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November 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 3

The Thinking-Learning Connection / Creating a Culture of Thinking

Students who “see the connections” are more likely to understand and remember what they learn. In the next several issues, David Perkins will explore ways to forge the link between thinking and learning as well as ways schools can use the various curriculum strands to teach thinking skills.

Instructional Strategies
A few weeks ago, a colleague I hadn't seen in years passed through town. Over a cup of coffee, we fell to discussing her efforts to awaken college students to the art and craft of thinking. She told me the story of Henry, a student who for some time seemed not to catch on at all. But eventually Henry came to an insight: “Oh, I see,” he said. “In this course, you want us to reach our conclusions on the basis of reason and argument.”
Henry's remark alerts us to something important: Good thinking is more than skill and ability; it's a matter of commitment. Henry doesn't seem to understand that arriving at conclusions on the basis of reason and argument might be a pretty good strategy for other classes too—and for deciding what VCR to buy or career to pursue or politico to vote for. Not the only way to arrive at conclusions, to be sure, but one with wide and valuable application.
Should we as educators really care whether Henry cares about reason and argument? Yes, for the sake of Henry's thinking and for the sake of Henry's learning. The first of these reasons, emphasized by the thinking skills movement, says that education has the opportunity, and hence the responsibility, to improve students' thinking. A variety of studies show that people often do not use their minds well, and can learn to do so better. The second, emphasized by advocates of constructivism and problem-based learning, say that people learn best by thinking about and through what they are learning. Learning is a consequence of thinking. The more Henry invests himself in thinking through his conclusions, the more he will get from the course.

The Other Side of the Cognitive Coin

If thinking skills and abilities are not enough, what more does Henry need? Several philosophers and psychologists have written of the importance of “thinking dispositions.” If you have a disposition to behave in a certain way, you have the kinds of attitudes, understandings, and motivations that nudge you to behave that way. Whatever Henry's ability to deal with evidence, he seems to lack the disposition. Recognizing the importance of thinking dispositions alongside thinking abilities all the time, through explaining techniques, providing practice, and coaching students in how to do better. It's much less clear how to cultivate dispositions.
But one clue comes from everyday experience: People acquire dispositions all the time, through “enculturation.” We grow up, play, and work in settings where certain values and practices are honored. We learn, by osmosis as it were, to honor them too. The moral: To teach for thinking, it's not enough to teach skills and strategies. We need to create a culture that “enculturates” students into good thinking practices.
Recently, my colleagues and I have been working with teachers on enculturation. It's proved helpful to view enculturation as involving three elements: exemplars, interactions, and explanations. We absorb a culture because we encounter exemplars—people around us, or historical or fictional figures who embody certain norms and practices; and because we have interactions with friends, teachers, parents, and others that highlight certain expectations; and because, now and again, people offer direct explanations about anything from table manners to how to make a better decision.
  • make themselves models for their students, pausing to reflect, thinking aloud, exploring options imaginatively, and so on;
  • bring into instruction historical or fictional figures who exemplify good patterns and values of thinking—Sherlock Holmes, or Crick and Watson of DNA fame, for instance;
  • watch for episodes of students' behavior that provide exemplars and underscore them when they happen.
  • employ “wait time,” which signals to students a classroom that is open to reflection;
  • use collaborative learning techniques, with specific guidelines for students about how to proceed thoughtfully in collaborative groups;
  • provide assessments and involve students in self- and peer-assessment in ways that honor thoughtful analysis and the articulation of standards.
  • be opportunistic in explaining key ideas about thinking—for instance, in history, emphasizing issues of historical evidence when there's debate about what happened at a particular moment;
  • label and explain important thinking moves and values when they become manifest: “It's great that you have some evidence for that, Alice, because the idea would surprise many people at first; your evidence will help them to see the sense of it”;
  • ask students for explanations: “Why should we think critically about TV and magazine ads? What's the payoff?”

Creating a Culture of Thinking

Of course, a few good moments do not a culture make. Creating a culture of thinking is an ongoing enterprise of consciousness raising for teachers and students. Perhaps most daunting is that it asks us as teachers to be more aware of the double nature of every action we take: every question, response, comment, and assignment not only carries a main message but a side-message, too, about our attitudes toward learning, thinking, and the minds of others. A casual put-down of a not-so-smart answer, or a mindless assignment, whatever the main content, sends a side-message about what we expect of students and what they might expect of themselves. So does a thoughtful reaction to a not-so-smart response or an assignment that asks students to grapple with ideas. If we as educators can learn to conduct ourselves and configure our classrooms so that these side-messages say the right thing, our tactics of enculturation eventually might even bring Henry around.

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