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February 1, 2008
Vol. 65
No. 5

EL Study Guide

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This month's Educational Leadership raises two complex but intriguing questions: (1) How can educators actually teach students to think? and (2) Are most of our current educational practices encouraging students to think—or having the opposite effect? Although these authors don't always agree on the best way to promote thinking in classrooms, they have abundant suggestions.

What Makes for a "Thinking" Course?

In the lead article ("All Our Students Thinking," p. 9), Nel Noddings notes,For centuries, many people have assumed that the study of certain subjects—such as algebra, Latin, and physics—has a desirable effect on the development of intellect. These subjects, it was thought, develop the mind, much as physical activity develops the muscles.
  • Do you agree that some subjects—such as algebra and philosophy—spur deep thinking more than others—such as French or business administration? Or can any subject engender critical thinking if taught well and studied passionately?
  • What makes a course challenging in terms of thinking: the amount of content included? The fact that the course is college-prep? Or some other factor?
  • Observe a class in your school's vocational education program. Notice how teachers impart information and what kinds of activities students engage in, keeping in mind Noddings's criteria for what constitutes true thinking (using facts to plan, order, and work toward an end; seeking meaning or explanation; reflecting; and using reason to make judgments). Does thinking seem to be part of these students' training? Are they being challenged to think as they learn job skills?
Howard Gardner and Veronica Boix Mansilla ("Disciplining the Mind," p. 14) assert that, in an age of ever-changing information, teaching students to memorize facts does them a disservice. Instead, we should instill disciplinary thinking, "the disposition to interpret the world in the distinctive ways that characterize the thinking of experienced disciplinarians," such as scientists or historians. Such teaching gives students a framework for interpreting the constant flow of new information.
Reflect on how you presented information in a recent lesson or unit. Did you provide students any guidance on how people working within this content area tend to approach and work with such information—such as how to prioritize which information is most important? How might you do so in a future lesson?

Helping Students Ask Authentic Questions

  • Consider a concept you want your students to grasp. How might you use your school environment as a resource for helping students explore that concept in greater depth? For example, if you want students to understand averaging, they could compute the mean, median, and mode of student achievement data for the previous school year—and write about the implications of this data.
  • Try out one of these "school investigation" activities, and report back to the group on how it went. How engaged and thoughtful were students during this activity?
  • In the next week, listen to what your students spontaneously chat and wonder about—anything from Pokemon to American Idol. Instead of discouraging such interests as distractions, direct this natural curiosity into a hands-on exploration that deepens thinking and introduces new content ("What mythical creatures like Pokemons have other cultures invented? Which unusual realanimals do these 10 Pokemons resemble?").
Sometimes, according to Shari Tishman ("The Object of Their Attention," p. 44), it takes something outside the realm of the familiar—such as an antique sock darner—to jumpstart questioning. Try the strategy Tishman describes: bring in an object likely to be unfamiliar to students, have them examine it closely, and challenge them to ask 25 intelligent questions about this object. Then have students come up with possible answers to some of these questions, drawing conclusions from their close observation of the thing.
—Naomi Thiers

Naomi Thiers is the managing editor of Educational Leadership.

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Teaching Students to Think
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