Using Thinking Routines in Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT) times

Louise Emma Potter

Suddenly we all find ourselves doing Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT), which is, by the way, quite different from online teaching. Although online teaching carries a stigma of having a much lower quality than face-to-face learning – that can be argued –, schools all over the world have suddenly found themselves in front of the screen and far away from the students. This was not organised, expected, or planned for. Hopefully, it is temporary. That is why it differs from online teaching. The latter is something that has been planned for, has various design options and different interactions which were thought through carefully throughout the course and were anticipated and contemplated.

Emergency Remote Teaching is exactly the opposite. We were thrown into it and expected to excel from day one. On day two we already had parents complain and demand immediate results. What many people who are not in touch with education do not realise is that ERT requires intense creative problem solving. Teachers have now, more than ever, become students working tirelessly day and night, trying to find the best option and design to deliver instruction to their students, trying to find a balance and engage students in ways they knew how to do without blinking their eyes in their face to face classes.

Face to face instruction was already pretty much student centered. Teachers would have students working collaboratively, many using Project Based Learning as an approach to have students dig deeper into their own inquiry during their classes with not much of an effort. Teachers would watch their students engage in the topic and work their way through themes and come back with ideas and further questions which we would monitor and intensify their path of inquiry. We have studied that. We know how to do it. And then, overnight, we were put behind the screen. We have desperately tried to find a way to engage students in our emergency remote classes but have realised we are back to stage one and have become teacher centered again. This can easily happen. Remember, it was not planned for. So, it does require creative problem solving. Which platform should I use? Will it be synchronous or asynchronous? How will I evaluate? How do I know students are there and actually learning?

This specific article is to encourage teachers to take a good look at thinking routines during these ERT classes and put them into practice to enhance student’s participation and engagement. Although thinking routines might seem like techniques that can only be used in face to face interactions, they work fantastically in live sessions with students on an online environment. Not only do the thinking routines help our students to understand their thinking process, they are a brilliant technique for teachers to use to become less teacher centered during these difficult times we are going through. Using thinking routines together with other collaborative platforms will help our classes become more student centered, fun and encouraging students to dig deeper into their own thoughts regarding the topics and themes you are proposing.

What are thinking routines?

Routines are part of our life. As from a very young age, we have routines, sometimes imposed by our parents and teachers and sometimes we impose them on ourselves. Some people say that people who stick to routines are better organised and productive than people who do not have a set regular plan.

Teachers have routines in their face to face classrooms, which are essential techniques to make sure our goals are accomplished and that our classroom management skills are put into practice. We need students to be engaged and active.

Thinking routines are techniques we apply to make our students better thinkers. Much has been said and talked about creative thinking and the importance of critical thinking in the classroom. But how do we teach that to students? Are there steps? Techniques?

Project Zero came up with steps to encourage students to make thinking a habit. They organised thinking skills into different categories to encourage students to analyse, question, observe, make analogies, critic, connect and many others. What is great about these routines is that they can be applied to any context, any subject and used for all ages. Not only pre-schoolers, but high school students benefit from these routines. To be honest, the earlier we start, the better, so students learn to observe their own thinking patterns from a very young age.

As the thinking routines are a short set of questions, they are easily applied and practical. They do not take up a lot of time and can be used with individual students or large groups. As Project Zero affirm “It is the simplicity of the thinking routines that make them easy to use”. Understanding the routines and engaging students in them during this ERT period will boost your live sessions and engage your students deeper into the classes. You will find that students will become more active and participant in classes. Using collaborative platforms such as Padlet and online mind maps so students can together build on their different ideas will bring a whole new perspective and engagement for your classes.

For example, as we are living a very controversial moment where some people do not believe in social distancing and some are all for it, we can use the thinking routine “circle of viewpoints” which is a routine for exploring diverse perspectives. Encouraging students to follow the steps of the routine:

1. I am thinking of ... the topic... From the point of view of ... the viewpoint you've chosen

2. I think ... describe the topic from your viewpoint. Be an actor - take on the character of your viewpoint

3. A question I have from this viewpoint is ... ask a question from this viewpoint

Following the steps is crucial for students to understand how they reach the ultimate goal of the task. The article is mainly to remind teachers that the thinking routines should not be forgotten during these emergency times and can definitely aid teachers at making sure their classes are less teacher centered while in the ERT period.

And while I was writing this article, Project Zero published a new series of thinking routines especially for ERT. So now, we definitely have no reason not to use them. Check them out here.
The other thinking routines from Project Zero can be found here.

SALMOM, Angela. Tools to Enhance Young Children’s Thinking, 2010. Available at:
Accessed 19th April, 2020

Visible Thinking, by Project Zero. Available at
Accessed April 19th, 2020

HODGES, MOORE, LOCKEE, TRUST and BOND. The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning, 2020. Available at:
Accessed 19th April, 2020