Basing Good Learning on Good Thinking

I. In 1976, the Direction of My Professional Life Changed Forever

I was a full professor with tenure at the new Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts. I went there in 1972 as Philosophy Department chairman, redesigned the philosophy program to ground it more in important concepts that speak to the lives of our students. We had a traditional philosophy major that was sending students off to graduate school to get their PhDs and go on to some university to teach philosophy. But we added a Moral and Social Issues track along and a combined philosophy/ psychology major. Our student enroll-ment expanded considerably, we hired new faculty, and were moving along smoothly, when a friend of mine, Kevin O’Reilly, a high school history teacher, invited me to join his 11th grade history class for “something new” that he was planning to do. So I went there.

Kevin’s students were learning about the Revolutionary War, and fol- lowing their textbooks, which focused on names and dates, but occa- sionally threw in something else. This time it was a passage that said that the British soldiers stationed in Boston and settled in a camp had found out that the colonial militia, who had been formed to challenge the British, had been accumulating arms in a barn in Concord, MA, about 50 miles away. They decided to launch a surprise attack, so they left at midnight and marched through the night. But when they passed through the town of Lexington, a short distance from Concord, the sun was rising, and they ran into a group of colonists who had col- lected on the village green. So the British commander, General Gage, who was on horseback, rode up and said, “Disperse you rebels immediately. Fire!” And the British troops opened fire “killing eight patriots”. The British then rode on to Concord. Then the textbook says “It was not long before the swift-riding Paul Revere spread the news of this new atrocity to the neighboring colonies, which then revolted against the British. Then “Even in faraway North Carolina the Colonists rose up against the British.”

Wow. Patriots, rebels, Paul Revere, North Carolina 800 miles to the south, and those disciplined British. I supposed that my own history textbook was like that when I went to school, but I didn’t remember a word of it. I wondered what they were going to be asked on the test. And I wondered why Kevin had asked me to come and visit.

But then Kevin answered my silent wonderings. He told his class that the night before he had been looking at some other books about this period and came across another one about this famous 1775 “Battle of Lexington”. He read it to the students. It said pretty much the same thing as their textbook up to the British commander telling the people to disperse (with no use of the word “rebels”). But in the text he didn’t say “Fire!” Instead the text said “The colonial committees were very anxious not to provoke open conflict with the British”, which I sup- posed made sense because this was on the heels of the Boston Massacre trial. Then it said: “But in the confusion someone fired. The British then returned the fire and killed some colonists. They then marched on to Concord.”

I then had an inkling of what Kevin was doing. He put the book down, scratched his head, and said, “I don’t know who to believe. Who fired that first shot?” I thought that nobody cared about that anymore. But I knew what Kevin was doing, and I realized how important that question was.

Some students then asked “why” and one of them said that the second passage only says that someone fired, not who it was. But another student said that it must have been a colonist because it says that the British returned the fire. I thought, “Good for you!” Then a student asked, “What is that second book?” and Kevin told them that this new text was from Winston Churchill, History of the English-Speaking Peoples. They had no idea who Winston Churchill was but when they heard that he was English and the book was published in Great Britain, well, they said, it must be the one that was wrong. But Kevin said, “Wait a minute” and asked them if they had ever read anything published in the USA that was wrong, and sure they had. So now they perked up. Kevin then said, “Let’s think about this a little. Let’s make a list of things we will want to find out to determine which of these two is more reliable.” And they did: first they asked who the authors were, including their background and profession. And one student said, “Maybe we want to find out where these guys got their information about these things that happened 200 years earlier.”

Interestingly enough, Kevin was drawing upon a little sourcebook published a few years earlier called What Happened on Lexington Green? in which the editor collected all the sources he could find, from the 18th century to the 20th century. So Kevin then cleverly produced some written eyewitness reports of the battle. “Maybe these were what the 20th-century authors used,” he said. “I got curious about the same thing and I found these. And I photocopied them for you.” So they looked at these and found that they broke down along “party lines” as well—except for a British soldier who testified that the British fired first. Some students said that that proved it—that the American textbook is correct. But Kevin asked them to wait and read them a note that said that this soldier said this when he was a prisoner of the Colonists These students were now deflated. So what next?
Well, Kevin had them work in small groups of three or four and then share what they came up with. Initially their check list was just categories, for example “Find out about the publisher” but soon they thought of questions that had to be answered before they could judge whether the original authors were reliable. Here’s their list:

Things weren’t over yet. They needed to get answers for their ques tions. So Kevin helped them track down what information they could find about the various accounts, primarily through the use of the sourcebook about what happened on Lexington Green. I was amazed at the way this group of students had become motivated by the challenge of resolving this conflict, to my mind not the most inter- esting disagreement of this sort in the annals of the recorded history of man’s adventures on this planet. But I was even more amazed when they all agreed that you couldn’t tell who started this fighting. The information that was available, especially about the eyewitness accounts, was very inconclusive. One student said, “Both of these guys are making up stories. How can they know?” And he said, “They should have said: ‘A shot rang out and to this day no one knows who fired that shot.’” . . . This student was saying that in this case the right answer to who fired the first short was that “We don’t know.”

What was I thinking? Two things. One was that Kevin, in this one class, had helped students free themselves from the tyranny of textbooks. They could now gather information and make their own judgments. That thrilled me. I knew all along, of course, something that was obvious: in the history of the Revolutionary War it really doesn’t matter who fired the first shot. But more important, I realized that Kevin, in one short class period, had armed these students with some- thing that they could use for the rest of their lives because this issue of reliability is always there in most things that they will be reading. This was exciting.

As I had put it many times since then, these students had just started to develop an extremely important and empowering critical thinking skill, and they would need it. Today when I think about this I think how the Internet and the development of iPhones and iPads has given these students the ability to access in a flash a tremendous amount of information that ten years earlier could only be found in a library search that usually took hours. But at the same time I recognize that, as many teachers know, the standard mode of operation for students using iPads when they search for information is to go to Google, get a bunch of links, access one of them, and copy it, without ever thinking that maybe it is cleverly disguised but false information. Anyone can put anything they want on the Internet and make it sound authentic. Kevin’s way needs to be part of learning how to use any new tool that allows us to access information we are looking for.

Of course, Kevin closed the door to his classroom when I came in, and I was the only one to see this wonder. I thought: “I need to tell every teacher in the world about this.”

II. January 2017, Colegio Aixa, Palma de Mallorca, Spain

Just last month I visited a classroom in Palma de Mallorca in Spain. I have been working with the teachers there on how to restructure classroom teaching to infuse the use of important forms of skillful thinking. I watched a fifth grade teacher, Fatima, work with students who were learning about the early years of space exploration. She showed them the famous video of Neil Armstrong descending the ladder to plant “One great step for mankind” on the moon. They had never seen that. Their “wows” filled the room.

But then she showed them another video clip with the heading “Moon landing is a hoax!” and it went on to say that this was staged by actors in the Arizona desert in order for NASA to get more money from Congress. Many of the students laughed. But then Fatima did what Kevin did. She shifted the center of the classroom to the students and helped them not only think about how they can really tell which is a more reliable source, but how they can develop a plan that they can use whenever that question arises. “What questions do you need to get answers to in order to judge how reliable these accounts are,” she asked the students. The students used a special “question organiz- ing graphic organizer” to write questions that they generated in small collaborative groups. They then put the questions in categories and developed a checklist very much like the one that Kevin’s students developed without ever having seen it. And, guided by the teacher, they set about to use it.

I had shown the teachers in this school what Kevin did in a workshop we did a month earlier. I clearly remember one girl who said to the class: “We need to find out where this piece of writing was published. And we shouldn’t forget to find out the reputation of the publisher!” Like in Kevin’s classroom Fatima’s question had activated some prior experience that this girl had and that was stored in that great web in her brain, and probably would have remained there forever were it not for the fact that Fatima’s question has created an analogical connection that brought it out. That’s a key learning connection that is rarely made in classrooms where rote learn- ing is the norm.

III. 1976–2017, Thinking-Based Learning

“Telling the world about Kevin” in my life since 1976 has had an interesting history. I found other faculty who were really interested in what made Kevin’s excursion into critical thinking with his students so successful. We looked into the “new” work that researchers like Benjamin Bloom, and Robert Ennis had done to start the “teaching thinking” movement, but especially to move the center of gravity of instruction in critical thinking away from logic and argument to the recognition that critical thinking, as practiced in our lives, involves the necessity to use a number of special critical thinking skills, like judging the reliability of sources carefully, with the objective of trying to find out what we should believe to develop the most reasonable picture of what is happening in the real world. Included in this conception of the domain of thinking was a shift also to include, as a key focus, the world of action, and not just belief, by emphasizing how important critical thinking is in good decision making and problem solving.

Through this research I developed a broader conceptualization of the kinds of thinking skills that we needed to focus on for pre-university students, using some of the categories of Benjamin Bloom—analysis, synthesis, and evaluation—but identifying, in those categories, specific types of thinking that people use every day like accepting sources as reliable, judging what caused something to happen, predicting things, making decisions, and solving problems. The idea was that these types of thinking are used by people world-wide every day, but not used well. Our mission should then be to help them use these types of thinking carefully and with skill. This is the framework that I and my associates now use for teacher-development, K–12.

But as important as this framework is, it does not include anything about the instructional methodology teachers need to practice making teaching for skillful thinking effective. And in this we, too, searched the literature and research about new instructional methods, and devel- oped a body of research ourselves about shifting to student-centered classrooms, making collaborative learning/thinking groups a classroom norm, using special questioning techniques that can replace lecturing in this context, and especially how important it was to help students learn constructive ways of using metacognition. Teachers using this instructional methodology are, in fact, modeling how good thinkers go about their thinking when the situation calls for it.

But there is also the question of what teachers help their students use these types of skillful thinking to think about. The challenge is, again following Kevin, how the norm in every classroom could be students not just learning how to do these kinds of thinking skillfully but also using these thinking skills to engage with what they are learning in the regular curriculum—what I call “Thinking-Based Learning”. Now plenty of research that has been done about teaching thinking that has shown how ineffective teaching critical thinking is when taught in a separate course and how effective infusing it into content instruction is, when measured by its actual use in the lives of the students.

IV. Don’t Ignore Creative Thinking

Amongst those whose initial work on teaching thinking I explored were Paul Torrance, Donald Treffinger, and David Perkins—three important figures in the initiative to make creativity and creative thinking something emphasized in education. In fact I got to know Donald and David, worked with them, and continue to work with David. What I learned was that creative thinking—thinking that yields new and original ideas—in no way conflicts with the use of critical thinking skills, but complements it. Any serious attempt to develop something new to solve problems or just advance our lives needs to be subject to the real world of facts through careful critical thinking if it is ever to be turned into something useful or to be transformed into an invention that can better our lives. But I also recognized that creativity needs to be conceived as much broader than aiming at real inventions—creative expression is an important domain of its own. In Bloom’s earlier terminology, types of thinking that aim at creative products fall into the category of Synthesis.

V. 1996, let’s Go Back to a Fifth-Grade Classroom in Lubbock, TX

A book is a roller coaster
Taking you up and lifting your spirits to the sky

Making your stomach churn
Something you will never forget
Taking you through different emotions, reaching the top

The next step is unknown, like the next page in a book
Surprised by where it takes you and where it might leave you

You’re nervous, hands trembling, fists clenched as you wonder
What will happen next.
A book is a roller coaster.

Poetry, we are told, is born of inspiration, the poet “touched by the muse”, and thinking can only interfere with this process. So, it seems, this poet, too, is carried away by these powerful images and conveys these feelings to us as we read what he wrote. Admittedly, this is not Shakespeare, Neruda, Paz, or Lorca. But perhaps the seeds of poetic inspiration have started to grow and may, with good cultivation, someday produce an equal to Shakespeare, Neruda, Paz, or Lorca.

Actually, this is a fifth-grade student who has been working with his classmates on how to produce effective metaphors, an enterprise that is an important variety of creative thinking. He has come up with a roller-coaster as a metaphor for reading a book. And it is clear that he knows the power of good metaphors. They don’t tell us anything literally about their objects, but they do tell us things that are not only informative but also carry with them feelings, sometimes deep and exciting. We worked with the teachers in this school on how they can teach students to identify, create, and use good metaphors?

In this instance the teacher is Rebecca Reagan, and she introduces her fifth-grade students to the topic of metaphors by saying things like: “Metaphors are all around us, ‘He’s a real dynamo!’ ‘She’s the light of my life!’, ‘Put that file in the trash ’ ”. And we use them a lot. Can you think of any?” She wants her students to recognize that metaphors are the prime mode of expression in figurative language, and while metaphors are the creative backbone of fine poetry and literature, she wants her students to see that they are all around us.

Often teachers provide no instruction in how to create effective and powerful metaphors. Students just do it and some students seem to do this more naturally than others. One important thing that I have learned since my visit to Kevin is that all students can learn how to develop effective and powerful metaphors, and to use them to communicate their ideas effectively and powerfully.

VI. 2009, at Colegio Montserrat, in Barcelona, Spain

I showed the teachers at Colegio Montserrat how Rebecca had helped her students develop a thinking strategy that yielded writing like in the poem “Reading”. I focused on how Rebecca first focused on meta- phors in the life of the students and on how they convey what they say to us. But then she worked with them on techniques for coming up with new and good metaphors that they could express in words. She had done this in the style that went back to Kevin’s classroom 20 years earlier. She was teaching them to stop, ask, think, and answer some important questions before they jump in with a metaphor. What questions?

“Let’s think. What does the metaphor ‘He’s a real dynamo!’ tell us?” Monika, a teacher at Colegio Montserrat, asked her students. “Well, certainly not that he is lazy and sloughs things off all the time. So what?” Some students respond: “He’s a hard worker, keeps at it till he gets the job done.” Another student says, “Not just that he keeps at it but does that with energy.”

Monika continues. “What more does this metaphor do?” A student responded: “It stiffened me us up, like I was becoming a dynamo and really moving along with great energy. It almost feels that way.” Monika adds: “Think about ‘She’s as radiant as a sunny day:’ yes, bright, smiling, giving off wonderful feelings towards you, but feel- ings that you, too, feel! You smile, feel uplifted, and happy. Metaphors not only tell us things, they do so in a way that projects feelings, often strong feelings. Try ‘He’s a real skunk!’ What feelings does that bring up in you?” One student responded: “Yuk.”

So let’s try finding a metaphor to use to say something. First, What do you want to develop a metaphor about? It could be reading a book, it could be living in a dysfunctional family, or it could be something we all know, like Spain. Just describing these things is often dull and does not convey the feelings they generate.

Next: “Let’s continue thinking: now let’s think about what we want to say about the object. ‘ Suppose the object is Spain. What do you want to say about Spain? Spain is what?’” Some students respond: “It is a country that loves music and dance.” “It is a country of culture and art.” “It is a country that produces outstanding and delicious food?” “What else???? Maybe it isn’t something so nice. Maybe it’s Spain is a backward country? or Years of dictatorship have ruined Spain.”

People don’t often stop and think about these things. But thinking further can make a big difference. Because now we can ask, and the teacher does:

“What other things display these characteristics?” From the students: “A huge art gallery?” “A painter’s easel?” “Bacchus’ dining room table?” “A food-lover’s envy?” “A sinking ship.”
“Pick one that stirs you up! And let’s think about the details.”
Monika used a simple device to bring out this thinking. “Let’s first write down the details that we want to emphasize in what we want to say.” So “outstanding variety of delicious food” may be elaborated by “people love to eat in Spain”, “prepared in many ways”, etc. and then let’s do the same for the metaphor, say, “a food-lover’s envy”.
Now thinking about details that the metaphor you’ve chosen displays. Then: “Do they match significantly?” Of course, here we are emphasizing the need for a significant amount of similarity between the object and the metaphor.
From the students: “Hey, ‘a food lover’s envy’ is a really good metaphor!!” From Monika: “Good thinking!”

Monika has shown them the poem “Reading”. “But what about then creating a piece of writing like “Reading”? The metaphor is stated in the 1st sentence. What about the rest of the poem?” One student said: “It’s in our list of details!” More good thinking! Take another look at the poem “Reading” again with this in mind.

As I watched all of this I knew that all this organized explicit thinking and its results are a starter. Soon these students will do this with the skill of a concert violinist.

VII. 2016, Five-year-olds in Lima, Peru

What about drawing, painting, and sculpting—the traditional domains of creative expression? Well, I also remember visiting a classroom of five-year old students a few years ago. The students were asked by the teacher to use colored crayons to draw a picture of someone that shows something about that person. What? They said: “She’s happy.” Or maybe “She’s sad.” Or maybe “He’s mad.”

“Well, OK, how are you going to do that with colors and shapes? First, find some colors that you think are like being happy. Some that are like being mad.” And, of course, the students who said “happy” selected soft colors: yellows and pinks, while the students who were picturing being mad selected bright red, and black. And sad: grey, brown, and dull green. Then she said: “And what are some shapes that are happy shapes, and some shapes that are mad shapes? And sad shapes. What are they like?”

They of course drew hearts and flowers for happy, and lightning bolts and heavy lines for mad, using the colors they had selected. Then she said: “Now think about the shape of the person.” Some did a smiley face, a face with firm lips and dark wide eyes, a shouting mouth. But one student drew one heavy but wavy gently curved vertical line ending with, at the top, a pronounced curve to the left.

Graphic representation of an old man made by a 5-year-old student.

She asked: “Why is this sad?” Then he said: “It is an old man who is sick and worried that he may die soon.” All the students heard this and there was silence. One little girl cried.

These, too, are metaphors. But they are the result of the teacher guiding the students to think before they drew. I could see some of these very young students, again with the right cultivation, learning, and experience, becoming someday like Velasquez or Goya, in which everything in their paintings is a metaphor in a way that says something powerful, important, and moving to us. Think about Goya’s “The Third of May, 1808”. This is not just an ordinary representation of something that happened on just another day in the war with France. It says something much more powerful. It is a complex and powerful metaphor for what? Injustice? Inhumanity? Mortality? The dark side? All of these and more? Look at the eyes of the man about to meet his death in contrast to the routine killing machine of the French. And remember, what it says to us is there planted in this painting delibera- tively by using figures and images to represent with color and force something that never gets conveyed by “The Third of May 1803”. Just another execution? No way.

Francisco de Goya, “The 3 of May 1808”. Prado Museum, Madrid.
Francisco de Goya, “The 3 of May 1808”. Prado Museum, Madrid.

I continue to think that the seeds have been planted in these young five-year-olds which, if cultivated well by subsequent teachers, can give us 21st-century Goyas. And I continue to think that this kind of talent can be drawn out of all children by good teachers. I think of the doors that have been opened for these children that are never opened if their teachers only show them how to fill in the numbered spaces on an outline with colors or splash paint on paper.

Or am I just an unfettered optimist about the power of good thinking?

Students and teacher at La Vall school in Bellaterra, a small town near Barcelona, together with Bob Swartz. January 2017.
Students and teacher at La Vall school in Bellaterra, a small town near Barcelona, together with Bob Swartz. January 2017.

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