Describing and Building Explanations

Describing & building explanations

ATL SKILL: Thinking

Students show the ability to be open-minded, to consider multiple points of view, and explicitly support opinions and reasons with evidence.

APPLICATION AT NIS – the Thinking Routines outlines below are taken from Ron Ritchhart’s Thinking Routines.  References page numbers refer to his book Making Thinking Visible (2011).


Zoom In (pp 63-67)

This routine helps students to understand that our interpretations in history and other disciplines are often tentative and limited by the information we have at hand.  It lets students know that it is okay to change your mind about something, to be flexible enough to reevaluate an idea when new information is gained, and an original hypothesis may no longer be true.  It may be used at any time during a unit of study.

  • Selecting content for this routine is essential.  The prompt may be a complex painting, a photograph, a data display, graph or chart, or even a written piece, such as a poem.  The teacher should consider a prompt that allows interpretations to change as only parts of it are revealed.  ‘Ask yourself, “Are there separate areas of the image (or other prompt) that tell a different story? Are the various parts as potentially interesting as the whole?”’ (p 65).  Each new part should add or change the meaning of the image as it is uncovered.
  • Choose a means for this “uncovering” process – i.e. a keynote.
  • Display a “zoomed in” section of the prompt.  Invite students to begin with observations and develop hypotheses based on what they have seen.  This may be done individually, in groups, or as a whole class.
  • Uncover more of the image or a different part of the image.  Ask students to make further observations and to consider how this new information may affect their first interpretations.
  • Repeat as many times as relevant for the prompt.
  • Share the thinking; have students reflect on how their interpretations changed, and consider if the effect would have been different if the uncovering had happened in a different order.

No template has been developed.  If you have one to share, please send it to Kasson to post here.



Think – Puzzle – Explore (pp 71-74)

This routine emerged from KWL (Know, Want to know, Learned).  It helps students consider prior knowledge, to be curious, and to inquire.  It can be used to start a unit, throughout, and/or at the end of a unit, where “Think” could used as a reflective tool.

  • The focus for the content of this routine should reflect rich ideas and the possibility for multiple interpretations.
  • Choose a means for students to record their thinking.
  • THINK: Ask students “What do you think you know about…?”
  • PUZZLE: Ask students “What questions of puzzles do you have?”  “What are you wondering about?”
  • EXPLORE: Ask students “How can we explore these puzzles?”  “Whom might we ask?” “Where could you get further information?” “How would you frame your key search words?”  “How might you find information on your own?”
  • Share the thinking: if done in pairs or small groups, students should present their thinking to the class.

No template has been developed.  If you have one to share, please send it to Kasson to post here.

The Explanation Game (pp 101-104)

This routine focusses learning on understanding the whole by examining its parts.  Although students may know what they are looking at (can name the image/object/etc., they may not understand how it operates or functions, or the purpose of the different parts.  It can be used at any time during a unit of study.

  • Content should incorporate various parts or features that require further examination.  Particularly science phenomena, history, geographical images and mathematical models are suitable for this routine.
  • Share the object with the students, allowing time to observe in detail.
  • NAME IT: With a partner or in a small group, ask students to identify the different features, and to name them if possible.  Students may want to focus on naming the object, but focus needs to be redirected to the different features.
  • EXPLAIN IT: Based on this list of features, ask students to being explaining them.  All explanations should be documented. Remind students to pay attention to relationships between a range of features.
  • GIVE REASONS: Ask students to provide reasons for why their explanations are plausible.
  • GENERATE ALTERNATIVES: Ask students to press for alternative explanations.  For every explanation, a peer in the group should ask “What makes you say that?”  “

No template has been developed.  If you have one to share, please send it to Kasson to post here.


Sentence – Phrase – Word (pp 206-210)

This routine is used for identifying the essences of ideas expressed in a text.   It can be used at any time during a unit of study.

  • Choose a text that is rich in ideas and concepts.  It may be fiction or non-fiction.
  • Give students time to read the selected text in advance or in class.   Encourage active reading: highlighting, underlining, note-making.
  • The next 3 steps may be done in sequence or at the same time.  There are no correct answers – each student’s experience will be reflected in their choices.

SENTENCE:  Students select a sentence that helped them gain a deeper understanding of the text

PHRASE: Students select a phrase that moved, engaged, provoked.

WORD: Students to select a word that captured their attention or struck them as powerful

  • Share thinking: Have students to share their selections, explaining why they made this choice, allowing for comment and discussion with peers.  Reflect on difference and commonalities.  Consider whether or not any aspects of the text were not represented in the choices of sentences, phrases, words.

No template has been developed.  If you have one to share, please send it to Kasson to post here.


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