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  • Writer's pictureThings Education

The first step towards understanding is…

making students’ thoughts and actions visible.

Hello and welcome to the 59th edition of our fortnightly newsletter, Things in Education.

During our TPD sessions, teachers have often shared a persistent struggle they face in their classrooms. Despite their thorough lesson planning for academic concepts, they sometimes find it challenging to engage students effectively. They cannot figure out why students aren't participating or understanding the concept. We have seen that this is because teachers often focus on the what without much focus on the how. 

Lesson planning has two aspects to it – planning the what and planning the how. The what is the ‘academic concept’, while the how is the ‘pedagogical and classroom management approach’. In today’s edition, we are focusing on some parts of the how. 

It is crucial to consider both the visible and invisible aspects of student learning to create effective lesson plans. By taking into account what students do and think, both visibly and invisibly, teachers can better prepare themselves to meet the needs of their students.

The 2x2 grid of invisible and visible thinking comes in handy. Teachers can use this framework to plan the how of the lesson effectively, listing down the visible and invisible aspects of student learning, and planning material and instructions to move each point from invisible to visible, as visualised below.

Let’s move through each box of the grid and explore how to make students’ thoughts and actions visible.

Making Students’ Thinking Visible

Box A lists  aspects of students’ thinking that are invisible to teachers. For example, as teachers we cannot see each student’s  prior knowledge that is influencing understanding, the possible misconceptions forming in each student’s mind, their incorrect interpretation of instructions, and so on. While as teachers, we may not directly see these, we can create opportunities for students to demonstrate their thinking through discussions, written responses, and problem-solving activities to make these visible. By prompting students to make their thinking visible, we as teachers can gain insight into their thought processes and provide targeted feedback to support their learning. 

During a session with teachers, it was shared that despite knowing metals are good conductors of heat, some students ticked a ‘spoon’ as a poor conductor. To make students’ thinking visible, we suggested exit slips in the next class. Students explained on the paper slips: a spoon feels colder to the touch, and so it is a poor conductor. The teacher then conducted experiments demonstrating metal's efficient heat conduction, including spoons. Through observation and discussion, students revised their understanding, correcting the misconception.  

Teachers can use strategies such as think-alouds and concept mapping. For example, during a writing lesson focused on creating the setting of a new science fiction story, the teacher can think out loud to model for her students how to think through the different aspects of the setting, such as the atmosphere, features and suitability for the overall plot. By thinking out loud in this way, we make our internal mental processes visible to students, helping them understand the skill more effectively. This can be followed by each student filling in a concept map about the setting of their story – which makes their thinking visible to us as teachers, helping us identify misconceptions or gaps in understanding and provide targeted support.

Box B lists out processes that can make students’ thinking visible.When students share their thoughts, ask questions, and seek clarifications, we as teachers can see how they are applying previous knowledge and reflecting on their learning. So, it is important for us to build processes into our lesson plans that help make student thinking visible. There are numerous strategies to make student thinking visible, and Project Zero is one of the best repositories of this.

Making Students’ Actions Visible

Box C considers the invisible behaviours that students engage in during a lesson. These are the actions and behaviours that are not easily seen but still impact student learning. For example, students may be distracted or disengaged during a lesson, fail to follow instructions, listen selectively, or engage in subtle but disruptive actions like whispering or passing notes, which can affect their ability to focus and learn. Teachers need to be aware of these invisible behaviours and plan to shift students to actions that are productive and visible.

Box D lists out processes that can make students’ actions visible. These are the observable actions and behaviours that teachers can monitor, such as students raising their hands to answer questions, participating in group discussions, completing worksheets or assignments, and following instructions. By considering these visible behaviours, teachers can plan activities and assessments that align with these actions to engage students actively in the learning process.

For example, in a History lesson on the chronology of events that led up to World War I, we can give each student a template of a timeline. As the discussion or explanation in the class proceeds, each student has to fill in the event with its correct details on the timeline, so that by the end of the lesson, the timeline is complete. We can walk around the class during the lesson and glance at the timelines, which can give us a clear idea of students who may be disengaged, distracted or confused and help us tailor our instruction accordingly.

This approach is beneficial for planning lessons and ensuring that teachers are attentive to both visible and invisible aspects of student learning. By considering these different dimensions of student engagement and understanding, teachers can better support their students' learning and adjust their teaching accordingly. It's important to be mindful of both what is observable and what might be happening internally for students. This thoughtful approach will help create a more comprehensive and effective lesson for students. Good luck with your lesson planning! And if you need support in planning your lessons, please go to!


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Edition: 3.7

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