters.

Connective Words or Elaboration Triggers

In addition to the prompts for the journaling and the conversation, a list of connective words can be available to students to help them to elaborate their thoughts. So if a student initially writes, “I want to learn animation”, selecting a connective word such as because, might result in further consideration of the goal perhaps resulting in sub-goals. “I want to learn animation because then I will be able to demonstrate how red blood cells are produced. In fact, I will be able to use it in lots of projects.”

Classroom Support

A teacher can also enhance the use of these public journal entries by structuring certain activities for their use. For example, to have students focus on using knowledge as a tool, the teacher could request:

“For the next group meeting, I would like you to read the blog (journal) entries of your group members for the current project and print out the ones that show that a piece of old knowledge has been used in a new way.”


“…print out the ones where the comments provide direct help with the task.”


Several challenges exist.

One, this can become simply another classroom exercise–worksheet-like. NOT the intent. Try to engage your students in developing their own sentence starters. Engage in the discussion by adding comments that are substantive.  Model what you want the kids to do. Encourage the philosophy in the classroom that thinking is a highly valued activity.

Two, the tools (wikis, blogs, Diigo) are not designed to ease the use of these starters.  I have had students copy and paste the ones they want to use into their post or into their reply. But, availability is the issue.

Three, ideally you want the kids generalizing this behaviour and appropriating the use of deep discourse. In order for that to be the case, it must serve the kids well. This may require your effort in making the connection.

Request of you…

It would be beneficial if you would share your ideas on how you have used journal writing, scaffolding or collaboration to help your students to become more expert learners!

Scaffolding Prompts

Planning Starters

I want to know…
I want to learn…
I think…
My goals for this project are…
I don’t understand…
I wonder…
I am having difficulty with…
I am breaking my project into…
A similar task I have had before is…
The steps I plan to follow are…
Different ways to solve this task…

Reflection Starters

I learned…
Things I want to learn are…
I think…
I have managed to…
I have changed my plan…
I didn’t get as far as I planned because…
I got further than I had planned because…
The steps I did first were…
My next step will be…

Comment or Discussion Starters

I agree with you because …
I disagree with you because…
I think…
I believe…
Have you thought about…
I am confused…
Another explanation…
I don’t understand…
You need to…
Your journal entry would be better if…

Elaboration Triggers

thanks to
that’s how
that’s why
in that case
in view of
look forward to
give up
as a result of

Previous version originally published on The Construction Zone

About Peter Skillen

Peter Skillen is an independent educator in Ontario, Canada. He has been involved in technology supported, inquiry-based learning since the mid 1970s–particularly as it relates to learner agency, passion, & cognitive intent. Peter blogs at The Construction Zone.
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