Why should I be thinking aloud for my students?
It’s a tragically common thing in teaching that strategies and techniques are pigeon-holed into a specific subject area or year-level. I’ve recently learned of the power of the think-aloud through a chance conversation with a Primary teacher, and realised that it was something that I’d already been doing to some degree. What I didn’t realise is how much potential it has.
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The concept of the think-aloud is simple: you verbally describe what you’re thinking as you’re thinking it. Most teachers would do this whether they’re consciously doing it or not, but the effect and usefulness of these techniques in a range of situations is something that I’ve only just realised.
This probably isn’t a surprise to most teachers, but this is a well-researched and documented technique.1 Why and when should you incorporate think-alouds into your practice?
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You model the thinking and learning process.
This is the most obvious reason why you would want to use a think-aloud. If you’re trying to teach your students how to apply their knowledge to solve complex problems, you might put the problem up on the board and verbally go through the steps that you’re taking as you solve it. Instead of just writing the steps or answer on the board, you verbally describe what you notice first, what’s familiar, what the links are between different concepts, and slowly work out the answer.
Verbalising this process models strategies that your students can use to solve their own problems. You can show how you are deconstructing a problem to find familiar concepts and work them into a solution. Many students see a complex problem that seems unfamiliar and freeze, unable to begin trying to solve it. By thinking aloud, you model a method for tackling these kinds of problems.
You demonstrate your own misunderstandings and mistakes.
An important aspect of using think-alouds is making sure that you’re honest. You don’t want to script or pre-plan what you’re going to say, as it greatly diminished its effect. If you make a mistake or don’t notice something immediately, it is incredibly important that you also verbalise that.
This will help your students see that it’s okay if you miss things the first time around, but it also demonstrates that even you miss things and that they need to be careful to double-check. It will also model how to respond when you have made a mistake. I mean this in both a cognitive way to work closer to a justifiable solution, as well as in an emotional one. Being very explicit in how you think and behave when you realise that you’ve missed something or made a mistake will help your students adapt and learn.
You encourage your students to do the same.
Sometimes you’ll get to the end of a particular unit and get the final assessment tasks in and the students really haven’t got it. You’re not sure why you didn’t pick up on this sooner, but your students truly just did not understand a core concept.
We encourage students to give their answers in our classrooms. We’ll write a problem on the board or on a worksheet and call on a particular student to give the answer. Whether or not they can get the right answer only really shows us a part of their understanding.
Demonstrating how to think aloud – how to deconstruct your process and link familiar ideas to apply them to an unfamiliar situation – encourages our students to do the same. It can be incredibly nerve-wracking to not just risk getting the wrong answer but to list off all of the steps that you took to get to that wrong answer.
If we can get our students thinking aloud though, we get valuable insight into how they are learning. It means that we can truly give them feedback on their process rather than just the end result, and leads away from deficit thinking. All of this is a lot easier to do if it becomes a normal part of their lessons and if you as the teacher aren’t afraid of making a mistake or getting the wrong answer.
You give students the language to be able to reflect on their own thinking and learning.
Beyond just the emotional preparedness to express their thinking process out loud, demonstrating your thinking in class is actually a lesson on how to do this themselves. As a Maths teacher, I can’t count how many times a student gets an answer and regardless of whether it is right or wrong, can’t describe how they got it.
By modelling your own thinking, your teaching strategies and language that you can use to describe your process in deconstructing and solving a problem. You explicitly teach your students how to do this, making it a lot easier to see the patterns and apply them to describe their own thinking. Being able to do this is the first step in your students being able to analyse and reflect on their own thinking and learning process.
1Fonteyn, M. E., Kuipers, B., & Grobe, S. J. (1993). A description of think aloud method and protocol analysis. Qualitative health research, 3(4), 430-441.