Friday, February 20, 2009

Teaching for thinking

Students exploring electricity. To make fullest use of such a 'rich' learning situation teachers need to find out what students 'prior ideas' might be, what questions they have, teach how to record what they are doing, how to discuss what is happening and why, how to write up their findings, provide opportunities to use their 'new' knowledge, and, finally, to reflect how much they have changed their minds. If this is not done learning will be lost. This is learning in depth - or doing 'fewer things well'.

There is a lot of talk about teaching thinking in schools and all sorts of thinking processes are often seen on classroom walls. The trouble is that more than talk and processes are required - there ought to be some real evidence of students thinking to be seen. All too often was is seen is 'higher order thinking for thin learning!'.

Gwen Gawith writes about this lack of translation into action, this lack of critical thinking, in the Term 3 08 Good Teacher Magazine, Quoting Ned Nodding she writes ' I consider thinking as the sort of mental activity that uses facts to plan order, and work towards an end, seeks meaning; is self reflective; and uses reason to question claims and make judgements'.

The key is doing. Nodding makes is that thinkers need something to think about. Plan what? Order what? Work toward what end? Just using De Bono thinking hats is not good enough!

All Learning Areas provide contexts for this thinking to be used - maths experiences, examining research in reading, but most of the current inquiry topic. Trouble is there isn't much time for such topics with all the focus on literacy and numeracy. One way to solve this is to 're-frame' the literacy and numeracy blocks so as to contribute to developing thinking related to the current study 'killing two birds with one stone'.

The inquiry topic should be the driving force for much of the school day.

A lot of school have developed inquiry models but such models often neglect to show the value of recognising the messiness and confusion that is a part of any inquiry or creative learning.

The first task is to define the challenge. Students need some experience to attract their curiosity, to provide questions and to surface 'prior ideas'.During this exploratory stage it is valuable to recognise feeling of uncertainty and confusion.

Out of the above will emerge 'key' , 'hook' , or 'fertile' questions to explore. With greater definition of the challenge, and narrowing down things to do, feeling of optimism and clarity emerge ( even if they are often easily lost).

Then the 'thinking begins'
. Students need to be 'helped' to involve themselves in explorations, experiments,and research. To be able to record their thoughts students will need help and this is where the literacy time can be integrated. Information literacy is all too often taught and never used - now is the opportunity. As activities, usually done collaboratively ( and this requires new skills ) are completed and recorded confusion leads to a sense of direction and anticipation of realising answers.

Finally as idea are presented, displayed, demonstrated feelings of satisfaction and pride will be felt. During a reflective time students will realized that they have only scratched the surface and that there is always more to learn. Ideas might have 'emerged' for a new class study or for individual, or group, research. This contributes to them becoming 'life long learners'.

To achieve such learning requires that teachers need to 'teach' the various aspects involved. They need to work with their students, 'thinking out loud', modelling the kind of thought they want their students to be able to use. This includes using graphic organisers, how to take notes and how to record sources of information. Most of all learning to appreciate of the 'messiness' involved in inquiry learning; the 'enlightened process of trial and error'. It is vital, Gwen Gawith, writes for students to learn 'reason with facts' and observations, to be able to ask deep questions, how to break up ideas, how to combine ideas, and how to 'see ' connections with previous learning.

This all gets back, says Gwen, that 'children need to know stuff to think with'; or as Nodding says, 'we are talking about thinking in a learning context'.

Providing 'rich , real ,and relevant' contexts, and digging into them rigorously, is what it is all about, or ought to be. The truth is such deep thinking, based on inquiry, thinking that is intellectually challenging is not often seen. Students need to ground their claims on verifiable evidence and also to go beyond the information given.

More often what is seen is an unquestioning regurgitating of information as children 'cut and paste', with no interpretation, of what they gather from doubtful sources. No 'I think..', or I am still wondering about...' , or 'it might be....' or any other 'markers' of real thinking.

Howard Gardner , Gwen writes, believes that students need more than an information base... they need to master disciplinary thinking'. This, Gwen says, is what John Dewey 'used to bang on about, getting them to think mathematically, historically, geographically.'

Inquiry, or creative teaching, is about disciplining the mind so as to think creativity and critically; to grow children's minds by building on their inborn disposition to 'make meaning' of their world.

Maybe we have to rethink all the fragmented learning areas ( particularly the role of literacy and numeracy) to focus them all on developing this disposition to inquire with growing depth and confidence.

I wait to see such classrooms.

I can remember such classrooms before the days of the imposed curriculums.

Our 'new' curriculum provides an opportunity to develop our classes as centres of inquiry.

But only if we change our own minds (and our fragmented school timetables) first.

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