Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Thinking about Thinking

       There has been a lot of talk recently about the need for schools to teach students how to think.  Actually, the need to build thinking skills has always been a big part of schooling, but our changing world seems to have added to the value of thinking skills.

     So this leads to the obvious question, How do you teach students how to think?  How do teachers create a learning environment in their classrooms that encourage students to think and to reason and to build on past knowledge?

       It is clear that there are times in a typical student's day when they are merely doing what they are told to do.  "Copy the notes,"  "Read this passage."  "Answer the questions."  Very little thinking is needed to complete these tasks.  Quite possibly, no thinking is needed to complete some of these tasks.

       So, once again, How do you teach students to think?  Or maybe I should ask, How do teachers encourage students to think?  One way to do this is to present students with problems to be solved.  We may suggest certain tools to solve the problem, but we do not tell them how to solve the problem.  The "problem" could be lots of things.  Here is a short list of problems to consider:

  1. x+27=51
  2. Run a mile in at least 30 seconds less time than you did at the beginning of the school year.
  3. Learn to drive a car.
  4. What can you do at your school to encourage students to be more friendly with each other?"

       The first "problem" could require thinking or it could require very little or no thinking.  If a tells a students to "subtract 27 from both sides of the equation", the student only needs to do-what-he's-told.  No thinking required.  If, instead, the teacher asks the question, "What number added to 27 is 51?", the student needs to do some thinking.  Of course we want the students to get the right answer, but the more important skill that we (eventually) want is for the student to know how to get the right answer.  We want to know what the student did to get the right answer--or the wrong answer.  We want the student to understand what is being asked and to devise a path to a solution.  (Lots of thinking!)

     The second "problem" is a physical problem.  Let's say that this student ran as fast as she could the first time she ran the mile, and now she is asked to run the same mile in at least 30 seconds less (later in the school year).  Let's also assume that this student has the desire to solve this problem.  She has to think, How can this be done?  What can I possibly do to run faster than my fastest running speed?

       The third problem requires a lot of procedural knowledge and a lot of rules to know.  Before students learn to drive, they often have a great deal of experience riding in a vehicle and (perhaps) observing someone driving.  This is knowledge that can help them when they are learning to drive.  They also (probably) have to learn things that they could not learn via mere observation.  Driving requires a lot of decision making which requires thinking.  Eventually experience with driving lessens the need for most of these thinking opportunities.  But in the beginning, driving requires a lot of thinking.  Considering that so many young people are able to acquire a driver's license, it must be true that even difficult problems that require a lot of thinking can be accomplished when we are sufficiently motivated to accomplish them.

     Finally the last "problem" is a social problem that is not (usually) solved through the learning of simple and procedural steps.  Indeed, this is the sort of problem that tests our abilities to think.  There is certainly more than one answer to this problem, yet these multiple answers may be very difficult to discover.

       Who knows how many difficult problems our students will face during high school, after high school, and well into their adult years?  The ability to think and to reason is a necessary asset in our lives.  Thinking can be taught and thinking can be practiced in our schools.  But thinking must be encouraged.  We cannot allow our students to go through the entire school day--everyday--and never ask them a difficult question that requires thinking.  We cannot allow them to spend all day in school merely doing-what-they-are-told.

       Students need opportunities to struggle with a problem in a classroom learning environment that provides encouragement.  The joy of thinking through a difficult problem and finding a possible solution is an experience that we want our students to have on a regular basis.  Thinking requires practice.

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