Rich Dialogue with Effective Feedback


Giving and recieving  feedback is an important part of the understanding process.  When teachers develop effective feedback strategies, self and peer assessment is further enhanced.

The Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project  Zero team has developed a useful tool for providing feedback. The tool is intended for a colleague or peer to provide feedback to a teaching peer about either their lesson, unit or potentially course of learning.  This tool supports deeper understanding via rich dialogue between students, peers and instructors.

The Ladder of feedback has four steps or phases. They are:

  1. Clarify – are there aspects of this lesson, unit course that you don’t believe you understood?
  2. Value – what do you see in this lesson, unit or course that you find to be particularly impressive, innovative or strong?
  3. Offer Concerns – Do you detect some potential problems or challenges within this lesson, unit or course? Do you disagree with some part of the design
  4. Suggest – Do you have suggestions on how to address the concerns you identified during the last step?


Reese, James. “Teaching for Understanding 1: An Introduction to the Framework” Project Zero Summer Institute 2013. Harvard Graduate School of Education. . 22 July. 2013. Lecture.


For more information





What Is the Teaching For Understanding Framework”?


What is understanding?

“The performance view of understanding is consonant with both common sense and a number of sources in contemporary cognitive science. The performance perspective says, in brief, that understanding is a matter of being able to do a variety of thought-provoking things with a topic, such as explaining, finding evidence and examples, generalizing, applying, analogizing, and representing the topic in new ways.”


From The Teaching for Understanding Guide by Tina Blythe and Associates (Jossey-Bass, 1999)


The Teaching for Understanding framework

  1. Throughlines, or Overarching Understanding Goals (extend through the entire course—focus learners on BIG understandings)
  2. Generative Topic (the content we focus on in our unit; what it is about the topic that motivates us to learn more)
  3. Understanding Goals (extend through a unit; connect to Throughlines and stem from the Generative Topic)
  4. Performances of Understanding (learners demonstrate their understanding of the topic at various points in a unit)
  5. Ongoing Assessment (learners assess themselves and one another, and receive frequent formative feedback from the teacher)


Teaching for Understanding: An introduction to the framework (mini course powerpoint) 

Teaching for Understanding Project Organizer


Reese, James. “Teaching for Understanding 1: An Introduction to the Framework” Project Zero Summer Institute 2013. Harvard Graduate School of Education. . 22 July. 2013. Lecture.

Thinking Deeply in Kindergarten


As part of our county’s effort,  a fabulous network of schools exploring Harvard University’s Culture of Thinking framework has been created.  Participants are able to attend “walk throughs” at a dozen or so schools implementing a Culture of Thinking.  This is a reflection on my second of many.  We were at  Way Elementary in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

First, we walked the halls, the classrooms and the common areas.  Every classroom was open to impromptu visitors.  I snapped pictures of the visible artifacts I saw along the way.

I then spent an hour in a kindergarten classroom at  .  The class was engaged in a thinking routine called Tug of War .  This is routine builds on children’s familiarity with the game of tug of war to help them understand the complex forces that “tug” at either side of a fairness dilemma. It encourages students to reason carefully about the “pull” of various factors that are relevant to a dilemma of fairness. It also helps them appreciate the deeper complexity of fairness situations that can appear black and white on the surface.

Here are some takeaways:

  • The depth of thinking in these young children surprised me
  • The students thought independently; weren’t swayed by other people’s responses
  • The students could support their claims in logical ways; creative responses were plenty
  • The students exhibited a great deal of self control considering their age;  thinking WAS inside their head.
  • Everyone participated

*Note:  In discussing with the teacher, there were about 5 months of practice using these routines before students developed the self control to “think inside their heads” and to support their claims, logically.  Practice DOES make perfect!  : )  

Supporting students with language impairments

It was time for a little boy to share his thinking.  It was immediately apparent that he had tremendous difficulty organizing thoughts and communicating them verbally.  When the teacher prompted him, he gave a response that was confusing to everyone.  However, she skillfully supported him in ways that allowed his thinking to become heard.  It was clear that he understood the concepts.  Here is their discussion:

Teacher:  “Roy, is a car a ‘want’ or a ‘need’? ”

Roy:  “Want”

Teacher:  Can you tell me your thinking?

Roy:  ” Sidewalks?”

Teacher:  “I need to THINK about your thinking for a minute.  (pause)

“Can you tell me how the sidewalk makes cars a “want” and not a”need” ?”

Roy:  ” CAN walk.  ”

Teacher:  “Thank you Roy.  Since you CAN walk, a car is not necessary, to you.  Is that correct?  ”

Roy:  “Yes.  We don’t NEED cars.   We WANT them.”

I believe that with a bit of thought, these routines will allow for easy differentiation.  Teachers can probe a bit for formative assessment and adjust the content as needed.

This will be true for AP Gov as well as general kindergarten.  Thinking deeply benefits everyone, everywhere.


Thinking Deeply with All Students


In his book High Impact Instruction, Jim Knight does a fabulous job creating a framework for teachers to create a phenomenal classroom learning environment.  The book discusses how to plan, design and support deep learning in your classroom.

Chapter five is Thinking Prompts.  The chapter begins with two quotes:

How can one learn the truth by thinking?  As one learns to see a face better if one draws it.”   Ludwig Wittgenstein

“Thinking is where intelligent actions begin.  we pause long enough to look more carefully at a situation, to see more of its character, to think about why it’s happening, to notice how it’s affecting us and others. “  Margaret Wheatley

Thinking prompts are devices that provoke conversation, dialogue, and deep thought.  They can include video clips, works of art, artifacts, photographs, problems, articles, experiences.  They should be chosen for impact because they are provocative, complex, positive, concise or relevant.  Additionally, they:

  • promote dialogue
  • help students make connections
  • provide background knowledge
  • engage students

I’ve recently been part of the Cultures of Thinking movement in our county.  The thinking routines out of Project Zero at Harvard are wonderful thinking prompts that people are finding very helpful.  Lesson design using these routines can provide opportunities for deep thinking and learning  in any content area.

The real beauty, to me, is that every student can participate at their own level.  Differentiation happens WITHOUT much effort on the teacher’s part.  Additionally, conversations students with learning challenges have with peers pushes them to think more deeply.  I believe there are opportunities for students with IEPs to go places never thought possible before.  No need to modify because thinking routines automatically accommodate everyone!Additionally, more than one teacher has said to me that thinking routines have made them think differently about students with challenges.  Assessment has changed because the teacher saw just how much the student was capable of when the innate barriers of  traditional reading and writing prompts were removed using routines.  Formative assessment is borne out of this process.

Students with reading and writing challenges rarely reveal the thinking behind their learning.  Pencils and books prevent them from showing how deeply they CAN think.  Using thinking routines can allow all kids to blossom quite naturally.

Check them out, please!

Engagement Made Visible

What surprised me most was the level of engagement with the teacher, the learning and with their  peers.  This was a bonded tribe.

Today I was fortunate to observe a class of seniors at Clarkston High while they worked on an assignment in their IB Theory of Knowledge course.  The teacher was a master (and a funny one, too, which was a delightful bonus).  During the entire session, all kids were engaged in thinking, learning and collaborating.  The discussions  were collaborative.  They pushed the thinking of their peers.  They developed consensus.  They were truly thinking deeply and completely engaged.  They laughed and wrote.  Wrote and talked.  This was real collaborative learning.  

The observation  was part of the classroom walk through( pre-conference) for  Project Zero Michigan’s professional learning  in Clarkston.  People attending had come from  Singapore, Brazil and many  US states.  All were here to learn how to make thinking visible for their students.  

The purpose and goals of Visible Thinking:

“Visible Thinking is a flexible and systematic research-based approach to integrating the development of students’ thinking with content learning across subject matters. An extensive and adaptable collection of practices, Visible Thinking has a double goal: on the one hand, to cultivate students’ thinking skills and dispositions, and, on the other, to deepen content learning. By thinking dispositions, we mean curiosity, concern for truth and understanding, a creative mindset, not just being skilled but also alert to thinking and learning opportunities and eager to take them”.  

As Donna Roman states in her blog entry  Making Thinking Visible:  “This is an incredible way to use fairly simple classroom teaching routines to help us become better teachers and to promote deeper thinking, and creative, independent, problem-solving in our K-12 students.”

A significant story emerged during the adult reflection period after observations.    One biology teacher, who was among the last to buy-in to Cultures of Thinking at the high school,  told how the first routine she tried allowed her to understand one of her learning disabled students better.  The student typically scored low on all tests in the past.  One of the “routines” used in Cultures of Thinking allowed students to set the stage for deeper inquiry by essentially helping them formulate questions about new concepts.  The teacher was astounded by the deep thinking this routine exposed in her student.  She remarked how her assessment will need to change because current methods fail to paint an accurate picture of her students.   Visible thinking helped her see who this student really was as a learner and thinker.  

I am at the ground level of understanding of Visible Thinking and the Cultures of Thinking, but the vivid picture painted today leaves me hopeful and curious.  I want more time to see this in action with kids.  I want to participate in the county  labs.  I can see application in every class, including  the learning experiences I have with adults.  

Moving from traditional teaching styles to those that are more progressive, student-centered will certainly change the dynamics of engagement.  My learning continues to evolve.  


Starting with Routines  The ways in which students go about the process of learning

Starting With Ideals collection of routines designed to develop appreciation for important ideals

  • Thinking Ideals  Help students gain deeper understanding of content (using the four ideals)

Starting with Documentation  How to  capture, record, and reflect on the thinking students are doing in your classroom.

Study Group Materials Set of protocols—that is, structures for conversation—to keep the group clearly focused

Looking At Opportunities   A tool for assessing Culture of Thinking

Making Thinking Visible (blog entry by @donnaroman