Building a Culture of Thinking in Our Littlest Learners

  • 2021
  • Primary
Scarlet Lai, Prep Teacher & Floor Mentor

Thinking is an essential skill that is intertwined with learning and living. As leadership decision-making and strategic consultant Peter A. Facione says, “Education is nothing more, nor less, than learning to think.”

There are many types of thinking skills such as interpreting, analyzing, evaluating, and reflecting. All these skills serve a multitude of purposes and needs in our lives everyday. In today’s world, critical thinking is one of the most sought after thinking skills, widely regarded as a crucial 21st century skill that must be fostered at a young age which will lead to innovation, collaboration and problem-solving.

In a child’s early years, which can be defined as the developmental years from ages 2-6, those years are a great time to begin building thinking disposition and thinking habits. Children are natural inquirers. They are full of wonder and excited to learn about the world. They develop an amazing explosion of language skills at this stage and can often be seen to engage in storytelling, imitation and pretend play. Meanwhile, perspective-taking ability and logic, skills that will be more readily developed from ages 6-10, are only starting to emerge in this age group so their reasoning, while eager, may be inconsistent and sometimes illogical (to adults).

For children in the early years, thinking might look like this:

Figuring out how they are feeling and what they need Explaining what they see and know Agreeing or disagreeing with others
Forming opinions on what they think and feel based on what they are seeing and hearing Using their intuition to make hunches Making decisions about what they want to do
Talking to themselves during play or learning Exploring cause and effect situations Imitating and role-playing in imaginative scenarios


This year, THS teachers attended a series of professional development workshops on “The Power of Making Thinking Visible” by Project Zero researchers Ron Ritchhart and Mark Church. The routines of “Making Thinking Visible” are short activities that foster thinking dispositions through collaboration (working together), interaction (sharing ideas) and documentation (showing these ideas in ways that can be seen by everyone, such as on a poster or journal, or scribed by an adult.) 

The idea is to find ways to make visible what students have on their minds so that teachers can understand what the students know and understand in order to connect and support them at a deeper level. Visible routines have been shown to engage students more actively in lessons, take ownership of their own learning and retain their learning for higher personal and academic achievement. It also helps them become more aware of their thinking processes.

In Prep, teachers have observed that children especially enjoyed using the visible thinking routine “Chalk Talk”. In Chalk Talk, a question is posed and written on a large sheet of poster paper. Students gather around a big blank piece of poster paper where they can freely draw and write their ideas. Afterwards, teachers guide the students to observe the poster together, see what ideas and/or opinions have been drawn or written by their peers and make connections from the ideas each classmate shared in the class. This activity has been beneficial for many types of thinking such as: brainstorming, recalling prior knowledge, questioning, reasoning and reflecting. 

In one learning instance, Prep students used the activity to brainstorm what kind of food they would like to serve in a restaurant if they were chefs. THS Prep teacher Ms Clinch of Gingerbread Cottage said, “Chalk Talk really gets my kids’ ideas flowing and allows the kids who do not really speak out loud to share their ideas through drawing.” Through the activity, her students got to see what they had in common with their peers, such as foods they all liked to eat. Ms. Jeanne from Rainbow Cottage observed that her students had the opportunity to both work independently as well as collectively as they garnered additional ideas from their group mates. This resulted in them being able to build on their ideas and add more information to their original thinking. One child said he would like to be a pizza chef and make “square pizzas which you normally see in Seattle.”  In Happy Cottage, Chalk Talk students felt proud of their contribution to the poster and the activity developed their confidence and efficacy to express their thinking. They explained that restaurants were an important and convenient part of our community because “people who are too busy can have something to eat” and “eating at a restaurant is a fun experience.” This thinking routine provided the students with an interactive and socio-educational platform to share their knowledge and thinking while being exposed to multiple viewpoints from their friends.

Whilst thinking is invisible, and subjective to one’s own set of beliefs and values, introducing and engaging students in visible thinking routines this year has really allowed Prep teachers and friends to understand each other more. By actively using these thinking tools, we are fostering a growing culture of thinking in our littlest of learners. 


1. McDevitt, T.M., & Ormrod, J.E. (2014). Child development and education (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson. 
2. Dr. Peter A. Facione - Critical thinking: What it is and why it counts
3. Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners By Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison (Jossey-Bass, 2011)


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