Teaching the Thinking that Counts

  • Based on Robert Swartz’s editorials for ENIAC published in Madrid, Spain, September, 2015 – January, 2016


1. Why Do We Need to Teach Students to Think?

Well, everybody thinks. Maybe there is no need to teach thinking. But wait – while everyone thinks, not everyone thinks as carefully and as well as they could. Can you think of examples when your thinking had failed you and you realized you could have done a better job of it? You missed something important? Didn’t take seriously some of the disadvantages of what you were deciding — now they are back to haunt you?

Let’s approach this from a different angle. One thing that I have experienced since I first started working with schools in Spain is that there is a continuously growing realization throughout Spanish schools that making memory the only type of thinking that students are taught to do well and then using it as the dominant basis for learning doesn’t work! That’s a pretty bold statement and not everyone agrees with it. Some school administrators say to students who have moved from grade to grade and have finished secondary school that “You are now able to face the challenges of the world in which you live, master them, and make a difference.” But this feeling of ineffectiveness is there in Spanish schools and it is growing.

Why? Well, yes, student pass tests and finish secondary school. Often there’s a pattern here. Many students memorize things to pass a test, and pass it. Then they go on to the next test. Their objectives are passing the tests and getting good grades. What about what they are learning to pass these tests? That’s just a means to getting high grades. Some recent research seems to show that as much as 90% of what students “learn” in school has little impact on their lives outside school. How can this be remedied?

A hint comes from the concern I started with. It is that learning how to remember things does not address the need for students to learn how to engage carefully and well in very important types of everyday thinking – for example making careful decisions, solving problems well, making accurate predictions about the consequences of their actions, and assessing the arguments of others who try to change their minds about things. These are life skills. But they are different skills from just remembering, and most students are leaving school without any of these.

What are students missing? Usually three kinds of thinking that we all need to do with care and skill are identified: analyzing ideas, developing creative ideas, and thinking critically about ideas.

What does this mean? Let’s think about analysis and let’s bring this idea down to earth. Let’s substitute “figuring out how something works”. This could be anything like a cell phone or a bicycle. But let’s think about things that we teach students about in school, for example stories that we ask students to read. How do these work? Students are often taught that stories have five components: Character, Setting, Plot, Conflict, and Resolution. But stories often create suspense, making us want to read more, and sometimes end with a sense of relief, sometimes surprise. How are these stories put together to make these things happen? A good teacher can prompt this along: “Many of you said that when you read what this character did it made you feel anxious and created suspense. You wanted to read on. How did the author do that?”

This is not so hard to figure out with simple stories, and that helps with more complex ones. “Wow – he has the character say he will do something nasty……and then not tell us any more about this character for a while! So we wonder. And read on” This student’s ability to explain this indicates that he has understood this technique. And this student has now become interested in how stories are put together. Maybe the student will follow the same pattern and write a really good story himself or herself.

When this happens the understanding that students develop is light years beyond any understanding students develop by learning those five words. And that’s just one of the types of thinking skills that students miss when education is based primarily on memory.

So the answer to our original question is now simple. We know now how to teach all these skills so that students use them naturally, and we know how to add important habits of mind and good questioning routines that enhance the use of these skills. And we know how to infuse this into content instruction without compromising the integrity of the regular curriculum. Further, we know how to do all this in classrooms that become student centered in which students work collaboratively, prompted by the teacher, so that there is a culture of thinking in the whole classroom – and, indeed, we know how to put all of this together so that the school itself becomes a thinking-based school. To make all of this happen we don’t have to tear down walls, hire new teachers, or change to a new curriculum. Teachers working with school administrators can do all this from within. In fact every teacher can do this and every student can benefit from it.

Students from Virgen del Romeral school working in collaborative thinking groups.

That’s why we should teach thinking to all students!

2. Where Does Teaching Thinking Belong in a School Curriculum?

In the early 1990s a number of corporations in the USA made public complaints that while schools were sending them workers who could read and write, most of their workforce could not think. What they meant was that, for example, when a problem arose in their work they had no idea what to do to try to solve it – they were just jumping at the first idea that came into their heads that often did not work without thinking things through first. Pretty soon these complaints brought about shifts that made teaching thinking a school priority. It didn’t take long for this to become a worldwide concern. It’s been 25 years since then. Have schools responded to this plea?

Commercial educational publishers initially jumped in here. The majority produced a number of new self-contained programs on thinking, thinking skills, and critical thinking, especially for the primary grades, usually carrying their own sets of books and materials, and requiring a special and separate place in the regular school curriculum. In some of these students learn how to identify patterns by connecting dots in intricate puzzles, and some, following the lead of many universities that introduced new critical thinking courses, focused on logic and argument, though simplified for pre-university students, and sometimes delivered using cartoons and games. Many schools purchased these. They now sit collecting dust on the back shelves of the libraries in these schools.

Old books on shelves.

What many schools found was that while some of these were fun and engaging they had no impact on the thinking that students did when learning the other things in the curriculum — mathematics, science, social studies, etc. And their lives outside school? Problem solving and decision making seemed to get worse. As they got older many students were just jumping at the first thing that come into their heads when they had to decide things or solve problems. “Smoke that cigarette? Yes, give me one!” Parents were pleading: “Please, think about the consequences of what you are doing before you do it.” This fell on deaf ears.

This has now also been borne out in significant educational research. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, well, we kept on hearing the same complaints from many businesses, though, paradoxically, it was obvious that one of the great powers of commercial advertising produced by these same businesses was to stop people from thinking! At the same time teachers were, more and more, beginning to realize that the methods of teaching they were employing across the curriculum were missing the target: what students were learning was divorced from anything in their lives because they were learning just by memorizing things, something that left them without much sense of the importance of what they were memorizing. It was just a vehicle for getting a grade that would mean that they passed the test, getting them closer to getting out of school and entering “the real world”.

Well, teaching thinking did not sink beneath the waves altogether. Researchers like Edward DeBono introduced us to many short and brisk, but thought-provoking, strategies that generated some richer thinking episodes. In his CORT program he formulated strategies for students to practice in everyday situations, and these usually prompted some rich thinking in which students brought out responses based on their past experiences and background knowledge, and when practiced in a group, led to a variety of comments often reflecting different points of view.

DeBono’s famous “PMI”. The first time many of us who had been working on teaching thinking had seen a clear and explicit strategy to improve thinking. But this was only one step for good decision making. It needed filling out, hence the “Thinking Maps” that have worked so well. And whether “I” should be “Importance” instead of “Interesting”, that was another issue raised. And this opened up a dialogue between many of us trying to figure out the best way to bring the teaching of good thinking into the classroom.

Where can these richer projects fit in a school curriculum? Well, maybe from 9:00 to 9:50 am on Friday morning. That’s when students learn thinking. The rest of the time they learn science, math, social studies. Through the 1990s and early 2000s I despaired as I saw thinking get squeezed into a smaller and smaller compartment. And everything else went on as usual.

For me, though, it is in the classrooms of regular teachers who infuse thinking into their content teaching that we should look. My first experience of a teacher who infused teaching skillful thinking into his content instruction was when I observed a high school teacher give his students two history text books that had contradictory accounts of the same historical event. He asked them to stand back from what they were reading and make up their own minds which was likely to be giving them the most accurate account – or if neither maybe they can do better. They had to do this by thinking carefully together about what they needed to find out to determine which is the more reliable source. They listed things to find out about the author, the text book company, where the author got his or her information, any biases, what do others say… Wow, I thought, what a great approach to judging the reliability of a source. It could be used to think about any piece of writing like this in newspapers, even in encyclopedias, and today, in Wikipedia. This is real critical thinking in the classroom. What I saw in these students was the stirring of liberation from the tyranny of having to accept what someone tells you in a text book to the freedom of deciding for themselves what they should accept based on good sound and responsible thinking. (To learn more about Kevin O’Reilly’s story read Basing Good Learning on Good Thinking)

In Spain now this model has been spread to teachers from Colegios Lope de Vega in Benidorm, Carmelitas and NCLIC in Vitoria, Erain in Irun, La Asuncion in Carceres, Salzillo in Molina, and the teachers of Colegio Montserrat in Barcelona, just to mention a few. And they have broadened their emphases to include not just critical thinking skills like in the history example, but skill at creative and innovative thinking, at analysis for deep understanding, and at decision making and problem solving. Their classrooms contain the seeds that can blossom into a great country-wide tree of deep learning based on good thinking.

Will this do what was requested of us 25 years ago? We can only find out if we keep trying like these schools do. That’s why I move from school to school when a school wants to try the same thing, and I smile when I pass those libraries and see those early commercially produced materials “designed to make students better thinkers” collecting dust on the shelves.

3. The Elusive Nature of Thinking Skills

As I keep abreast of the way teaching thinking is treated both in published curriculum frameworks, in textbooks, and in schools I see reference to thinking skills used more and more to define something important that we need to teach our students to use across the curriculum. This is very welcome. But what is a thinking skill and how do you teach it?

Sometimes there is a list with the heading “Thinking Skills” along with such pronouncements, including such items as problem solving, comparing and contrasting, analyzing parts of a whole, decision-making, predicting, cause and effect, classifying, originality, and argument. Is this helpful to teachers in the classroom who want to teach thinking skills to students?

I visited a classroom in Madrid a few years ago and the 1st grade students, who were studying the parts of the body, were drawing pictures of some of the parts of the face. They were pasting them on a face without features. The teacher said “I think this is wonderful. I used one of the thinking sills mentioned in the curriculum guide. They are analyzing what we have on our faces. These children now know about all the parts of a face. We will do the same with the other parts of their bodies. They are really thinking.” When the students reported they showed one of their drawings and told what the part was. The teacher then drew these parts on a similar face on her white board and under each she wrote the name of the part.

Students work with a drawing of Dora the Explorer.

I remembered another classroom I had also visited in Barcelona. The children, also 1st grade, had done something similar. They had drawn parts of the face on a chart in the front of the room. And as they did the teacher, like the previous teacher, had put the names of the part under each. But then she did more. She said “Let’s see if we can figure out what these parts do.” And she asked them, first, what would happen if one of the parts, our eyes, were missing. One student said she didn’t know. So the teacher asked her to put a blindfold on, and report. She said that she couldn’t see. The teacher then asked her if she could think of anything else. The student said that she couldn’t find her way around and couldn’t walk without bumping into things. The teacher wrote these down on the chart beneath “eyes” and drew a sketch of someone doing these things. Then she said, “So when you have eyes what do they let you do?” and this child said “see things, walk around without bumping into things.” The teacher drew these also. “Anything else?”, she asked the class. “It would be hard to find things to eat”, one student said. So when we have eyes, then what?” and the same student responded, “We can find food”. She waited about 15 seconds, looked around, and then another student said. “I know something else. If I had to go to the bathroom I couldn’t find it.”

Then she asked pairs of students to do the same thing with the other parts of the face. She told me that when she worked with them the next day about other parts of the body she would also ask them how two or three of these parts work together, like our eyes, legs and hands.

What struck me was that in both classrooms the students were certainly thinking, and they were thinking in a way that focused their attention on a whole thing – a face – and were thinking about its parts. But in the first classroom they were just identifying the parts of a face. The result was a set of drawings of parts, and in this instance a good vehicle for helping students learn written words for these parts. But that’s all.

In the second classroom the teacher was guiding the students to do more. These students were extending their thinking to try to figure out the function of the parts, though they didn’t use that word, but rather, “what the parts do”. The route to this was getting them to think about what would happen if a part – the eyes – wasn’t there. This tapped into and awakened relevant prior knowledge and experience that these students had. Furthermore, the teacher was going to extend this even more so that they thought about how parts work together to enable us to do things.

Parts and whole graphic organizer with parts of the face.

It is clearly in this second classroom that students were learning to exercise considerable skill at parts/whole thinking. The teaching technique that the teacher used was prompting student responses with an organized series of extending questions that built on each other to get to an objective: the students putting ideas together to try to describe how the parts work together to enable us to do what we do. That’s the skill the teacher is trying to impart to the students. And it is easily applicable to lots of other important things. They all have parts.

The problem in the first classroom was that the list the teacher used to guide her about teaching a thinking skill just gave her the name of a kind of thinking – analyzing parts of a whole – without giving her any guidance about how to teach students to do it skillfully. In and of itself thinking about parts of a whole is not a skill any more than just splashing around in a swimming pool is. Yet we can certainly learn how to swim with skill. What the students did was a start, and maybe a good start, but not yet exercising much skill at probing the relationship between the parts of the face and other parts of the body.

I have also observed many upper-grade classrooms in Spain. What I have seen in those schools that do the same thing as the Barcelona teacher did in the early grades thrilled me.

The regular practice of skillful parts/whole thinking, for example, from grade 1 on, or earlier, soon makes this kind of thinking second nature for students. They then guide themselves to use this kind of skillful thinking when they want to find out how certain things work, which they now often do. As they move into the upper grades, for example, and they are studying the modern government of Spain, they don’t just think about what the parts of the government are. Rather they probe deeply, and usually on their own, to find out how it works. What is the role of the Supreme Court of Spain? Of the legislature? They sometimes have to go to the internet to get some additional background information, but they easily put it all together so that they understand things like this. Or in science they don’t just to list the components of a uranium atom when they are studying atomic energy. They find out how these different components, organized as they are, hold in a tremendous amount of power which, when released, can level whole cities. And in their English class they don’t just list the characters in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, they probe to find out exactly why Shakespeare inserted specific scenes in the play. What do they accomplish that contributes to the message of this play and gives it its power even today? Doing this is as easy and as natural as adding 7 + 5 to get 12 for these students. Obviously, when they can do all of this they don’t have to rely on what is written in a textbook to tell them these things, or on a teacher’s lecture. This is active learning by the students themselves. My sense is that it will remain with them all their lives.

Why don’t you test this out with decision making, another kind of thinking. What questions should we ask and answer before we answer the question “What should I do now?” in order to consider everything we need to so that we make a good decision? I am sure that you will come up with a set of questions that you can arrange into a strategy that will focus students on the need to think about options and pro and con consequences, at the very least, before deciding the best thing to do. That will be skillful decision making.

Try our old friend comparing and contrasting. It has always struck me that we want students to list not just superficial similarities and differences, but the deeper and more important ones. And we don’t want them to just list a lot of details. We want them to think about what these reveal about the two things. How can we get them to do more skillful comparing and contrasting than just filling in some Venn Diagrams? And what can you get them to compare and contrast that will give them some good practice and have some real learning payoff?

What I have seen in classrooms in which students are helped by their teachers to learn how to do skillful thinking and apply it to what they are learning is a testament to teaching the way it should be. I believe that all students can become better thinkers and better learners in this way. What we can learn from the second classroom, just as, in reality, the teacher in the first classroom actually did, is that it can become a model for what all teachers can do to teach students so that they don’t just think, they think with skill. It is in these classrooms, not in the lists produced by people who may have never been in a classroom as a teacher themselves, that we can find out what it really is to teach thinking skills.

Teacher helping students fill out graphic organizer.

In part two of this little bit of reflection on what teaching can really be I will be discussing my perception of what critical thinking skills, and what creative thinking skills are and how their use related to important curricular content in the classroom can not only deepen students’ understanding of the curricular content they focus on but also give them a way of extending the use of these skills to many other contexts well beyond their school curriculum. And it will be here that I will try to show how learning skillful thinking can be a way that yields the best type of real learning — learning that is expressed with the grace of a great swimmer, and the beauty of a fine concert violinist, all accomplished the way we learn and internalize what we learn so that it becomes a natural part of our lives. I believe that all students can become good thinkers and good learners!

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