Ladder of Inference and 2 More Integrative Thinking Tools

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Ladder of Inference



The ladder of inference is a model for decision making behavior developed by Harvard professors Chris Argyris and Donald Schoen. Essentially, it helps students slow down and realize which data they are taking into account when they make a decision and how the data they choose is informed by their past experiences. Assumptions are often made in a split second decision because the brain is wired to prioritize data that confirms the model a person already holds. The ladder of inference is a way to check those assumptions.

The ladder can be used in a very basic way, for example, by showing 2nd grade students an image of a soccer player lying on the ground, one leg up, holding his head. The image can be intentionally a little vague. At first, students may conclude that the person had fallen. But as they work their way up the ladder of inference they begin to notice different aspects of the image and add those to their “data pool.”

Students begin to realize that there is a lot more going on in the picture just in terms of data than what they first said. For example, students would say the man was hurt. That’s not a data point, it’s an inference. It is then possible to tease out from them that they thought the man was hurt because he was on the ground, holding his head and had a pained look on his face. Notice that students will have started getting much deeper with more thoughtful answers.

As students practice using the ladder of inference in various content areas they will also start to use it on their own when dealing with social problems. When there is a disagreement, students can now use the ladder of inference to back up and think through the data they choose and the assumptions that stem from that data. Using this tool, students will solve problems on their own or ask a friend to help them make their ladder.


They learn that there’s nothing wrong with questioning, so the students become much more willing and accepting of criticism because it’s not really criticism anymore. This integrative thinking tool naturally encourages students to build a growth mindset about all aspects of life because multiple viewpoints amplify different ways to solve a problem and are a core part of why integrative thinking works. Difference is the strength of the model that promotes growth mindsets, and facilitates the development of critical thinking skills. Important to note that when facts and inference merge, students will be better equipped to distinguish the two in many situations.

Pro/Pro chart


Another integrative thinking tool called the pro/pro chart offers some good examples of how students learn to think flexibly. Most people are familiar with pro/con charts, but in a pro/pro chart the group thinks through the positives of two different ideas. Rather than deciding between two choices, this tool helps students identify the positive traits of different viewpoints, and then create a third option by merging the good qualities of both.

An example: Ask  students to brainstorm ideas for the worst restaurant of all time. When they have a good list of terrible ideas,  ask groups of students to each take one idea and explain why it is the best restaurant of all time. One group can initially propose a restaurant with no seating would be the worst; they then reframe that to say  if everyone was standing up they would move through the restaurant faster and turn more of a profit. A second group may say that a restaurant in the woods would be terrible; they reframe that as dining under the stars.

Students will come up with really good ideas out of a terrible idea. It helps them see that they are capable to switch mindsets. Building on the activity, ask the groups to pitch their ideas in a Shark Tank -like contest. Students come up with slogans and designs for their restaurants and what may have started as a silly, fun activity becomes a rich interdisciplinary project with written and oral communication, presentation skills, media literacy, and the process skills that enable them.


pro pro.jpgStudents are not afraid to think as they become creative and critical thinkers. Integrative thinking tools can be used in math instruction. For instance, students can use the ladder of inference in a word problem, or the Pro/Pro chart for different multiplication strategies. Integrative thinking tools can provide a solution to a problem that many  teachers have struggled with for a long time: how to deepen student thinking.

Asking students to do a causal model — another core integrative thinking tool — can  encourage an exploration of values. Ask them to pick three to five things they value, anything from profound qualities like independence or kindness, to passions like music or basketball. They then having to dive deeply into why they value those qualities. The best part is that this often requires that they have conversations with their family about values they were taught from an early age.

Sharing these ideas in the classroom, students will realize that people have different values.The causal models go up on the wall as a reminder that everyone in the class is different and that the diversity of values, perspectives and opinions makes them better problem solvers, more tolerant, and respectful of the uniqueness of others. In a diverse society, with diverse schools, and diverse students of diverse backgrounds, critical thinking skills must now be cultivated earlier than ever before. The classroom is where we can make it happen!



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