Visible Thinking at the National Postal Museum

Tuesday, November 09, 2010 at 1:17 pm

“The American Experience,” a five-day Mobile Learning Institute at the Smithsonian workshop last summer, encouraged young participants to think innovatively about artifacts (inventions) in the collection of the National Postal Museum. Goals of the workshop were to help participants develop knowledge of a place (the museum); exhibit improved problem-solving, teamwork, and research skills; and increase self-esteem. Educators aimed to achieve these goals through a technique described as “Visible Thinking.”

Harvard’s Project Zero defines Visible Thinking as:

“a systematic research-based approach to integrating the development of students' thinking with content learning across the subject matters. An extensive and adaptable collection of practices, Visible Thinking has a double goal: on the one hand, to deepen subject-matter learning and on the other to cultivate students' disposition toward thinking.”

Connect-Extend-Challenge is one of the thinking routines that guides learners’ thought processes in Visible Thinking. The routine “helps students make connections between new ideas and prior knowledge” (Project Zero). In the American Experience workshop, through every activity leading up to and including the final activity, facilitators challenged participants to connect (view the museum objects in context), extend (understand how the objects could be used to solve problems of today), and challenge (think about the long-term effects of the museum objects for communities). This process, along with the supplemental aid of digital media, enabled participants to feel more connected to the museum and the inventive spirit.

Here’s how the Connect-Extend-Challenge thinking routine worked in this setting:



  • Connect: Participants looked at the problems the inventors were solving through historical context. They were then asked to consider: What caused these problems? How did people try to address them? Were they quick fixes or more lasting solutions? What was innovative or inventive about the solutions? What would you (the participant) have done in that situation? How do the problems relate to you personally? How do you relate to museum artifacts?
  • Extend: Participants extended the problems to today. Then they were asked to answer the following: Do we have the same problems or similar ones? What modern solutions are proposed or in action?
  • Challenge: Participants considered the problems in a different context. Using some of the innovative points of view they had been learning, they were asked how they thought the problems could be solved and if they expected any unintended consequences as a result.

One of the first activities involved creating a purpose for an invention and supporting it. The facilitators passed out photos of National Postal Museum artifacts to groups of participants. They then asked the groups, who did not know the actual purpose of these artifacts, to interpret and define the artifacts’ functions and create commercials for them. The imaginative “inventions” conceived by the groups included the “face changer,” “brass knuckles,” “snuggly wuggly pants,” and “four-in-one wheel.” After the groups developed scripts for their respective inventions, they huddled in various parts of the room to film their commercials with mobile phones.

In the background, I observed the snuggly wuggly pants group as they filmed their commercial. The members of the group took turns on camera, each describing how the snuggly wuggly pants fit a “need” in a way that might be appealing to the public. Then, they took their raw footage back to the computer lab to edit. Fixated in front of laptops, the group members worked together smoothly and efficiently, deciding which parts should be cut, which should remain, and how they should flow. Afterward, they gathered in front of the larger group to present their work. The facilitator asked questions like “What problem was this solving?"; "Was this commercial convincing?"; "What techniques did you use to convince people to buy the product?” Through the educators’ techniques and use of media to spark the projects, participants were highly engaged.

Additional Reading on Visible Thinking: