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.
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. 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.
Next month we will continue to explore the elusive nature of thinking skills and visit some classrooms attempting to help students engage in creative thinking – thinking that will yield new and original ideas. How can we teach students to do this with skill? These teachers all think that every student can learn to become creative thinkers. Are they right?
Wrote by Robert Swartz.