Thinking for Themselves

I was talking to a group of teachers at a professional learning session the other day. The group was very concerned about how little ‘thinking’ their students were doing for themselves, and seeing the idea that they could introduce higher order thinking as ‘mission impossible’.

We had an interesting chat as I attempted to unpack just what the behaviours they were seeing might actually mean. Unfortunately I had to go back to run the session and the conversation fizzled.

It hasn’t fizzled in my mind though!

This morning I was thinking about one of my leadership axioms — it’s most often not people, it’s systems. This was a really important rule in every leadership role I have held, through quite a long career. It acts out in thinking as described in these 2 examples:

  • Kids making mistakes — was it because they didn’t understand the appropriate choices, decisions, behaviours? Did they actually know how to do/use/choose the appropriate behaviour?

  • Parents responding angrily — was it because we hadn’t communicated effectively? Hadn’t been explicit enough? Hadn’t listened openly to her challenges?

In any human interaction, I believe it is more likely that the systems are at fault, rather than the person, or that the systems are the first suspects and should at least be interrogated as the first suspects.

How else can we explain a teacher who is deemed a ‘failure’ in one setting, but can be effective and make a positive contribution in another? How does it happen that a student break rules constantly for one teacher but fits in and learns with another? Same person, different context and systems.

While I was mulling over that ‘they’re not thinking’ conversation in the shower this morning, I thought about my ‘systems not people’ rule and pondered the connection.

What I picked up from the two teachers (who shared a class) in the centre of that conversation, was that the students seemed to always wait for instructions, passively followed step-by-step but wouldn’t do more, or think more, than was absolutely necessary to complete the task at hand.

So, applying my ‘systems first’ thinking, what could be going on?

The first advice I have for any teacher struggling to understand what is going on in their classroom, and let’s face it, classrooms are hugely busy, complex environments, and its easy to understand why one might be unsure what is happening; is to collect some hard data.

With the increasing access to mobile technology, and given that almost all of us have a smart phone in our pocket, I’d suggest recording some conversations to see what is happening. Of course, negotiated leader, peer or student observations or video are also options.

While I worked in Thailand recently, we became very keen on recording ourselves during whole class, group and individual student interactions, to hear how much air space we took up, the kinds of questions we asked, how much we ‘led’ students, how well we responded to student initiated topics, how much we used the tradition repeated question/answer pattern, how well we gave feedback and so much more.

I wrote a blog postabout one of the teachers involved in this process, and his move to have his students work harder than him, a huge success story. Read about it here.

All of the reflective questions listed would be helpful, for my worried PD session teachers to consider as they listened to their recorded voices.

In Thailand we were moving toward sharing our development goals and listening to recordings together to provide feedback, but it is absolutely fine to start with self reflection and to become accustomed to listening to one’s own voice first!

Some serious self reflection is needed though. What behaviours are we using that might be creating the situation? Are we ‘telling’ more than listening? Are we doing the intellectual work? Are we stifling initiative in our need to control the room? Are we creating opportunities for thinking? How open ended are we being?

The next thing I would want to know is whether these students are like this all the time? What do other staff have to say about them as learners? What are they like in free time and breaks — do they initiate ideas and take action then?

Only if their teachers are positive that they are not inadvertently squashing initiative, over managing or failing to respond to child initiated ideas, plans and thinking, and if they are also sure that their behaviour is consistently like this in all settings, would I think serious intervention was needed for the children themselves.

On the other hand, there are some great teaching practices that help all learners to become better thinkers, designers, planners etc, and these practice would help in this situation too.

What could these practices, that improve thinking skills, look like?

  1. Make thinking explicit

As educators, we have long bemoaned the fact that what is tested is what is taught. We worry about the focus on a narrow band of summatively assessed skills, national testing and the like, and the subsequent narrow demands on our teaching; but can also use this same principle to our advantage.

We should actively include formative assessment strategies; learning intentions, learning goals, self and peer assessments in the learning process, to focus the teaching, learning and assessment on target thinking and learning behaviours.

We can also highlight thinking in action; by having conversations about thinking (metacognition); considering different ways others solve challenges, different thinking scaffolds and appropriate choices for problems, thinking outside the box and taking different perspectives.

Actively shining a light on thinking processes within classroom learning and celebrating progress and new ideas/processes will make a huge difference.

2. Share responsibility with students

Traditional classrooms are teacher managed and directed. More and more we are understanding the absolute importance of sharing responsibility and power with students. In my research blog on Student Voice I explore the history of ‘student voice’, the process of explicitly bringing the learner into the teaching and learning story and scaffolding the learner’s take-up of responsibility for his or her learning.

The process of co-construction of knowledge, sharing the collective intelligence, learning together, sharing roles and sharing power and responsibility is highly engaging for learners (including for us as learners!)

Classrooms where dialogue about learning and collaborative practices are designed to support meaning making are highly effective thinking spaces, and it is unlikely that whole groups of students would not engage in the learning that they initiate and participate in planning and assessing. I could be wrong, but would be surprised as these are typically noisy, active, purposeful and passionate spaces.

3. Design learning that enables thinking

One consistent pattern I see is teachers alarmingly accessing worksheets, especially those designed commercially or by teachers for teachers. 
As I argued in yet another blog post, worksheets are not going to help develop thinking skills. They are generally a closed activity designed for a fixed ability level.

  • Are you relying on them to fill your day?

  • Can you justify them as valid ways for learners to demonstrate a range of skills, knowledge, thinking and learning?

If not, worksheets may well be the problem.

In his blog post, 60 Ways To Help Students Think For Themselves, Terry Heick offers a range of tasks that encourage thinking.

Some examples from his list include:

  • Let them form theories, and immediately test and revise those theories based on observation

  • Help them serve others, and learn to value themselves and their own human utility in the process

  • Help them start with what they don’t know–this will guarantee that they think for themselves, as it provides each student with their own launching pad

  • Teach them to make mistakes without blame

  • Help them sense an authentic need to know or understand

  • Help guide them to recognise the nuance in other people’s thinking.