School Climate & Safety Opinion

Are You Fostering a Thinking Culture?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 25, 2016 7 min read
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We welcome guest authors Dr. Rebecca Stobaugh, Associate Professor at Western Kentucky University and Dr. Sandra Love, Director of Education Insight and Research for Mentoring Minds.

All too often we think that the actions taken during instruction, like questioning or activities, are what really propel critical thinking in the classroom. We mistakenly think this alone will develop students as critical thinkers. Actually, there is another factor that is crucial--the environment. If we fail to focus on the environment, then we have failed to consider an essential piece in developing a thinking culture in our schools and classrooms. What does a culture for thinking look like? How is such a culture created? Let us explore some ways to foster a thinking culture.

Promote a Safe, Engaging Environment
Students need to feel safe to think in the classroom environment. If they know that all thoughts are valued, students are more likely to contribute freely in the discussion, asking questions, offering responses, and engaging in conversation. According to Stengel and Weems (2010), safe classrooms allow students to take risks, make mistakes, explore concepts, and gain understanding, particularly as they consider unfamiliar and different perspectives. Administrators and teachers must remove barriers, actual or perceived, to allow students to feel a strong comfort level in the classrooms across the campus.

Communicate Expectations
Expectations should be clearly communicated so students know that thinking is more than the acquisition of information and skill, and superficial discussions. Tasks, thinking routines, and assessments can make it transparent that in-depth thinking is required for success.

Evaluate tasks to ensure higher-order questions that require thoughtful responses are posed (e.g., Why is __? What are you assuming when you say __? What evidence can you offer to support __? How might __?). Assure that students understand that learning tasks, routines, and assessments are designed to elicit thinking and to transfer and make meaning.

Create an Engaging Environment
When students enter the school and the classroom, the physical environment conveys messages about what is valued and expected. Classroom space should be arranged to support and encourage thinking and facilitate student interaction. Seating arrangements must support movement and conversation with peers. Horseshoe, circular, U- or C-shaped designs all allow students to see and make eye contact with each other. Different yet flexible group configurations encourage students to collaborate in a variety of ways, choosing multiple arrangements that facilitate thoughtful interactions as well as private spaces for reflecting and processing ideas. The photo above, of Amanda Rupsch’s classroom at Alvaton Elementary School is an example of a classroom with multiple spaces for different groups of students to collaborate.

Interactive displays, infographics, quotes, and questions might serve as visual cues to stimulate and challenge thinking. Sticky notes can be placed across a chart to show the development of students’ thinking about topics. Visual evidence of student learning should be seen throughout the school to document the process and generation of ideas which can inspire, inform, and engage students in thoughtful conversations.

Develop a Common Language
Marzano (2009) stressed the importance of a common language as a framework or a way to talk about instruction across the campus. Just as a shared language is used to discuss effective instruction in order to improve student learning, a language common to all educators should also exist for critical thinking. See Figure 3 for common language examples. Walsh and Sattes (2011) stated, “A language of thinking promotes exactness and precision in expressing cognitive processing” (p. 144). For example, when teachers ask students to “Evaluate the quality of the source,” do all parties have a common understanding of what it means to “evaluate?” When a shared understanding is developed based on the common language of critical thinking, teachers can participate in deliberate conversations to make real-time adjustments in planning and engaging students in meaningful thinking experiences. Developing this knowledge base across the campus allows teachers opportunities to improve their expertise in thinking and to better understand the kinds of practice experiences students need to grow as skillful thinkers.

Common Language Examples


  • Distinguishing relevant from the irrelevant information to draw logical conclusions
  • Recognizing biases, assumptions, intentions, or points of view


  • Pursuing unsubstantiated claims, question ideas, and demand validation for arguments, interpretations, assumptions, or beliefs
  • Decision Making through a) identifying the problem or situation, b) securing relevant information, c) defining criteria for evaluation, d) exploring options, and e) prioritizing alternatives


  • Exploring various hypotheses or ideas to address a novel or ill-defined problem
  • Designing and carrying out a solution that is entirely different from the original sources

(Stobaugh, 2013)

A thinking vocabulary also helps students communicate their thoughts, making their thinking transparent to others (Walsh & Sattes, 2011; Ritchhart & Perkins, 2008). Teachers should incorporate thinking language into daily instruction and encourage students to use the language to express how they process information. Administrators can support teachers by devoting time for teachers to collaborate: What vocabulary is associated with thinking critically? Are there specific terms that should be introduced to the students? Obviously, a well-articulated common language allows the entire school, as well as students, to know and be clear about what attributes, attitudes, and actions are valued.

Model Thinking /Allow Think Time
In thinking classrooms, it is helpful to students when teachers talk about their own thinking. To make thinking explicit, teachers can share their ideas and wonder aloud, exploring possibilities with the students. As teachers demonstrate high-level thinking tasks, it is helpful to use the Think Aloud strategy. Just as exemplar writing samples are used to help students understand what quality writing looks like, the Think-Aloud strategy is a way to explain concepts, encourage problem solving, and help students process information.

When teachers explain their thinking aloud, students become aware of the thinking processes involved in performing certain tasks. As high-level questions are first introduced, teachers should model how to approach the question. Other examples for modeling using a think-aloud process could include how to use a specific strategy to determine the important ideas in a text, how to analyze a graphic, how to use organizers to determine the causes and effects of an event, or how to use evaluation criteria to decide upon the most reasonable solution to a problem.

A thoughtful classroom culture that supports and nurtures thinking is critical to creating developing thinkers. Ritchhart and Perkins (2008) note that explicit modeling and visible thinking improve students’ thinking processes. Allocating time for thinking by providing time for exploring topics in depth as well as time to formulate thoughtful responses to complex questions are also important in building a thinking culture throughout the school.

Building a culture for thinking in all classrooms requires an intentional and planned school-wide effort. A classroom culture that nurtures high cognitive demands includes a priority to improve thinking, teacher modeling of appropriate thinking practices, multiple thinking opportunities, and supportive interactions that promote purposeful thought. A thinking-centered classroom is an energizing place where everyone is collaborating and contributing to the learning. An administrator sets the tone, providing support, professional development, and resources to the teachers. It is the responsibility of all to open the minds of students and guide them to receive the ideas and thinking of others. Teaching students to become effective critical thinkers takes time, energy, knowledge, and effort by students, teachers, administrators, and parents.

Marzano, R. J. (2009). Setting the record straight on “high yield” strategies. Phi Delta Kappan, 91(1), 30-37.
Ritchhart, R., & Perkins, D. (2008). Making thinking visible. Educational Leadership, 65 (5), 57-61.
Stobaugh, R. (2013). Assessing critical thinking in middle and high schools: Meeting the Common Core. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.
Walsh, J. A., & Sattes, B. D. (2011). Thinking through quality questioning: Deepening student engagement. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

More about the authors:

Dr. Rebecca Stobaugh is an Associate Professor at Western Kentucky University and has authored three books on critical thinking including Assessing Critical Thinking in High Schools. She collaborates with Mentoring Minds to support teachers in integrating critical thinking skills into instruction.

Dr. Sandra Love is the Director of Education Insight and Research for Mentoring Minds. Dr. Love has authored numerous articles and developed several educational resources on critical thinking and instructional strategies to help educators improve the teaching and learning processes.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.