Helping Students Become Better Thinkers

If “children grow into the intellectual life around them” (Vygotsky, 1978, p.88), then what kind of intellectual life are we presenting to the students in our classrooms? Teachers all over the world have had to accept the compromise of focusing more on delivering the prescribed curriculum than developing understanding; test-taking rather than learning. We have what the authors of Making Thinking Visible describe as “a distorted view of teaching that is self-reinforcing and divorced from what we know about effective learning”(Ritchhart, Church, & Morrison, 2011, p.25).

Learning is a consequence of thinking. Because most of our thinking is invisible, it can be hard for students to know how to think well and difficult for teachers to know how to help students become better thinkers. This is where thinking routines play a key role. Thinking routines are an adaptable collection of practices to nurture thinking skills. Most classrooms have routines, usually based around behavior management, but when thinking routines become a regular part of classroom discourse, they assist learners to control thinking processes so that they become habitual.

In a classroom with a culture of visible thinking, students have opportunities to articulate their ideas and to think things through for themselves, and their awareness of thinking strategies increases. When students are encouraged to ask questions, consider prior knowledge, probe their own ideas, and reveal key relationships, it deepens their learning and develops their thinking dispositions. Making these tangled and interconnecting relationships visible helps students form authentic knowledge instead of just remembering disparate facts. Thinking routines help students (and teachers) to see their own cognitive moves by naming and noticing the thinking. Once students are able to name their thinking processes they are able to control and improve their thinking, which assists them to become more independent, active, enquiring, and engaged learners.

The Role of the Teacher

Correspondingly, when teachers start thinking about thinking, they tend to think about teaching differently. They become more student-centred and the classroom culture becomes more oriented to learning rather than work completion. The teacher’s role “shifts from the delivery of information to fostering students’ engagement with ideas”(Ritchhart, et al., 2011, p. 26). Students who previously felt overlooked or disengaged, participate more actively and confidently.

In my attempts to develop a thinking classroom, one of my first realisations was that it is impossible to think without something to think about. Teachers often tend to feel that their role is to simplify subject matter for learners, turning it into what Schneier describes as “empty shadows” (1986, p. 15). It is important that subject matter is offered to learners in its full complexity. When teachers simplify subject matter (notes or worksheets) they can make it incomprehensible and meaningless to learners because there is nothing left to connect to. According to Ramsay (2000), “When prompted to ‘solve’ puzzles that are not puzzling, the potential for meaning-making is limited: students are rendered technicians performing sterile operations” (p. 2). It is through the very complexities of subject matter that learners gain access to it and this is why teacher content expertise is so crucial.

I have also learned to trust the minds of the learners. It is only by thinking that people get better at thinking and everything that I do either supports or diminishes my students’ reliance on their ability to think. Teachers need to really listen for, value, and try to understand learners’ thoughts, experiences and insights, and then use them as a starting point. A teacher needs to be curious about what sense a learner is making and how a learner understands something. This requires learning how to ask questions without steering a learner towards a pre-determined response. Too often the conversations in my classroom revolve around students attempting to guess what is in my head. Duckworth (2006) warns that, “We cannot learn anything about what children think if we signal to them what we hope they will say” (p. 162).

It is my role to raise questions, to push learners to see where their answers hold up and where they do not hold up, to ask the right question at the right time in order to push a learner’s thinking. When I make thinking visible in my classroom, I start asking less factual recall questions and start asking more useful questions, such as: What do you notice? What puzzles you? Can you show me? Where do you see that? What do you mean? Why do you think that? How did you get that? What makes you say that?

The Reggio Emilia approach advocates that, “listening must be the basis of the learning relationship that teachers seek to form with students”(Ritchhart, et al. 2011, p.37). Teaching to think requires focusing on the students and looking for clues about the current state of their thinking. It is only by observing and listening carefully to the thoughts of our students that we gain the information necessary to ask them good questions in the first place. Documenting thinking by capturing the questions and dialogues that develop learning, can improve the learning. When teachers capture students’ ideas, they signal that those ideas have value, thereby encouraging students to think more often.
Thinking is a social endeavour. We learn from the people around us and our engagement with them. Kamii (1985) wrote about the importance of social interaction for the construction of knowledge, encouraging learners to exchange points of view critically amongst themselves, reducing the teacher’s power as much as possible, and having learners construct knowledge and learn not from but with each other. It is deeply important that learners are able to converse with others, play with ideas, and collectively create knowledge.

Pictures of Practice

Micro-Lab

The Micro-Lab is a simple protocol for getting everyone’s voice on the table and permitting focused conversations. Technically it is not a thinking routine as it does not prompt specific thinking moves, but it does make thinking visible. I find it useful when I set my history class a take-home essay, to commence their thinking with the Micro-Lab protocol.

I usually commence with five minutes of free-writing in response to a question. I ask students to write as fast as they can without thinking too much for five minutes. If their flow stops, they should leave a space and immediately commence writing again. No mistakes are possible, they cannot write anything wrong; the only mistake they can make is to not write. The aim is for stream of consciousness writing, to keep their hand moving and not worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar. This free-writing prepares them for the protocol and frees their mind to explore different angles on the topic.

For the Micro-Lab protocol, students work in threes and they move their chairs so that they are physically facing each other. I usually ask them to self-nominate as A,B, and C. The first student (A) shares for 1-2 minutes in response to the question, while the other two (B & C) listen in silence, with no comment or interruption. This is followed by 30 seconds of ‘cone of silence’ for all three to reflect on what has been said and gather their thoughts. This process is then repeated for the second and third student. If the sharing student runs out of things to say during their 2 minutes, then the group is instructed to sit silently until it is the next student’s turn to commence. I use the stopwatch on my phone to time each section of the protocol.

I find it useful to move actively around the classroom, listen attentively to each student speaking and then write a brief summary of keywords on the whiteboard during the reflection silences. This highlights key ideas and enables other students to build on what has been said, as well as providing the ‘history of ideas’ crucial to effective documentation. The protocol concludes with a class discussion about the thinking that surfaced, making connections between the responses of the groups, asking clarifying questions, highlighting key themes, and acknowledging how thinking has changed.

The Micro-Lab protocol ensures that everyone’s voice is heard and nobody dominates. Students are forced to listen carefully to each other and I encourage the listeners to write down anything they hear that strikes them as particularly powerful or useful. With regular use, this protocol teaches students how to build on each other’s ideas rather than randomly shooting off their own thoughts. I had one class that referred to this as “ice-creaming” rather than “pop-corning” because they were conscious of building on each other’s ideas, like scoops of ice-cream piling on top of each other, as opposed to unrelated ideas popping off all over the place.

When first introducing a group to the Micro-Lab protocol it is best to start with shorter times, 1 minute of talk and 20 seconds of silence, and then extend the times gradually as the group becomes used to the process. The first time students utilise this protocol, they are likely to be uncomfortable with being asked to sit in silence for 30 seconds, but as they become used to the protocol they quickly come to appreciate the time and space that the reflective silences allow. The class discussion that follows the use of the Micro-Lab protocol is invariably far deeper and richer than would have been the case without its use. It is an easy method of enabling students to check their understanding and use each other as resources.

Chalk Talk

Chalk Talk is another superb protocol for making thinking visible and ensuring that nobody dominates the conversation. It usually commences with several large sheets of paper placed around the room, each with a question written in the centre. Controversial questions work especially effectively. Participants are asked to respond to each question, moving around the room in silence using their pen as their voice. The active nature of moving around the room plays an important role in this protocol. After around 20 minutes, I ask participants to go back to each sheet and look for connections to other’s responses and think of questions which arise as a result of what others have written. I often model this by writing questions, drawing arrows to show connections, and posing new ideas myself. The routine provides time and space for participants to respond to questions and think things through. It pushes group thinking deeper and it encourages participants to be more comfortable taking risks with ideas than they would be in a face to face conversation. It is useful to conclude with a group discussion about key themes and debrief the process itself.

I was recently asked to facilitate a workshop for the 12 members of our School Executive on the topic of ‘Technology as an accelerator’. Knowing that it was a provocative topic with the potential for a small number of voices to dominate the conversation, I chose Chalk Talk as the protocol to facilitate the session. Five sheets of paper were placed around the room and the particiapnts wandered silently, talking with their pens, for 30 minutes and were still completely engaged when time ran out.

The Chalk Talk protocol had primed the group to be comfortable operating in the grey areas of the debate rather than sticking to black or white positions. The protocol had ensured that a potentially difficult conversation between people with disparate views and experiences had ensued easily. One educator at the end of a long career commented that he did not think he had been silent for that length of time in his entire life!

I Used to Think…, Now I Think…

Responding to these two stems is a powerful way of reflecting on how your thinking has changed. My school shares a regular staff collaborative breakfast group ‘cultures of thinking’ meeting with another local school. In one meeting, everyone had read some readings on ‘feedback’ and then in small groups of four, discussions were held, with each group reporting back to the main group using the ‘I used to think…, Now I think…’ sentence stems.
One group reported:

“We used to think that exemplars were good, that most feedback was from teacher to student, and that extrinsic rewards were negative.
Now we think that exemplars can damage creativity and prevent thinking, that early ongoing student to teacher feedback is powerful, and that extrinsic rewards may have a role to play in providing students with recognition in the game of school.”

The ensuing discussion is often far deeper than might have been the case without the use of the thinking routine, particularly when considering why thinking has changed.

Conclusion

The use of protocols and thinking routines helps me know how to help students become better thinkers. Every class I teach is now an exciting research expedition into student thinking. My classroom has become more focused on learning and less focused on getting through the work. It is hugely rewarding to hear students begin to incorporate the language of thinking into their own conversations by making connections, puzzling aloud, and explaining how their thinking has changed. A highlight has been having a visiting colleague comment, “You can really see the students thinking in this class.”

References
Duckworth, E. (2006). “The having of wonderful ideas” and other essays on teaching and learning. New York: Teachers College Press.

Kamii, C., & Randazzo, M. (1985). Social Interaction and invented spelling. Language Arts, 62(2), 124-133.

Ramsay, L. (2000). Understanding the problem of un-prescribing the curriculum. Unpublished Manuscript. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Ritchhart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K. (2011). Making thinking visible: How to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schneier, L. (1986). Dancing in the hall. Unpublished Manuscript. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

About cpaterso

I love teaching, but recognise that schools often do not support what we know about learning. I believe that confusion is good, grades are overemphasised, and exams are anachronistic. Currently working in a learning and teaching leadership role in a Sydney school.
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9 Responses to Helping Students Become Better Thinkers

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  5. vvinton says:

    A colleague here in the States tweeted a link to your post and I’m so glad I clicked through as it echoes so many of the ideas I tried to capture in my own blog post this week (including connections to Reggio Emilia where I was last fall) and in the book I co-authored, What Readers Really Do (whose working title to the very end was Making the Invisible Visible). Here’s the link to the blog, which I hope you find interesting: http://tomakeaprairie.wordpress.com. But more than anything, it’s always a thrill to find other like-minded voices out there!

  6. vvinton says:

    And P.S. I just discovered our six degrees of separation! I used to work with Dale Worsley.

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