Review: Teaching for Thinking Forum (Part Two)

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”
– Attributed to Albert Einstein

I like to open each of my blog posts, where appropriate, when I type it at the desktop computer (as opposed to the iPad) with a quote that is somehow relevant to the topic of that particular article. Today’s quote is, I believe, particularly fitting as the topic of this article is the presentation titled  Why and How might schools build cultures of thinking? by Simon Brooks from Masada College as delivered at Thursday’s Teaching for Thinking Forum (#T4TConf) hosted by St. Leo’s Catholic College. If you have not read the introductory review article from that conference, I would recommend you do so by clicking here.

Simon opened his presentation with the statement, and I am paraphrasing here, that:

“…learning is the product of thinking, and that for those teachers who hold that they are unable to take on new educational fads, such as allowing their students time to genuinely think and reflect about their learning because “…we have to get through all the content…” then it has to be asked, what does getting through the content look like?

This was a very interesting statement, as it is one that I have heard numerous times throughout my undergraduate degree from lecturers and tutors at university and from many teachers with whom I interacted whilst on various professional placements. I have found that this statement is elicited by teachers being advised that they need to undertake a particular professional development activity, or in relation to the use of technology in the classroom .

Simon then led us into the first of his four focuses, a poem. Specifically, The Schoolboy, by the poet William Blake.

I love to rise in a summer morn,
When the birds sing on every tree;
The distant huntsman winds his horn,
And the sky-lark sings with me.
O! what sweet company.

But to go to school in a summer morn,
O! it drives all joy away;
Under a cruel eye outworn.
The little ones spend the day,
In sighing and dismay.

Ah! then at times I drooping sit,
And spend many an anxious hour,
Nor in my book can I take delight,
Nor sit in learnings bower,
Worn thro’ with the dreary shower.

How can the bird that is born for joy,
Sit in a cage and sing.
How can a child when fears annoy.
But droop his tender wing.
And forget his youthful spring.

O! father & mother. if buds are nip’d,
And blossoms blown away,
And if the tender plants are strip’d
Of their joy in the springing day,
By sorrow and care’s dismay.

How shall the summer arise in joy.
Or the summer fruits appear.
Or how shall we gather what griefs destroy
Or bless the mellowing year.
When the blasts of winter appear.

Simon prefaced his reading of this poem by very briefly introducing us to the thinking routine known as the four C’s with the side-note that we would be returning to it reading through Blake’s words. The four C’s is a thinking routine that can be deployed in any context and which encourages the user to think critically.

Specifically, the four C’s consists of the following thinking prompts:

  • Connections: What connections do you make between the poem and today’s Teaching for Thinking Forum?
  • Challenge: What ideas, positions or assumptions in this poem do you want to challenge or argue with?
  • Concepts: What are the key concepts or ideas in this poem that you think are important and worth holding on to?
  • Changes: What changes in attitudes, thinking or action are suggested by the poem, either for you or others?

My initial connection was with the third-to-last stanza, and it took me to the very structure of education and its relationship with the origins of education in the industrial revolution, a topic that was covered extensively during my initial teacher education, and the dichotomous relationship that is shared between early-childhood and primary education structures, and indeed, between primary and secondary education structures  and then following on, between secondary and tertiary education structures. Focusing on the first, the structure of early-childhood education (or my understanding thereof at least, I am sure that my readers involved in that sector will disabuse me of any misconceptions) is that learning is largely play-based and more free-form than it is structured. Upon arrival at ‘big school,’ we expect students to stand in two straight lines, adhere to rigid structures administered by bells, eat when they are allowed to, go to the bathroom during specific breaks, sit at their desks in chairs and utilise pencils, all in ways that would be as alien to them as the concepts of neurological surgery would be to me.

The obvious challenge from this connection, then, is why is education structured in such a way? Why, two hundred years after the industrial revolution have there been so few changes to the way in which we structure our children’s education? Why is the assumption that all students should be grouped by age still prevalent, other than convenience? The key idea from this is that education, or rather, schooling, is something to be abhored and avoided in favour of the summer morn’ and that changes need to be made, effectively, to change this mindset.

“Cultures of thinking are places in which a group’s collective as well as individual, thinking is valued, visible, and actively promoted as part of the regular, day-to-day experience of all the group’s members.”
-Simon Brooks

This exercise started the audience along the pathway of thinking, and of questioning what they were reading, and Simon lead on from this by posing that there are a total of eight cultural forces, that are  entirely unavoidable, that impact upon our thinking and that a culture of thinking is apparent when all eight forces are aligned and directed towards encouraging and appreciating thinking.  These eight forces have been identified by Ron Ritchart in his 2002 publication Intellectual Character and can be directed towards thinking as indicated below:

Excerpted from ROn Ritchart's 2002 publication - Intellectual Character
Excerpted from ROn Ritchart’s 2002 publication – Intellectual Character
Returning to the notion of there being no time for thinking because “…we need to get through all the content…”  SImon made the point that it is in the time of thinking and reflecting that the richness of understanding develops, and further posited that our classrooms walls be used not just to show off students’ completed works, but their in-progress works, to demonstrate, and to empower our students to think of thinking as being an on-going process, a tool for them to deploy, rather than being the goal for them to achieve.

Simon continued by introducing us to six contiguous key principles for a culture of thinking, which are expanded in an article by Ron Ritchhart and David Perkins.

  1. Learning is a product of thinking.
  2. Good thinking is not just a skill, but is also a disposition.
    1. I believe that this goes back to the saying that you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. We can provide students with the skills, but if they are not disposed to use them, a disposition which can be encouraged, then it is unlikely that the skills will be deployed.
  3. The development of thinking skills is a social endeavour.
    1. This statement is powerful, and I believe, very true. Without the skills for thinking, our students are increasingly likely to become adults who do not possess the ability to discern bias, to determine fact from fiction, who fall for scams.
  4. The culture of thinking needs to be the default setting for classroom teachers.
    1. Students can tell when a teacher is faking it. If we are going to create a culture of thinking, we need to embody it, and to do so authentically.
  5. Fostering thinking means making thinking visible.
    1. To foster thinking, we need to model thinking. This could potentially include explicit out-loud thinking or the use of the meta-language of thinking, but making thinking visible will make it real and enable our students to engage with it more easily than if it is merely an abstract tool that we talk about  rather than use.
  6. For a classroom to have a culture of thinking, the school needs to have a culture of thinking for the teachers.
    1. I have found that teachers are often predisposed to engaging with a new concept, idea, technology, process when they see authentic engagement coming from the leaders within the school, whether this be the executive team, or a classroom teacher who is acknowledged as being a leader among their colleagues. If the leadership provides a culture of thinking for their teachers to operate within, this culture then permeates all facets of the school, including the daily classroom operations.

A comment that Simon made on a number of occasions throughout the night, and I think one that is fitting with which to close out this article is that a culture of thinking is not something you do. Simon related that he often hears teachers say to him that they are “….doing this culture of thinking thing” and Simon responds that you do not do a culture of thinking, you are and you have a culture of thinking.

Thank you, as always, for taking the time to read, and I would very much like to hear from my readers in regards to where the four C’s took them after reading The Schoolboy by William Blake, and strategies that have been used in your school or classroom to create a culture of thinking.

References

Ritchhart, R. (2002), Intellectual Character: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Get It, San Francisco, California, United States, Jon Wiley & Sons.

Ritchhart, R., & Perkins, D. (2008). Making Thinkin Visible. Educational Leadership, 65(5), 57-61

5 thoughts on “Review: Teaching for Thinking Forum (Part Two)

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