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February 1, 2008
Vol. 65
No. 5

Perspectives / The Thinking Teacher

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      The 8th grade algebra students are solving equations. To help them remember the sequence of steps, the teacher is teaching the mnemonic Don't Come Into Algebra Mad(D-C-I-A-M) for distribute, combine, isolate, add, and multiply. One student interrupts the routine. He wants to know, "Why are we doing it this way?" The teacher responds, pleading with the students to understand, "Because these are the problems that cause you so much grief on the tests."
      Although she is teaching algebra, a subject revered for its rigor, this teacher emphasizes formulas and rote procedures. Even giving her credit for having taught more conceptually in previous weeks—and acknowledging that she is probably under the gun about test scores—the lesson today doesn't inspire deep thinking.
      Flash to a different scenario in graduate school. The student, an employed engineer by day, is complaining. He's spent the weekend doing one problem for his polymer engineering class, and he has five more to complete before his class next week. His professor explained the theory in class, but he did not demonstrate how to do a single problem. This scenario seems to be an example of a model of teaching gone awry. Believing that students should think on their own, the expert fails to model his own thinking. He considers it a rite of passage for the students to figure out the applications on their own time.
      Both scenarios illustrate how difficult it is to be a teacher who encourages students to think. Being able to respond to both "why" and "how to" questions requires that the teacher have not only content knowledge and expertise but also the instructional skill and the time to intelligently guide students toward meaningful thinking about the content.
      The debate in education circles two decades ago used to pit content matter against thinking skills. Which should come first, critical thinking or content? Many educators insisted that thinking skills could not be taught in isolation. Before students could think, they needed some knowledge to think about. Today that argument seems to have been decided. Few teachers have the time to add a course called Thinking Skills to the curriculum. But both advocates for teaching 21st-century skills (problem solving, technology, foreign languages) and those who prefer an emphasis on core disciplines (history, math, science, literature) acknowledge that inspiring clear thinking is one of their most important aims. How to infuse thinking skills in the curriculum is, as it was 20 years ago, the conundrum.
      This issue of Educational Leadership provides numerous suggestions about how to teach students to think deeply about content.
      Robert J. Swartz (p. 26) illustrates how a teacher shaped a wonderful 7th grade science unit on energy options by making thinking strategies explicit to students and guiding them to evaluate information sources.
      Terry Roberts and Laura Billings (p. 32) show how a 6th grade class gained sophisticated questioning and discussion skills while they learned to read text carefully.
      Ron Ritchhart and David Perkins (p. 57) and Shari Tishman (p. 44) introduce thinking routines that sharpen elementary students' observation and inquiry skills.
      And Amy Azzam (p. 68) reports on an urban high school debate league that provides students the coaching and venue to perfect the thinking skills needed to do something they like to do a lot: argue.
      From literature to art (see also our online-only article, "Think Like an Artist"), social studies to early childhood classrooms, educators are thoughtfully teaching students to think, supporting Nel Noddings' point thatWe can give students opportunities to think well in any course we offer, provided the students are interested in the subjects discussed. (p. 11)
      When this issue of EL was being planned, EL author Marc Prensky urged us to reconsider our theme title. "Our students actually do know how to think, albeit not perfectly or the way we would like," he wrote. He is right, of course, but we mean no disrespect by our shorthand. As Arthur L. Costa (p. 20) reminds us, "Although thinking is innate, skillful thinking must be cultivated."

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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