Methods of Thinking in a Classroom

Just Think!

This is certainly easier said than done when working with younger students. Teachers should carefully consider exactly what type of thinking they expect students to use in particular circumstances. Methods of thinking in organized ways are learned skills especially when we consider the Scientific Method, Critical Thinking, Design Thinking, and other forms of organized thought. In the complex realm of thinking, we also have brainstorming, daydreaming, and other forms of less highly structured thought. How do we communicate their necessity and form to students? Why do we need these methodologies? How do we optimize outcomes?

Show Your Work!

How often have teachers said this to their students, and how often have students consistently ignored this advice? The principle reason behind this disconnect could well be that teachers do not effectively demonstrate that showing process is an essential part of communication between teacher and student. We see thinking visually through documentation of process. This applies across the curriculum in essay writing, mathematics, science, and in the arts. Painting, sculpture, and woodworking are important components of a young student’s education, showing visually what the student is thinking.

While artistic composition is essentially a solitary and quiet pursuit, students learn to describe their thinking upon completion. We can share the thought process in a post completion discussion. Here, students learn to articulate their thinking and process to a wide audience. This is a transferrable skill across disciplines. For similar reasons, it is beneficial to employ challenging physical manipulatives in the math classroom. Through students’ physical work with manipulatives, the teachers can ‘see’ what the students are thinking.

Methods of Thinking

While students are often eager to share their understandings in a classroom setting, they are equally eager to know why they are being asked to do the tasks assigned to them. Curriculum delivery would be enhanced by better explanations to students about process and benefit. Tell the students why a particular method of thinking enhances their understanding of a topic, enriches collaborative efforts, and may serve as a platform for lifelong problem solving. Additionally, explaining in detail to students why showing their work is so essential to classroom communication validates to the student why this effort is so valuable.

It is perhaps not intuitive that some forms of thinking need to be more structured than others. Brainstorming about an essay topic is a far different process than utilizing Design Thinking in a project. Both are forms of thinking and communication, but they intend to elicit different outcomes. Providing students with a detailed parallel understanding of the why, how, and when in the thinking process provides clarity and gives the student reasons for showing their work.

A very important concept to impart to younger learners is that, as they progress in their learning, they will have fewer opportunities to explain their thinking to instructors in person. This leaves their written work, by the time they get to college, as the primary communication between teacher and student. If young learners, for example, know that the answer of 51 to the addition problem of 34 + 17 is not a complete communication with the teacher, and that showing the working of how one gets to that answer is also part of the conversation, then they will get into the habit of full disclosure of process in all their disciplines.

Optimizing Outcomes

Thinking carefully through the intention of a topic or assignment will enrich the product for both the students and the teacher. For example, asking younger learners at the beginning of the school year to write about their recent vacation often yields vastly different results than asking them to write about what it feels like to wake up inside an orange. Do we really want to know about their vacations, or are we looking for a descriptive writing sample? Waking up inside an orange is certainly an unfamiliar topic for most people, and one has to employ many senses and a vivid imagination to complete the task!

How many people do we actually meet who have an ‘original idea’ as measured within the context of their lifetime? I can think of 20th century examples such as Thor Heyerdahl or Walt Disney. Most of us collaborate to build on an existing idea. Collaborative work enhances the student experience as it serves as a forum for students to see what others are thinking during the creative process. The process itself is essential, and usually encompasses the work between question and answer, but it could also include redefining the question. The complexity of the process varies with the complexity of the question. A valid answer results from careful work by participants, and is enhanced by teacher understanding of the students’ thought processes. This is evidenced through observation of work product. Teachers, to be most effective, need to see thinking in process, whether through student essay planning, designing and executing a collaboration, hands-on manipulative work in mathematics, or in an unfolding art form.

Teachers, to be most effective, need to see thinking in process.

Here at the Boulder Center for Interactive Learning at Dawson (BCILD), in collaboration with Dawson School, we have been building models for how K-12 schools can fully integrate themselves into the communities in which they operate. This process will avail educators of local opportunities for interactions with entrepreneurs, innovators, other educators, and non-profits. Providing real world opportunities for complex problem solving work to students is invaluable in learning when and how they can effectively apply different thinking methodologies.

How comprehensively we prepare students to think most effectively in a given situation, what creative inputs we offer, and how we are able to see what, and how, thinking is happening, all impact outcome. Thinking, even complex thinking, is an inherently human quality. How we harness, nurture, and propel outstanding thinking in the classroom impacts us all.


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, nist6ss.

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