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Learning to Think, Thinking to Learn

JUNE 7, 2019

Throughout each day, our brains are exposed to a lot of information. We are continually bombarded with visual, auditory, and other sensory stimuli. But how do we make meaning out of it all?

Our brains are primed to organize and analyze all these stimuli in specific ways, such as comparing, sequencing, and defining. Understanding the way the brain processes information, and teaching students to activate and utilize these thinking processes, is the key to effective learning.

Acquiring Facts vs. Making Meaning

There is a difference between simply acquiring facts and true learning. Computer programs and parrots can be taught to give defined responses to specific stimuli. But just because a computer program can correctly answer "Paris" when asked "What is the capital city of France?" doesn't mean it has any understanding of the information. Learning and comprehension require the learner to be able to put information in context with other knowledge and apply it in a variety of ways.

Many students are able to parrot back facts for a test or quiz without demonstrating true understanding of the material. This kind of rote learning tends to be temporary and ephemeral. If it is not hooked together within a larger framework (or schema), it is much harder for the brain to recall. More importantly, the student will not be able to use the information to build a more complex and accurate understanding of the world or apply it in new contexts.

Education is about more than just remembering a set of unrelated facts and spitting them back out on demand. We want our students to be flexible thinkers and problem solvers. When students truly comprehend material, they are able to:

  • Put it in context with other things they already know and integrate it into a larger schema
  • Use it to update their understanding and correct misperceptions
  • Pull out the most important information and summarize it in their own words
  • Recognize the limits to their comprehension and ask meaningful questions
  • Apply it in new ways and in novel situations

How We Think: The Eight Core Cognitive Processes

How do we move from rote memorization to sophisticated understanding and application? True learning requires students to activate core cognitive processes that help the brain make sense of everything. Without these cognitive processes, new facts and stimuli would simply enter the brain without any filtering, sorting, organizing, or judgment.

Our brains process and organize information in a variety of ways. The core cognitive processes used for learning were first defined by Albert Upton and later refined by David Hyerle. They include:

  • Defining: Listing the facts, details and key information you know about a topic or term. Example: Giraffes are mammals, they are very tall, they eat leaves, they have long necks, and they have spots.
  • Describing: Identifying the essential characteristics of something using adjectives. Example: Ebenezer Scrooge is old, greedy, mean, stingy, cold-hearted and miserable.
  • Comparing and Contrasting: Analyzing how two things are similar or different from one another. Example: Both isosceles and equilateral triangles have 3 sides and angles adding up to 180 degrees, but isosceles triangles have 2 equal sides and equilateral triangles have 3 equal sides.
  • Classifying: Organizing information into groups or sets and listing the details, members or characteristics of each set. Example: The kingdoms of life are Animals, Plants, Fungi, Protists, Archaebacteria and Eubacteria. Some examples of each kingdom are…
  • Whole-to-Part Relationships: Defining the parts and subparts of a system. Example: Atoms are made up a nucleus, which contains protons and neutrons, and energy shells, where electrons can be found. Electrons, protons and neutrons are made up of quarks.
  • Sequencing: Outlining the steps in a process or the sequence of events in a narrative. Example: To make a BLT sandwich, first you fry four pieces of bacon; then you toast two slices of bread; then you put mayonnaise on the bread; then you…
  • Cause and Effect: Analyzing the root causes and impacts of an event. Some causes of World War I were the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the rise of nationalism, the system of alliances between nations, and militarism. Some results of the war were…
  • Analogies and Relationships: Showing how things relate to one another using an analogy or relating factor. Example: solar panels produce electricity by capturing energy from the sun, while coal plants produce electricity by burning coal from the ground.

Together, these eight processes encompass the most important ways the brain makes sense of the world around us. By deliberately activating and combining these cognitive processes, and knowing which ones to apply for different tasks, we can move from surface knowledge to deep understanding.

Metacognition: Thinking About Thinking

These thinking processes are built into our brains; we use them all the time and automatically. But we don't always use them efficiently. Efficient learners know how to access these different modes of thinking deliberately and apply them to different kinds of tasks.

This process involves metacognition: "thinking about thinking." Metacognitive strategies help students analyze the task or problem, recognize what kind of thinking is required, and activate the right cognitive processes for the task at hand. A student with strong metacognitive skills understands the different modes of thinking and can apply them deliberately and effectively.

Teachers can help students build metacognitive skills by providing explicit instruction and modeling for each of the eight core metacognitive skills. Doing so lets students get a glimpse "under the hood" of their own brains, so they understand how their brains work and what they need to do to activate these processes.

Making Thinking Visible With Thinking Maps

Thinking Maps makes the eight cognitive processes visible and explicit for students. Each of the eight Maps corresponds directly to a specific cognitive process.

Using the Maps activates the visual processing centers of the brain and helps students recognize and analyze patterns in information. As students gain proficiency in using the Maps, they are also gaining proficiency with the cognitive processes that they illustrate.

Students also learn how to connect the Maps and thought processes to key academic vocabulary. For example, they will learn that words like "origin", "impact", or "consequences" are related to cause-and-effect thinking and require a Multi-Flow Map, while words like "sort", "group", and "organize" are related to classification and require a Tree Map. Over time, the use of the Maps to activate and visualize the core cognitive processes becomes automatic; when they hear certain key words or question types in an assignment, they know exactly which Map to use to activate the right thinking process for the task. In this way, the Maps act like keys to unlock the cognitive processes. Using the Maps to visualize their own thinking helps students become more efficient, flexible, and effective thinkers and learners.

Download Our White Paper for More!

Want to know more about brain-based learning? Download our white paper: The Building Blocks of Brain-Based Learning—The Research Base for Thinking Maps. You'll learn:

  • How the brain processes, filters, stores, and retrieves information
  • The six building blocks of brain-based learning
  • How Thinking Maps taps into the way we are already wired to learn


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