Modelling Thinking & Learning

According to Ron Ritchhart, seeing ourselves through our students’ eyes is the key to being a great model for thinking. He describes two types of modelling in the classroom. The first is explicit modelling. This is when you are demonstrating and showing a process or procedure that you want the student to adopt. The second is modelling who we are as thinkers and learners, known as implicit modelling. In a classroom there will be a continuum of this modelling from implicit to explicit. This is a ‘hidden’ dimension of teaching. Understanding the power, nuance and complexity of this can help change a common misconception that teaching simply consists of just being the delivery of information.

There are four main factors to consider and work toward to increase teaching effectiveness in the classroom:

  1. 1. Be a Role Model of Thinking and Learning

Cognitive neurosciences have discovered mirror neurons. These are neurons that fire and imitate the behaviour, actions and language they see, hear or experience. This is mostly an unconscious process, giving great power to your actions in the classroom: Each action you take is important. The brain is literally programmed to learn from others, which is why modelling is so powerful. As teachers, we inspire and teach by example. Making mistakes is an important concept to model. Often students see teachers as perfect and that everything is easy for us. Take time to discuss the fact that you find some things challenging. Share personal learning and how you often fail on your first, second and even third attempt. Introduce students to James Nottingham’s concept of the learning pit and that learning is often difficult or challenging. Learn a new skill alongside your class and share your frustrations and challenges.

Being able to ask for help, say something is hard and admitting failure are all important parts of the learning process. This requires letting go of being in control and allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Ron Ritchhart notes that vulnerability is hard to model if you have an authority ego. He goes on to say that by being vulnerable you are not giving up your expertise, but in fact, showing that you are a continual learner wishing to increase your knowledge and understanding.

Further to this point, being a model for thinking and learning requires clear steps and understandings of what to do when you are stuck, unsure and don’t know what to do. The role of Thinking Dispositions features strongly here. Professor Art Costa and Dr Bena Kallick have focused on this area for over 25 years and have identified 16 behaviours (Habits of Mind) which, when taught explicitly and modelled, can enhance students’ ability to problem solve, move through challenges and improve their thinking and learning capacity.

These Habits of Mind include: Persisting, Managing Impulsivity, Thinking Flexibly, Thinking About Your Thinking, Striving for Accuracy, Thinking and Communication with Clarity and Precision, Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations, Responsible Risk Taking, Creating, Imagining & Innovating, Thinking Interdependently and Remaining Open to Continuous Learning. When these dispositions are modelled and taught explicitly, students have a shared language to unpack their thinking and learning in the classroom and beyond. Remember, in the classroom you are a role model, not the exemplar.

  1. 2. Making Thinking Visible

To make thinking visible, show students how experts unpack and work though problems. How a scientist does this is different from a novelist or an artist. This can be accomplished by asking people to verbalise their strategies aloud as they solve problems. Model for students how to make judgments about quality, how to identify problems and how to make decisions. Thinking routines from the work of Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church & Karin Morrison are fabulous here.

Examples include:

I Used to Think… Now I Think

This is a routine which helps students to reflect on their thinking on a topic and how their thinking may have changed over time.

What Makes you Say that?

This assists students to describe what they can see and asks them to build on their explanations.


This is a routine to encourage students to make careful observations and thoughtful interpretations.

For more routines, please go to the “Making Thinking Visible” website at


  1. 3. Gradual Release of Responsibility

The goal here is that students gradually take on the performance of the teacher and achieve independence. Ron Ritchhart describes this as a cognitive apprentice. In order to do this, you first need to identify the specific cognitive process related to the task and then make these steps visible to students by identifying them by name.

Next, you coach and scaffold students as they try out the steps. Finally, the teacher steps back and supports, allowing the students to gain independence and responsibility for their thinking and learning. It is important to note we must give students support so they can lead, rather than just push them forward and hope they find their way.

This may include modelling using a ‘fish bowl’ technique or introducing the ‘Ladder of Feedback’ when conferencing with students and giving them the opportunity to practice with a partner.

  1. 4. Learning from Examples, Practice and Reflection

Whilst many teachers model skills, procedures or actions, Visible Thinking leaders caution that too much of this can cause imitation and rote learning, actually decreasing the creativity and original thinking in students. Many teachers have experienced this, when modelling an art technique, for instance, to have the majority of students copy the teacher’s example. One way to stop imitation is to focus on modelling the process and not the product. Another strategy is to provide multiple models. Interactive modelling involves seven steps:

  1. State the purpose.
  2. Model the behaviour.
  3. Have an explicit discussion of what the students noticed as the teacher modelled.
  4. Allow a student, or small group, to model what the teacher modelled.
  5. Host a discussion of what was noticed in that modelling.
  6. Be sure to have opportunities for practice by all students.
  7. Provide feedback to the group.

Consider which skills would benefit your students long term and model these. They may include effective listening, how to respectfully disagree with someone’s point of view, how to lead a team without dominating, and so on.

Once you have considered these four factors, consider the following ideas for implementation in your classroom:

  • Be authentic. Share what you do well as well as sharing your struggles.
  • Know what you stand for and what you want students to learn from you.
  • Choose some key dispositions, habits and qualities you would like students to learn from you.
  • Identify your thinking role models. Learn from them both professionally and personally.
  • Discuss with your learners the difference between knowing a lot and being a good thinker.
  • Video yourself and anaylse your teaching in terms of the thinking dispositions and how you might deepen the knowledge and use of these.
  • Learn to apologise and model this authentically. (see article here)
  • Practice think-aloud with a challenging (for you) topic or problem.
  • Give students practice at noticing using a fishbowl process.

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** This article is the fourth in a series of 8, focusing on the 8 Cultural Forces and Cultures of Thinking.

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Published on Wednesday, October 17th, 2018, under Cultures of Thinking, Habits of Mind, Learning, Teacher Effectiveness

Karen Tui Boyes is a champion for Life Long Learning across nations, industries and organisations. Winner of the NZ Educator of the Year 2017 and 2014 and the NZ Speaker of the Year award in 2013 & 2019, Karen is a sought after speaker who continually gets rave reviews from audiences around the world. Her dynamic style and highly informative content—which turns the latest educational research into easy-to-implement strategies and techniques — sets her apart from others in her field.

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