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What’s Your Perspective? – Cultures of Thinking Part Two

What’s Your Perspective? – Cultures of Thinking Part Two

Remember the internet buzz about what color is the dress?

Do you see an old woman or a young woman?

Are there white birds flying or black birds?

Perspective –these are our thoughts of how we view a situation. Perspective can start world wars, create conflict, and divide people. However perspective can also help us develop empathy through understanding others and thus end conflict and unite people. Simply put, our perspective provides a framework for our thoughts. As we begin to build cultures of thinking in our social work practices, we want to provide opportunities for students to take their thinking to a deeper level and to develop a greater empathic response. The thinking routine Step Inside is the perfect platform for our goal.

Step Inside is a digging deeper routine that elicits the thinkers to “get inside” an idea, person, or image and then visually express those thoughts either through words or drawings. This routine is flexible as it can be done with a whole class, small group, or individually with one student.

Here’s how it works:

  • Pick your topic. For example….
    • Helping general education students understand more about the students on the autism spectrum who are in their classroom.
    • Classroom lessons on bullying so students can gain a deeper understanding of what it feels like to be a bully, a target, or a bystander.
    • Working with a student with school anxiety to help that student gain a greater understanding of his or her needs.
  • Provide the background information and introduce the routine. As part of my second grade friendship lessons, I read the book series Weird!, Dare! and Tough! (incredible elementary age books by Erin Frankel). As part of one of the lessons, I introduce the thinking routine Step Inside. We talk about how we do not really know someone by just looking at their outside behaviors. We need to have more information about them, and to get to know them better, in order to understand their actions.
  • Show the image, read the book, set the scene.
  • Provide an opportunity for the students to draw or write about how it feels to be this person. What feelings does this person have? What does he think? What does she wonder? What would this person say if s/he was talking to you? Students can write this out, draw it out, or be as creative as you want. This can be done through a whole class discussion with you creating the visuals, it can be done individually, or in small groups.
  • Finally, don’t forget the conversations. The thinking routine provides a framework to help students begin to think deeper, but the real thinking happens during the conversations. Students need to share their thoughts with other students – whole group, pairs, small group – it doesn’t matter. What is important is the ideas that they are sharing and the reasoning behind their thinking. If we want students to think deeper then we need to challenge their thinking. “Wow! What made you think that?” “What part of the story gave you those ideas?” “How do you know that?” My favorite part of this activity is eavesdropping on the conversations of the students. Hearing them talk about their ideas of how the person felt and what prompted them to write or draw what they did is fascinating and gives me a lot of insight into if my lesson “hit the target” or what else I want to stress when I close the activity/lesson.

Take time to slow down

One important thing that I have learned through doing many thinking routines is the need to slow down. If we want our students to really learn important skills and information during their time with us, then we need to slow down. This gives them the opportunity to truly absorb the information, process it, and have a chance to show what they know. This is really hard! Our time is short with students; a crisis comes up, a teacher knocks on your office door right in the middle of your lesson, it’s time again for district testing. I know!

Our jobs are crazy on many days, but I’ve made a conscious choice to dig deeper on fewer ideas then try to cover more ideas by just touching the surface. Consequently, I’m seeing more students who are able to articulate their thoughts with me verbally or visually. They can explain what we learned and how they can apply it outside of my office, and they are remembering it. We can come back to a topic and look at their visual thinking from a routine and it strikes a memory with them.

Step Inside guides students to take on the perspective of someone else in order to better understand that person and, ultimately, to better understand themselves.

(Editor’s Note:  Cultures of Thinking and the Step Inside Routines are a still-emerging theoretical framework, mostly supported by intensive and small-scale qualitative research e.g. focus groups, whole-school case studies. For more information on the evidence base for CoT, click here for their site at the Harvard School of Education.)

New Social Emotional Lesson Plan Website!

Looking for more ideas for Step Inside and other Cultures of Thinking Routines, check out the new Social Emotional Thinking Routine website for ideas and specific lesson plans.

Here are more examples of Step Inside thinking routine lessons.  Go ahead – try one out!

Example 1 – Step Inside Phoebe

Videos are great ways to begin a Step Inside lesson. This lesson was designed to help the students in a 2nd grade class understand that the students with cognitively impairments in their class just want to be treated like every other 2nd grade student. First, the class watched the following video about a girl named Phoebe who has a physical disability and uses an augmentative communication device to speak. The students were captivated by Phoebe. After the video we had a whole group Step Inside discussion. As a class we created a poster showing Phoebe’s likes and dislikes, her hopes and dreams, as well as her feelings and other things that we learned about her. The class realized what life is like from Phoebe’s perspective.

Once that discussion was through, we talked about the students with special needs who are part of their classroom. We did a Step Inside for these students too. As the class was sharing their thoughts, the conversation turned to how the students who receive special education support want to be treated just like Phoebe. They are looking to build friendships with their classmates. This thinking routine provided the framework for a classroom conversation. In addition, the poster of Phoebe is hanging in the classroom as a visual reminder of the ideas that we shared.

Example 2 – Step Inside a Peer Mediator Disputant

Many middle schools or high schools have peer mediation programs. These students are trained in active listening, knowing different types of conflict, and the mediation process. You can use the Step Inside thinking routine to help the mediators have a better understanding of the disputants (the students coming to mediation). Decide the ideas that you want your mediators to explore (how a disputant feels when coming to mediation, what a disputant is thinking about during the mediation, why a disputant signs up for mediation, etc.)

The next step can be done in two different ways. You can break your mediators up into small groups and have each group design a “Step Inside a Disputant” poster. Another way would be to take each of your ideas and put them on individual chart paper. The mediators can go around to the different papers and write down or draw out their thoughts. Finally, a whole group discussion is important to share the ideas and the rationale behind the thinking.


(1) Blue/Black or White/Gold dress controversy

(2) W. E. Hill, artist

(3) M.C. Escher, artist

(4) Weird, Dare, Tough book series, (

About The Author

Jennifer Hollander

Jennifer Hollander has over 26 years of experience as a school social worker and is currently employed by the Huron Valley School District in Milford, Michigan. She earned her MSW from Jane Addams School of Social Work at UIC in 1991. Always passionate about discovering new ways to engage students, Jennifer integrated the principles of Cultures of Thinking (CoT) into school social work, combining Thinking Routines and Social-Emotional Learning. She received advanced training in CoT with Ron Ritchhart the founder/author of the model. Since 2015, Jennifer has facilitated multiple Cultures of Thinking presentations in her own district, at the county level, at the Michigan Association of School Social Workers State Conference, and at the 2018 National School Social Work Association of America Conference. Jennifer was awarded the School Social Worker of the Year award in Oakland County, Michigan in 2017.

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