The hills were alight with changing fall foliage. In the background was the sound of water coursing over stones. A faint scent of smoke hung in the air. We had arrived at another fork in the path, by this time well off the main trail. Neither of us had remembered to take a picture of the trail map like we had planned and so we paused to try and figure out which way to go. The conversation that ensued was filled with snippets like “this path seems more trodden so it is probably the one people usually take”, “the one on the left goes down hill, maybe we should take that to conserve strength”, “downhill now means uphill when we’re making our way back”, “I can still hear the water, we can follow either way and turn around once we can’t hear it anymore”. The conversation was in essence a practice of what educators refer to as “making thinking visible”.
Developed initially by educators in Sweden and later by Harvard’s Project Zero, “Visible Thinking” is a conceptual framework that supports learners in thinking about thinking. While this description makes it sound overly academic, it is something that most of us have an experience with from conversations like those in the hiking story. “Visible Thinking” as a framework, however, makes those moments intentional so that learners can regularly develop insight into how they think about things and what lessons are to be learned from that insight. This is uniquely valuable because opportunities to really look at how one thinks create key moments of understanding, personal growth and development. For example, in a “visible thinking” activity called “see/think/wonder” a middle school health class was shown individuals of various body images. The students were asked to describe what they saw, note what they thought about the images, and ask wondering questions. What the class learned was how they assessed a person’s fitness based on their physical appearance as well as the fact that they made a lot of judgements about people based on those assessments. This was a chance to reflect on the degree to which physical appearance is in fact an indicator of fitness, to become aware of judgements learners were making about people, and to evaluate whether or not various parts of that thinking were appropriate or constructive .
Long before this concept developed in the world of education, the Talmud alluded to a kind of “visible thinking” and its role in the process of teshuva, repentance or return to our best selves. The Jerusalem Talmud asks “How should one confess for their wrongdoings?… [One should say] ‘I have errored, I have acted in weakness, I have stood in the wrong mindset, and I have walked along a far away path. As I have done in the past, I do no more'” (Yoma 8:7 end). Like any sincere confession, it must be preceded by an open reflection upon the things being confessed for. As such, the Talmud’s inclusion of “I have stood in the wrong mindset” expects people to have observed their mindset and drawn lessons from it that led them to realize that at least part of their mindset or thinking needed to be changed.
Interestingly, the version of confession prescribed by the Jerusalem Talmud is not what made it into the liturgy we have today, but I would like to make an argument for its inclusion as we approach Yom Kippur. In preparation, we can perform a kind of “see/think/wonder” activity for ourselves. We can think of people we are seeking to make amends with, call them to mind and ask ourselves, “What do I see? What do I think? What do I wonder?” Let’s observe our responses to these questions and discover where our thinking has value and validity, and where it is perhaps unfair or ungenerous. Then, we can seek to make changes to our thinking that can support our repairing of that relationship. To help us strengthen that commitment for the year, we can include in the confessional prayers of Yom Kippur, “I have stood in the wrong mindset…As I have done in the past, I do no more”.
We all come to the fork on the path in the woods sometimes. We often then hearken to the sound of water to make sure we haven’t gone too far astray. Other times, we misstep and we get lost. In those moments, both on literal and metaphorical journeys, the first step is always to stop and gather oneself. We must observe our thinking and remember all that is in us that can help get us on the right path back home.