An Introduction to CoT

Part One - Cultures of Thinking and SSW Practice Blog

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...a word students hear often in school.


  • Think before you speak.
  • Think carefully about your answer before you write it down.
  • Think about how you would feel if it happened to you


Thinking. It is such a common word, yet students struggle each day to deeply think past surface answers, to justify their responses, and to stretch their thinking. In 2000, Dr. Ron Richhart , a senior research associate at Project Zero in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, embarked on a journey to create a Culture of Thinking to develop “both the individual and the group as effective learners and thinkers able to engage with and adapt to a changing world.” This sounds like a lofty ambition, but as I listened to teachers in my school discussing their newly designed lesson plans and observed students engaged in cultures of thinking routines, I quickly discovered how the Culture of Thinking (CoT) core principles could easily be intertwined into my interactions with students as a school social worker.

That’s why this blog was created. With a slight shift in your thinking, (and the ideas from this blog) you can build a culture of thinking during your time with students. Through the blog I will highlight the core principles of Cultures of Thinking and explore some of the Thinking Routines that easily mesh with the lessons you have already created when working with students. The examples will be specific for creating a culture of thinking as a school social worker and helping students to make their thinking visible.


A school actively engaged in Cultures of Thinking is creating an environment where thinking is valued and actively encouraged. Lesson plans are designed with the intention of students being able to express their thoughts (verbally or non-verbally), respectively challenge each other’s beliefs, and justify their thinking. I quickly saw many of these lesson themes through the lens of a social worker:


  • Increasing perspective taking,
  • Understanding new concepts to a greater depth,
  • Becoming aware of our own beliefs,
  • Evaluating ideas, and
  • Becoming more creative in expressing thoughts.


I knew that with small changes in my social work lessons, I could create my very own culture of thinking with my students, thus enabling them to gain more insight, knowledge, and understanding from our discussions and activities.


Was I formally trained in CoT? No. Was I intrigued? Yes! I had nothing to lose. Everything from my formal training and daily experience was telling me that CoT and school social work could effortlessly weave together.

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Dr. Ritchhart’s research discovered 8 cultural forces (Modeling, Opportunities, Routine, Expectations, Language, Interactions, Time & Environment) that define our classrooms (social work offices) and by focusing on these forces he states that we can reshape our learning environment. As social workers, we are already well aware of the impact these forces have on our interactions with students. Through our training, we automatically create a nonthreatening environment in our offices that encourages students to let down their defenses and begin to build a level of trust. Our verbal and nonverbal language is open ended and designed to establish an opportunity for active listening and sharing of concerns. We know that time is essential and relationships are not built in one 20 minute session. And finally, our moments with students lend themselves seamlessly to experience the cultural forces of modeling pro-social behaviors, setting expectations, providing opportunities for success, and creating an environment for positive interactions with others. That’s seven out of the eight cultural forces that instinctively are part of our school social work practices. We are on our way to creating a Culture of Thinking environment without even knowing it!

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The final cultural force is routine. This is where the magic happens. Through Thinking Routines we can scaffold, support, and direct students’ thinking. These specific routines give us a framework to guide students to a deeper understanding of the subject we are discussing and a greater ability to be able to express oneself. Thinking routines are flexible. They can be used when talking with one student who is struggling with transitioning to middle school, for a small group evaluating how to work as a team, or as a whole group lesson in a classroom discussing feelings, or bullying, or gender bias.


Thinking routines are tools to promote thinking. Just like any tool, you need to choose the right one for the job. There is a structure to each routine and the steps of the routines act as natural scaffolds that lead students' thinking to high and higher levels. Finally, routines create patterns of behavior. When I use specific routines with my students on a regular basis, they know what to anticipate and look forward to being able to easily share their thoughts.


Has your interest been peaked? Are you ready to Step Inside a Culture of Thinking routine? In our next blog, you will discover ways to help your students increase their perspective taking with the Thinking Routine called Step Inside.

Jennifer Hollander, LMSW

Jennifer has over 23 years experience as a school social worker and is currently employed by the Huron Valley School District. She has facilitated Cultures of Thinking Presentations in her district, at the MASSW State Conference, and at Oakland Schools. She is currently receiving advanced training in CoT with the founder/author of the model.


Photo Credits: 8 Cultural Forces: Dr. Ron Ritchhart

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Join Jennifer on March 2 at Oakland Schools for the CoT Gallery Walk

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Wednesday, March 2nd, 5-7:30pm

2111 Pontiac Lake Road

Waterford Township, MI

This special event is open to ALL people interested in seeing and experiencing what it means to make thinking visible and how this facilitates meaningful learning in school. Jennifer and social work colleagues will feature examples of routines that they have used.


Participants will enjoy a “strolling dinner” as they travel through the gallery of examples of visible thinking from classrooms , talk about what they see, or join a group to experience a facilitated thinking routine.


Cost: $20 per person for a night of food and learning


Click here to register.