Amidst the discussions about content standards, curriculum and teaching strategies, it’s easy to lose sight of the big goals behind education, like giving students tools to deepen their quantitative and qualitative understanding of the world. Teaching for understanding has always been a challenge, which is why Harvard’s Project Zero has been trying to figure out how great teachers do it.

Some teachers discuss metacognition with students, but they often simplify the concept by describing only one of its parts — thinking about thinking. Teachers are trying to get students to slow down and take note of how and why they are thinking and to see thinking as an action they are taking. But two other core components of metacognition often get left out of these discussions — monitoring thinking and directing thinking. When a student is reading and stops to realize he’s not really understanding the meaning behind the words, that’s monitoring. And most powerfully, directing thinking happens when students can call upon specific thinking strategies to redirect or challenge their own thinking.

“When we have a rich meta-strategic base for our thinking, that helps us to be more independent learners,” said Project Zero senior research associate Ron Ritchhart at a Learning and the Brain conference. “If we don’t have those strategies, if we aren’t aware of them, then we’re waiting for someone else to direct our thinking.”

Helping students to “learn how to learn” or in Ritchhart’s terminology, become “meta-strategic thinkers” is crucial for understanding and becoming a life-long learner. To discover how aware students are of their thinking at different ages, Ritchhart has been working with schools to build “cultures of thinking.” His theory is that if educators can make thinking more visible, and help students develop routines around thinking, then their thinking about everything will deepen.

His research shows that when fourth graders are asked to develop a concept map about thinking, most of their brainstorming centers around what they think and where they think it. “When students don’t have strategies about thinking, that’s how they respond – what they think and where they think,” Richhart said. Many fifth graders start to include broad categories of thinking on their concept maps like “problem solving” or “understanding.” Those things are associated with thinking, but fifth graders often haven’t quite hit on the process of thinking.

By sixth grade a few students are starting to include some strategies for thinking in their maps, such as “concentrate” or “don’t get caught up in things that aren’t relevant.” But by ninth grade many students include specific strategies for thinking on their concept maps, including “making connections,” “comparing” and “breaking things down.”

Ritchhart studied 400 students at a school focusing on cultivating a culture of thinking. The study had no control group, but Ritchhart could chart development of metacognition from 4th-11th grades.

“Students basically made a two-and-a-half year gain from what would be expected just from teachers trying to create that culture of thinking,” Ritchhart said. He admits that the study isn’t definitive, but to him it’s proof that when teachers focus on these ideas they do see improvement.


In a culture of thinking, students recognize that collective and individual thinking is valued, visible and actively promoted as part of the regular day-to-day experience of all group members. This type of culture can exist in any place where learning is part of the experience including school, after school programming or museum programs.

To help make these ideas more concrete, Ritchhart and his colleagues have been working to hone in on a short list of “thinking moves” related to understanding. To test whether these moves were really crucial, researchers asked themselves: could a student say she really understood something if she hadn’t engaged in these activities? They believe the important “thinking moves” that lead to understanding are:

  • Naming: being able to identify the parts and pieces of a thing
  • Inquiry: questioning should drive the process throughout
  • Looking at different perspectives and viewpoints
  • Reasoning with evidence
  • Making connections to prior knowledge, across subject areas, even into personal lives
  • Uncovering complexity
  • Capture the heart and make firm conclusions
  • Building explanations, interpretations and theories.

These thinking moves all point to the conclusion that learning doesn’t happen through the mere delivery of information. “Learning only occurs when the learner does something with that information,” Ritchhart said. “So as teachers we need to think not only about how we will deliver that content, but also what we will have students do with that content.”

One easy way to start asking students to be more metacognitive is to build in reflection time about thinking. Ask students to think about the lesson and identify the kinds of thinking they used throughout. That not only builds vocabulary around thinking, but it often gives kids confidence to name specific thinking strategies they used. Taking this time to reflect also reminds students that they did real work during the lesson.


To get at how teachers make thinking visible, Ritchhart studied teachers who were very effective at helping student dive below surface level retention of information into really understanding material as it connects to the rest of their studies and their lives. He noticed none of them taught a lesson on thinking.

“They had routines and structures that scaffolded and supported student thinking,” Ritchhart said. This discovery led him and colleagues at Project Zero to develop “thinking routines” that all teachers can use to help students develop the habits of mind that lead to more understanding.

One way to develop a culture of thinking is to pick one of the thinking routines Project Zero has designed and use it over and over in a variety of contexts. Rather than trying each routine once, applying one routine in multiple ways will help make thinking in that way habitual. It becomes almost an expectation in a classroom, like other class norms.

One example of this that goes beyond the K-12 classroom comes from Harvard Medical School, where instructors were struggling to train students to listen to patients and make strong diagnoses based on the symptoms they heard. As an experiment, the medical school offered an elective module to students, where once a week they would join a fine arts class using the “See, Think, Wonder” thinking routine to observe art. After 10 weeks, all the medical students were assessed on clinical diagnosing and the students who had done “See, Think, Wonder” had improved much more than those who had not participated.

“One of the reasons we call them thinking routines is that through their use it is the thinking that becomes routine,” Ritchhart said. Project Zero is working with teachers around the country to apply thinking routines in the classroom and many have reported that after doing the routines in a structured way several times students naturally start using the protocols for everything.

When Kids Have Structure for Thinking, Better Learning Emerges 3 May,2017Katrina Schwartz

  • bpar

    Learning how to learn is a crucial part of education. It has always been clear that some students were disorganized and had very few study skills. However, organization is much more than dealing with you materials. The thinking routines help us learning with greater speed and capacity. If you are looking for a crash course on learning- The University of California, San Diego offers a free Coursera class entitled Learning How to Learn.

  • Eliza Fortune

    Teaching method is the important part of the education. It has to be open for an institute to encourage the targeted students. I think success depends on the meteorology and Planning . So a good routine can play an important role to engage a student in his or her learning and it may be fast for building understanding capacity. I have a suggestion for kids education .. Just visit at

  • Darren goff

    Better learning is always a key concept for the educational institutes, in my opinion parental engagement makes it possible, now how to engage more parents in the educational institutes, for that I would like to share parent teacher communication app myly

  • Erin Powers

    Studies show the importance of metacognition for developing 21st century skills. This article rightly points to the importance of “thinking moves” and increasing students’ metacognition without directly teaching metacognition. Derek and Laura Cabrera have written extensively on metacognition and education for over a decade. They offer four simple rules underlying cognition–making distinctions and recognizing systems, relationships, and perspectives–that can be taught, practiced, and consciously applied. The resulting metacognition increases deeper learning of any content matter but also promotes near and far transfer. Their first book, Thinking at Every Desk, is published by Norton and available on Amazon:
    The four rules of cognition (and systems thinking) and their myriad educational and practical applications are explained in great detail in their new book, described here:

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  • Kathy Fagan

    Thinking routines: it makes sense! I wonder if the dimension of emotion has been included at all. That is, the article and video note that collaboration and a culture of thinking are important. Successful interaction (collaboration) and a sense of shared values (culture of thinking) depend on skill with handling emotions, both one’s own and those of peers. For example, confirmation bias may come about when one has become emotionally attached to one’s own ideas. If reading something that challenges your theory makes you feel angry, maybe “feel, think, wonder” about this angry feeling. Am I stuck on my opinion? And if a classmate seems to be annoyed and not fully contributing, the value of their thinking is lost to the group. Perhaps “Notice, empathize, ask” to find out what’s keeping that member from contributing. Teachers routinely facilitate this dimension but they could do even more by including “feeling routines” to help students learn to do it themselves.

  • Larryalobo

    Its curious to me that the medical class had to send students to an arts class to learn how to structure thinking – for an experiment I can understand – but my questions is, was this incorporated into the teaching of diagnosis for the students without going to the arts class? Its like teachers and professors separate structures for learning with how they want to teach (the sage on the stage). There are many more things to learn today and to connect with other ideas and skills and understand more of a whole that educators should have to know so they can help students learn. Presenters who train professionals are learning new ways to present info to keep up with today’s needs – so should teachers and professors. Metacognition is a necessary component of learning but not many are consistently teaching what it is and how to do it,, perhaps as a passing example or remark and rarely incorporated into instructions for more than a semester. What you don’t demand doesn’t get developed and taken seriously.

  • Varsha Shah

    Hello there…

    My name is Varsha K. Shah. And I have done comparative research between English language and dance language. And my discoveries were everything based on structures. And therefore identifying structures and making new structures for better comprehension is my expertise. This can be applied in any field and not just education.

    If you are interested in utilizing my expertise then please touchbase at

    Thank you..!!!

    Varsha K. Shah

  • Since critical thinking & thoughtful reflection is “hard” (System 2, per Dr. Daniel Kahneman)
    there is a somewhat natural avoidance of it.
    So making metacognition a daily habit poses specific challenges…
    would be interested to hear much more about how school educators
    have/haven’t been resistant to taking on tasks that require more energy,
    not less as many of the tech-ed product offerings.

    Happy to share our expertise too:

  • Since critical thinking & thoughtful reflection is “hard”
    (System 2, per Dr. Daniel Kahneman “Thinking, Fast & Slow”),
    there is a somewhat of a natural avoidance to it.
    So making metacognition a daily habit poses specific challenges…
    would be interested to hear much more about how school educators
    have/haven’t been resistant to taking on tasks that require more energy,
    not less… as many of the tech-ed product offerings are offering.

    Happy to share our expertise too:

  • Veena Yadav

    Veraxe is leading school mobile app company in India. You will find school mobile app in india by various vendors however most of them are not useful. You can find one of the most suitable app at


Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She’s worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She’s a staff writer for KQED’s education blog MindShift.

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