agosto 2, 2021

Why do we need to teach students to think?

15-09-30Robert Swartz

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! 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.

All we know.

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 are set up to be student centered and in which students think collaboratively 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. That’s why we should teach thinking to all students!


Robert Swartz, director of the National Center for Teaching Thinking (NCTT) in Boston (USA

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