The Value of Establishing a Culture of Thinking in the Classroom

If “children grow into the intellectual life around them” (see L.S. Vygostky’s Mind in Society), then what kind of intellectual life are we providing to the students in our classrooms and schools? Teachers all over the world have had to accept the compromise of focusing more on delivering prescribed curriculum than developing understanding – test-taking rather than learning. This, among other reasons, is why strategies focused on ingraining cultures of thinking have been such game changers in many of today’s classrooms.

One good example of this that I’ve worked with is the Cultures of Thinking Project, led by Ron Ritchhart as part of Harvard’s Project Zero. The Cultures of Thinking Project focuses on two main ways of moving towards cultures of thinking: the eight cultural forces that act on a classroom, and documentation. Curious as to what that means? Continue reading for more.

What Does a Culture of Thinking Look Like?

Many teachers approach professional development looking for a silver bullet or a new system to install, but the process of creating cultures of thinking doesn’t work like that. Instead, it’s about becoming aware of the cultural forces that are always present in our classrooms and schools, and learning to leverage them more effectively to build an atmosphere in which thinking is clearly valued. It is about enculturation, not training in new methods. Often, it might mean taking something away by stopping a teaching practice that does not support the desired culture. The idea of stopping doing something, rather than constantly adding new approaches, is a novel approach in many classrooms.

Grade 9 students making their thinking visible.

A culture of thinking is a place where a group’s collective, as well as individual, thinking is valued, visible and actively promoted. There are eight cultural forces that define our classrooms and that we can influence:

  • Time – How do you provide time for exploring topics in more depth and time to formulate thoughtful responses?
  • Modeling – How do you model your own thinking so that the process of thinking is shared and made visible?
  • Language – How do you provide students with the vocabulary for describing and reflecting on thinking?
  • Environment – How do you display the process of thinking and arrange space to facilitate thoughtful interactions?
  • Interactions – How do you respect and value other ideas and thinking in a spirit of collaborative inquiry?
  • Routines – How do you scaffold  students’ thinking, as well as provide tools and patterns of thinking that can be used independently?
  • Expectations – How do you focus on the value of thinking and learning as opposed to mere completion of “work”?
  • Opportunities – How do you provide purposeful activities that require students to engage in thinking and the development of understanding?

These eight cultural forces are always present in our classrooms, and by becoming aware of them we can learn how to more effectively leverage them in order to create and build a culture of thinking.


The Cultures of Thinking Project (see above) has also been a leader in research into the idea of documentation. In addition to the eight above cultural forces, documentation (as seen in the Reggio Emilia approach) focuses on practices for fostering learning in groups through the process of consciously collecting and placing value on students’ thoughts. As a coach in one of Project Zero’s online courses, I’ve found the idea of “visible listening” to be a great way to conceptualize this, as it is only by observing and listening carefully that teachers can both model the worth of students’ thoughts while  gain the information necessary to ask them good questions in the first place.

Here is the process through which documenting thinking by capturing questions and dialogues can help improve learning. When teachers capture students’ ideas, they signal that those ideas have value, thereby encouraging students to think more deeply, more often. Documentation involves being curious about the student learning occurring, recording it with multiple media artifacts to act as a form of group memory, reflecting on the documentation, and sharing it publicly in order to build collective knowledge.

Some simple ways to begin practicing documentation include:

  • Sharing a short video clip of documentation at the start of class or a meeting by displaying a brief clip and then asking students their thoughts about it.
  • Taking a photo of an especially powerful learning moment to revisit with students by using the classroom walls to display the documentation.
  • Jotting down a provocative or insightful quote from a student to share with the class via speech bubbles on the walls.

It can take some practice for documentation to become part of a teacher’s instructional repertoire. A good way to begin is simply to slow down and notice moments when things are going well or not so well in class. A focus on documentation can also alter the role of instructional coaches. Observations can become more useful when they focus on what students are doing, rather than what the teacher is doing. Students can take responsibility for documenting powerful learning moments and draw a teacher’s attention to moments worth preserving. Kid Cam is an especially interesting method of capturing the learning process. When students become attuned to the importance of documenting their learning, it can become just another part of the classroom culture.

Documentation in a Grade 11 Studies of Religion class.

Qualitative forms of sharing evidence like student work, photos and video are powerful ways to provide a more complete picture of student learning.

The Impact of Developing a Culture of Thinking

“Cultures of Thinking” classrooms are likely to be more focused on thinking, learning, understanding and collaboration. Making time for thinking, using a language of thinking, and documenting the thinking processes are just some of the ways that teachers can create cultures of thinking in their classrooms. When classrooms and schools focus on their culture, they become places of intellectual stimulation where the focus is not just on improving test scores, but on more deliberately developing young learners who can think, create and question.

School reform and improvement efforts often ignore the impact that classroom and school culture play in promoting learning. As Ron Ritchhart says, any curriculum succeeds or fails depending on the culture of the classroom in which it is enacted. While culture enables us to teach the curriculum, it also shapes us as thinkers and learners. Understanding this process of enculturation holds the key to the creation of the dynamic learning communities we seek.

Cameron Paterson

Cameron Paterson is a Getting Smart Staff Writer, and is the Director of Learning at Wesley College.

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1 Comment

Patti Shade

‪ Providing “the freedom to think” and tools for thinking - both vitally important!‬

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