Finding the time to teach thinking

Meaningful learning doesn't require any more classroom time than simple memorisation and recall.

Peter Ellerton Peter Ellerton Sep 7, 2020

A common objection we hear about shifting the focus of teaching from content to inqury is that there just isn't enough time in the school day. So let me begin by saying a focus on Teaching for Thinking does not take extra time in the classroom.

The fact is, Teaching for Thinking saves you time.

This may seem counterintuitive as after all, aren't we adding something to the curriculum? How can that possibly save time?

The answer to this conundrum comes with the realisation that Teaching for Thinking is not a curriculum project, it is a pedagogical project. In other words, it's not about what you teach in the classroom but how you go about doing it that matters.

Let me explain this a bit further.

The relationship between thinking and learning.

While it's true that some knowledge can be passively received, much of what is worth knowing has to be actively constructed. Knowledge of this sort cannot be separated from the knower.

This is not because knowledge about the world is always subjective, but because knowing is. The way each student makes sense of what we teach them, including how they build mental models and conceptual structures of key ideas and understanding is unique to them. What we need to understand is that the way students undertake this cognitive activity is what we mean by thinking.

Thinking is a necessary condition for quality learning. A focus on thinking, therefore, is the way to optimise student learning.

Now, students can learn a lot from their teachers but they also need to be self-directed in their learning. This means they need a set of skills and dispositions that allow them to guide their own inquiry. These skills and dispositions are those associated with thinking well.

Teaching for Thinking helps develop autonomous learners. It helps students frame and ask their own questions to guide their own inquiry. And when students learn via their own inquiry, they develop a deeper understanding about the subject and content matter that they are inquiring about.

Meaningful learning doesn't require any more classroom time than simple memorisation and recall.

Three critical questions

The kinds of thinking we want students to do is not mysterious. We want them to analyse, explain, justify, evaluate, synthesis, interpret and so on. These are the cognitive skills that occupy the attention of many syllabus writers and assessment designers.

As classroom teachers concerned with a focus on student thinking, we need to ask the three questions that frame all our cognitive work:

  1. How to do you know students are thinking in your classroom? What are the behaviours that you can associate with these cognitive skills? How do you create opportunities for students to do them — remembering that thinking is action.

  2. How do you plan for this thinking to occur? Apart from sequencing content, what do you do that ensures students will be engaging in a wide and deep range of cognitions?

  3. How do you feed back on the quality of student thinking? Beyond telling a student that they have something correct of not, or giving feedback in terms only of the completion of a task, how are you giving them feedback on the quality of their analysis, evaluation, justification, and so on?

Proposing these questions to colleagues and helping them to develop answers to them is an effective way to promote and develop a pedagogical focus on Teaching for Thinking. It is also a way of sharing best practice and coming to understand the relationship between thinking and learning.

More than this though, it provides examples of how Teaching for Thinking does not take extra time in the classroom, but integrates thinking and learning as a pedagogical approach to the benefit of both.