Learning to Learn

As discoverers we dare to question, reflect, collaborate, and share our reasoning with others.


What makes you say that?

The Magic Question

Effective teaching, by a teacher or a parent, involves questioning.  We question our students and children not to only see if they can provide an accurate answer, but also to better understand the reasoning behind that answer.  For example, asking a second or follow-up question such as “Why?”  encourages justification.

The question which serves as the title for this post is a powerful thinking routine. Its use will inform the teacher or parent posing it, but it has additional benefits.

The “What Makes You Say That?” routine helps students identify the basis for their thinking by asking them to elaborate on the thinking that lies behind their responses. (1)

As teachers, we cannot assume that students’ responses to our questions always represent the reasoning we expect.  Even a correct answer may be based on a misconception or weak reasoning.  Asking “What makes you say that?” following a student’s first response to a question encourages students to support their reasoning with evidence.  That evidence may come from a text selection, data from an investigation, a work of art (visual or performance), or from a student’s prior experience.  The opportunity to hear the basis for a student’s response provides us with a glimpse into their mind, revealing the foundation for their thinking and whether that foundation is sound or not.

In a classroom, the interaction between a teacher and one student should also support the entire class.  When a student is asked “What makes you say that?” their response, backed with evidence, provides their peers with an opportunity to consider another viewpoint and perspective.  The reasoning students hear from peers can serve to further develop their thinking and understanding.  As this routine is used, class discussions deepen, going beyond surface answers or personal opinions.  It also empowers all members of the learning community and helps students recognize that the teacher is not the only “keeper of answers.”

Using “What makes you say that?” helps convey a sense that correctness of an answer doesn’t lie in a lone outside authority but in evidence that supports it. (1)

Try this thinking routine with the students in your life.  As you do, remember the following:

  1. Use a genuine tone of respect when asking this question.  Do not use it as a challenge.  Express a true sense of curiosity.  Make sure that your students recognize that you are genuinely interested in how they are making sense of the ideas they express.
  2. You may need to ask the question again as students expand on their reasoning.  Further encouragement to dig deeper may be needed as a student internally reflects upon why they did give their initial answer.  Altering slightly the form of this question may help.  “So what do you see that makes you say that?” or “What do you know that makes you say that?”
  3. This routine does not fit every situation.  Its use applies best when looking closely at something that really matters.  Learners can often have hidden ideas about the way things work or why things are the way they are.  When common misconceptions may impede students’ further understanding, use this routine.  When it is important that students identify the evidence within a specific context, use this routine.
  4. Notice that this question does not ask: “Why do you think that?” or “What makes you think that?”  That subtle difference matters.  Using “say” instead of “think” communicates that you are focusing on what a student just communicated verbally.  You are asking for clarification, for a deeper understanding of what they just said.  Changing that one word to “think” may cause a student to infer that you consider their thinking is wrong, when you are really seeking more information about their reasoning.  This can cause a student’s thinking to shift to feeling. They may become defensive or refuse to respond.  An emotional response too often hijacks one’s ability to think clearly.

The very first time I used this thinking routine, the positive results surprised me.  Time after time, students paused, gathered their thoughts, and then answered in more depth.  I found myself more interested in what they had to say and their classmates were more attentive.  Even when the responses I heard revealed a student’s misunderstanding of the content we were discussing, the class was far more engaged in working past those misconceptions. The work to do so became a team effort.  I have a feeling the confusions voiced by one were shared by others as well. WMYST? is one of the most useful strategies I have in my teacher toolbox.  I now understand why the teachers from Lemshaga Akademi in Sweden refer to it as the “magic question.”

Source:  (1) Ritchhart, R., Church, M.,Morrison, K, (2011), Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. pp.165-170.


Better Writing or Better Thinking?

We often hear comments from parents expressing how their child’s writing has improved.  While building students’ abilities to communicate well in writing and discussion is a goal we strive for, there is an underlying skill which is far more important to develop first: the ability to reason effectively.  Better thinking supports better writing and deeper understanding.

Classrooms, like households, often rely on routines to manage the behaviors and procedures which make things run more smoothly.  Once a routine is practiced and well-established it becomes habitual.  Classroom routines often include processes for beginning class, recording assignments, passing out or collecting papers.  Family routines can center around managing mealtimes, homework, bedtime or morning preparation.  While these routines often vary from family to family and classroom to classroom, once established they support the outcome desired.

Developing students’ abilities to think can also be supported by routines for thinking and each subsequent post on this page will share a routine you might consider using with your children or your students.  But first let’s consider what we mean by “thinking”, because our brains are almost constantly thinking.  This blog’s title is Learning to Learn.  So what do we mean when using the word think in the context of learning?  How often does class time for students involve actually thinking as opposed to doing?  As a result what do students know, what are they able to do, and most importantly what do they understand about the content within each subject they study?

Ron Ritchhart and colleagues from Harvard Project Zero identify eight “high-leverage thinking moves that serve understanding well.” (1)

  1. Observing closely and describing what’s there
  2. Building explanations and interpretations
  3. Reasoning with evidence
  4. Making connections
  5. Considering different viewpoints and perspectives
  6. Capturing the heart and forming conclusions
  7. Wondering and asking questions
  8. Uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things

As thinking routines are shared in later posts you will notice the following similarities:

  • they have a specific purpose in supporting reasoning
  • they are easy to learn, consisting of just a few steps
  • when used frequently they can support student engagement and learning
  • they can be used in multiple situations or contexts
  • they can be used by an individual or a group

We hope you consider following this blog or entering your email address on the sidebar so you will receive notifications when new posts (new thinking routines) are shared.  Please also comment on your own experiences with any of the routines.  Your input is valuable to us.

Source:  (1) Ritchhart, R., Church, M.,Morrison, K, (2011), Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.