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February 1, 2008
Vol. 65
No. 5

Energizing Learning

A teacher demonstrates how to explicitly teach thinking skills while guiding students to explore science content.

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During the last few decades, teachers have been exposed to a wide variety of instructional techniques aimed at improving students' thinking abilities and practices. More and more, through a process of refinement, combination, and transplantation, researchers and practitioners have developed organized programs of instruction that infuse many of these techniques into standard content instruction.
The most sophisticated of these programs, and the ones that show up in the research as the most effective (Beyer, 2001), combine thinking techniques and strategies within a rich, multi-faceted instructional framework. Teachers explicitly teach thinking strategies and important habits of mind to students; students then use these strategies to think about important elements of curricular content. A metacognitive layer is woven throughout the process. This model has now been refined through considerable instructional practice at almost every level of K–12 education (Swartz, 2001).
In my work on teaching thinking over the last 25 years, I have observed examples of this type of instruction again and again. And I have seen the same result again and again: This process has yielded a coherent set of practices that not only improve students' thinking, but also dramatically enhance students' content understanding and learning. This is what I call thinking-based learning (Swartz, Costa, Beyer, Regan, & Kallick, 2007). The following example comes from the classroom of Rita Hagevik, an urban middle school teacher in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Introducing Students to Thinking Skills

Rita Hagevik's 7th grade science class has been studying energy use. Their textbooks outline the basics: how dammed up rivers produce water flows that run turbines that produce electricity; how nuclear power plants use heat from controlled nuclear reactions to heat water to produce steam that similarly drives turbines; and how crude oil far beneath the Earth's surface is drawn out in wells, refined, and converted to burnable oil and gasoline.
But Ms. Hagevik is not satisfied with her students merely learning this information. The world faces an energy crisis, and there are intense conflicts about energy sources. Just reading their textbooks does not give these students the understanding they will need to make hard choices in the coming years.
Ms. Hagevik has, at the same time, been embarking on a project that has led her to change the way she carries out instruction in her classroom. By infusing instruction in skillful thinking into the standard curriculum, she has been trying to help her students develop important thinking skills and mental habits that will make them better critical and creative thinkers. She sees the energy unit as a prime opportunity to help them develop a new set of thinking skills and mental habits specifically related to skillful decision making.
  1. What makes a decision necessary?
  2. What are my options?
  3. What are the likely consequences of these options?
  4. How important are these consequences?
  5. What's the best option in light of the consequences?
Making this strategy explicit at the outset is one of the guiding principles of thinking-based learning.

Prompting Active Student Thinking About Content

In the next stage of this lesson, Ms. Hagevik guides her students to apply this thinking strategy to their study of energy sources. She says,
I want you to imagine that you have been appointed by the U.S. government as a member of a special committee to review the nation's energy policy. Your committee has been asked to make a recommendation about what our dominant energy source should be during the next 25 years. Should we continue to rely on oil, or should we shift to some other energy source? As you engage with this issue, I'd like you to use the skillful decision-making strategy we just developed together.
Notice that Ms. Hagevik does not simply ask the students to decide which energy source would be best. This would invite students to make quick, impulsive decisions that may express their opinions and not careful thinking. Rather, after taking the time to work with her students to explicitly develop a decision-making strategy, she sets up a follow-up activity in which she directs them to use the strategy in an organized way. But she realizes that just telling them to apply the strategy is not enough. Old habits don't leave us so easily. So she actively leads the students though the thinking process, scaffolding their learning along the way.

Guiding Students Through the Process

After some open discussion with the class about the need for sound decisions about energy sources, Ms. Hagevik breaks the class into collaborative thinking groups and asks them to brainstorm a list of possible energy sources. She asks the groups to record their ideas on a simple graphic organizer: a standard T-bar diagram with "Options" on the left and "Factors to Consider" on the right. She gets them started by saying, "Think of as many options as you can, write them on your graphic organizers, and talk together about them." After they have started, she asks, "How many groups have at least five options? See if you can come up with at least 15, including some really original ones." Typically, the students groan, but most of them rise to such challenges.
The class produces a list of about 20 options, some more fanciful than others (although all options are treated equally at this stage). Now they face the daunting task of trying to decide which source is "best." Ms. Hagevik models the next step in the process by saying,
Maybe it will be easier if we approach this in a more organized way. Let's see if we can think of a small number of factors to consider about an energy source to decide whether it is a viable candidate. For example, we should probably consider cost, don't you agree? What else should we take into account? Let's make a list of these factors in the next column.
The students now have an unprocessed list of possible sources of energy, along with a list of things they need to find out about a source of energy to judge its viability. Ms. Hagevik asks, "What should we do next?"
With her guidance, the students focus on the next question on the thinking strategy map: "What are the likely consequences of these options?" They will need to get information about the "factors to consider" for each energy source option. For example, they might figure out how much it would cost to produce electricity for their city using solar panels by finding out how much it would cost to buy, install, and maintain them and how many would be needed. Then they can compare the energy source options and make an informed choice.
Ms. Hagevik now gives the students a graphic organizer—a matrix on which they can record and process the information they come up with. She asks each group to work on a few sources from the list. Later they will combine their results on a larger matrix so that all of the students can reap the benefits of each group's work.
Figure 2 is an example of how part of the matrix might look when it's complete. The matrix represents a week's work gathering and processing information. The plus and minus marks in the lower right-hand corner of each box indicate the group's judgment about whether the information it has uncovered counts in favor of the option or against it. The asterisks in some boxes indicate consequences that the group has judged to be particularly important, which addresses the fourth question on the thinking strategy map. Ms. Hagevik prompts the students to discuss the consequences related to each factor and make sure that they can defend their reasons for assigning asterisks to these boxes.
The completed matrix can't fail to impress us. The students have learned a tremendous amount about energy, its sources, and the issues involved—much more than we would expect if they just read their textbooks and prepared for tests on the material. And all in one week!
In addition, the matrix makes it much easier for students to narrow down the field of sources and to settle on one as the best source. You can almost tell at a glance whether an energy source is in the ballpark or not. Finally, the matrix contains the information that students need to defend their judgments about the best source of energy. If challenged, students can go back to the graphic organizer and find material to cite. "Look," the student might say, "all the important factors are pluses, and there is only one minus, a small matter that we can probably deal with."
With the information on the matrix processed this way, Ms. Hagevik's students turn to the last question on the thinking strategy map and make their choices. Usually the students do not all agree on what energy option should be our dominant source. Instead of just letting that difference of opinion stand, Ms. Hagevik uses a modified think-pair-share activity in which students of differing views dialogue, explaining why they made the choices they did. She stresses the need to listen to one another with respect and to be open to changing their minds; both of these are important habits of mind (Costa & Kallick, 2000) that the class has discussed and practiced before.
Finally, Ms. Hagevik extends this activity into writing. The students must write their recommendations to a member of the U.S. Congress, explaining their reasons in detail in ways that show that they have thought carefully and skillfully about this issue.

Helping Students Gather and Evaluate Information

What went on in Ms. Hagevik's classroom between the time the students developed their list of options and factors to consider and the time they completed their matrices so that they could make a decision?
In lessons like these, some teachers ask students to go back to their textbooks and use them to fill in the details. Textbooks generally are not finely grained enough, however, and this may become frustrating and boring for the students. Other teachers bring in supplementary books, articles, material they found on the Internet, and even videotapes or DVDs. This strategy works better, as long as the teacher makes sure that the material is extensive enough for students to be able to find the information they need.
Ms. Hagevik does something different. She treats this task as an opportunity to help her students learn how to gather information. In addition to book-based and online research, she encourages students to make the world a resource. Wherever they think they can get such information is fair game. To find out the price of a solar panel, for example, they might phone or e-mail a company that sells these panels. Ms. Hagevik helps each group develop a plan for getting its information. For example, she guides one group in dividing the labor (one pair of students will search the Internet, another pair go to the school library, and so on).
  1. Identify the source of information.
  2. Gather information about the following factors related to the source:
    1. Its publication
      1. Was it published?
      2. If so, when?
      3. What is the reputation of the publication?
      4. What kind of publication is it (for example, a report, fiction)?
    2. The author
      1. Author's expertise?
      2. The author's bias, if any?
      3. Special interests of the author?
      4. Was the author a primary or secondary source? If secondary, how reliable was his or her source; if primary, how was the information obtained?
    3. Corroboration or confirmation by other sources.
  3. Is the reliability of the source likely, unlikely, or uncertain based on these factors?
Ms. Hagevik cues the students on the need for this strategy map—which they have already used many times—by asking whether they foresee any problems in getting information about controversial energy sources like nuclear power. Some of the students pick up on this immediately, remarking that they have to make sure that the information is reliable. She suggests, then, that they use their thinking strategy map for the reliability of sources to weigh any information they gather and be prepared to defend the reliability of the information.
Of course, Ms. Hagevik could have made these judgments herself. That would have saved class time. She could have given students a list of selected Internet sites that she judged to be reliable and books and articles on energy sources that she thought were fair and objective. Many educators do that. If she had, though, she would have deprived her students of the opportunity to make this selection themselves and thus develop another important critical-thinking skill.

Prompting Students to Think About Thinking

Ms. Hagevik has still not completed this unit. She knows how important it is to get the students to stand back from the thinking they are doing and to engage in various types of metacognition that enable them to plan how they will apply the same type of thinking to different tasks.
Many teachers approach metacognition by asking students to describe their thinking. Ms. Hagevik goes beyond this. She introduces students to a strategy that my colleagues and I call "going up the ladder of metacognition" (Perkins & Swartz, 1989; Swartz et al., 2007). In a four-step process, students first identify the kind of thinking they just engaged in and then describe how they did it. The teacher then asks the students to evaluate the process: Did this way of thinking serve you well, or does the procedure need modification? If so, how should it be modified? The students use their answers to develop an explicit plan for doing the same sort of thinking again.
In subsequent units of study, Ms. Hagevik will remove some of the scaffolding she has built into this unit and simply say to the students, "Use your strategy for skillful decision making to think through this new issue." Her students will then be well along the road to internalizing this thinking strategy. More and more, they will guide their own thinking, selecting the strategies and mental habits that will best serve their thinking needs—even when Ms. Hagevik is not around to remind them.

Thinking-Based Learning for All

Rita Hagevik has blended and used many instructional strategies for teaching thinking skills that she may have learned piecemeal. She uses these within the context of a rich, ongoing, and coordinated learning experience for her students.
My colleagues and I have seen similar results at many different grade levels and in many different subject areas, even among students whose teachers initially said, "They could never do that!" The instructional model that these teachers use—infusing instruction in important thinking skills and habits of mind into content instruction—is quite accessible to many other teachers. And just think about it: Ms. Hagevik's students are learning strategies for thinking that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. At the same time, the depth of their content understanding, their interest in the subjects they are learning, and their retention of the material are increasing dramatically.
To me, this is education as it should be, and there is no reason why it can't be practiced in every classroom and every school.

Beyer, B. K. (2001). What research says about teaching thinking skills. In A. Costa (Ed.), Developing minds (pp. 275–284). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Costa, A., & Kallick, B. (2000). Activating and engaging habits of mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Perkins, D., & Swartz, R. (1989). The nine basics of teaching thinking. In A. Costa, J. Bellanca, & R. Fogarty (Eds.), If minds matter (pp. 53–69). Palatine, IL: SkyLight.

Swartz, R. (2001). Infusing critical and creative thinking into content instruction. In A. Costa (Ed.), Developing minds (pp. 266–274). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Swartz, R., Costa, A., Beyer, B., Regan, R., & Kallick, B. (2007). Thinking-based learning: Activating students' potential. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon.

Swartz, R., Fisher, S., & Parks, S. (1999). Infusing critical and creative thinking into secondary science. Pacific Grove, CA: Critical Thinking Company.

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