What kind of thinking do we need students to do in PBL and how can we best scaffold that thinking? As an instructional coach, that is what I ask teachers as they design and implement projects in their classrooms. So often, teachers get caught up in creating the product, managing the process, or if they are new to PBL, finding the balance between student autonomy, team collaboration, and teacher control. It becomes too easy to focus on the work and forget about the thinking and the learning.

bulletin board is a classroom Beyond a well-designed unit, PBL is a change in mindset and a cultural shift. Every classroom already has a culture. Some classroom cultures are more conducive to facilitating PBL than others. The question we need to ask ourselves is,

“What do we want our culture in project based learning to exemplify?”

According to Ron Ritchhart, there are eight cultural forces that define our classroom. They are: time, modeling, language, environment, interactions, expectations, opportunities, and routines. Together, these forces shape the culture of thinking in a very complex and fluid way.

Cultural Force of Routine: Four Types

Routines are intentional moves and questioning strategies that scaffold students’ thinking in the moment as well as providing tools and patterns of thinking that can be used independently. In Creating Cultures of Thinking, Ritchhart also states that well-functioning classrooms have four types of routines: management, instructional, interactional, and thinking. Historically, a majority of time in classrooms has focused on management and instructional routines. Management routines help classrooms run smoothly and instructional routines are rooted on how a teacher delivers the information. With the focus more on controlling students and content delivery, student thinking and learning are not highly valued with management and instructional routines.

Ritchhart further explains that “interactional routines structure the contact between teachers and students as well as that between students and students.” Such routines promote positive social and emotional learning structures. Although thinking routines can be used as instructional routines, Ritchhart describes that “their real power comes in their use as cognitive strategies that become patterns of behavior for students.” Thinking routines are designed to help scaffold thinking. As students become more familiar with them, they can use it independently and naturally in different contexts. Reflecting on the culture of your classroom, what types of routines fill your students’ day? Your Project Based Learning units?

chart Project path and routines

Thinking Routines and PBL

Why include thinking routines in PBL? In addition to the reasons previously mentioned, certain thinking routines lend themselves to the type of thinking required in the flow of a project, as shown on the table above. For example, at the launch of a project, you would want your students to engage in thinking routines for introducing and exploring ideas, such as “See-Think-Wonder” or “Zoom In.” As you build knowledge, you would most likely implement routines that synthesize and organize new information such as the “4C’s” or “Headlines.” As you dig deeper into ideas through critique and revision, you may find yourself using routines such “Circle of Viewpoints” or “What makes you say that?” that lend themselves to that kind of thinking.

Even with these guidelines, no particular thinking routine is meant for only one part of a project. For example, “Chalk Talk” can be used to introduce and explore new ideas. While some teachers use it as a silent conversation in the launch to help generate questions for the need to know list and as a formative assessment of what students already know, other teachers have used it as a way to generate critique and feedback as highlighted in the table.

When designing or implementing a PBL unit, the following questions help teachers identify which specific routine to use: “What kind of thinking do my students need to do with this content? How can I best engage them in that kind of thinking?” As students become more familiar with thinking routines, they will be empowered to be more intentional and independent in using them. That is the ultimate goal. One teacher summed up the relationship of Cultures of Thinking to Project Based Learning: “To have high quality PBL, we need to have a culture of high quality thinking.”

The chart above shows some examples of how teachers used thinking routines in their PBL units. (Here's a Google Doc version of the chart.) Remember, these are only some suggestions of how a routine may be embedded in the project path. What routine you choose depends on how you want your students to engage in the thinking.

Project Zero by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Visible Thinking Website, and Ron Ritchhart’s Cultures of Thinking website are great resources to get you started.

Myla Lee, National Faculty – North
Myla serves as a consultant for literacy, technology integration, and project based learning. With nearly 30 years in education, much of the learning Myla shares with others at state and national conferences focuses on various topics first field-tested in her classroom. Her passion for a student-centered classroom steeped in a culture of thinking and collaboration motivates her to always be curious.