Thoughtful Learning Blog

Thoughtful Learning Blog

The Thoughtful Learning blog features articles about English language arts, 21st century skills, and social-emotional learning. Insights come from the teachers, writers, and developers at Thoughtful Learning, who have been creating top-notch instructional materials for more than 40 years.

Business leaders are calling for workers who can solve problems and innovate solutions, but how can educators teach such abstract skills? After all, isn't every problem unique? Doesn't every solution differ? Yes. But the fundamental tools of problems solving are common to all situations, and they can be taught. The two most important mental tools are critical thinking and creative thinking.

Critical thinking is convergent. It focuses intently on a topic, paying careful attention to logic and rules. Critical thinking breaks a subject into its parts and investigates how the parts relate to each other: categorizing, sequencing, comparing, ranking. It is in-the-box thinking.

Creative thinking is divergent. It sees a topic as a whole and imagines it as an analogy for something else: envisioning, improvising, riffing, wondering. Creative thinking reaches out to explore possibilities and defies convention and rules. It is out-of-the-box thinking.

Calvins twisted take on traditional snowpeople shows his creative thinking.

Calvin's twisted take on traditional snowpeople shows his creative thinking.
(Image courtesy of Vegas Bleeds Neon via Wikimedia Commons.)

When I write the first draft of a novel, I'm Calvin from the classic comic series Calvin and Hobbes. Brimming with imagination and life, I don't care what may be sensible, realistic, and conventional. I'm full of passion, flying in many different directions. Sure, there'll be plenty of mistakes, but at least they'll be big.

When I revise and edit a novel, I'm Calvin's parents. I have to look dispassionately and critically at what the child mind has created. I have to analyze and evaluate. Patience, persistence, and a kind of longsuffering skepticism must prevail.

To put it another way, the parents' job is to make the child's life safe, and the child's job is to make the parents' life dangerous.

The Common Core State Standards require students to think more deeply in all classes. But what counts for deeper thinking? Bloom’s revised taxonomy lists thinking skills in order from superficial to deep:

Bloom's Revised Taxonomy List

For many years, we’ve done well teaching and testing the top half of the taxonomy. After all, multiple-choice, true-false, and fill-in-the-blank items do an excellent job of measuring what students remember, understand, and can apply. On the other hand, they don’t easily measure what students can analyze, evaluate, or synthesize. What is tested is taught, so our inability to test these skills has meant that they were not getting taught.

However, the new assessments for the Common Core test the full range of skills required. These tests combine new strategies, interactive environments, simulated research situations, and good-old essay responses in order to assess how well students can analyze, evaluate, and synthesize. Of course, now that these skills will be tested, they must be taught.

How can I teach analyzing and evaluating?

Start by teaching thinking strategies. One strategy that most educators already know is using graphic organizers to stimulate thinking:

My friend Oliver Schinkten knows 150 awesome human beings. They’re students in his Communities and leadership classrooms at Oshkosh North High School, and they routinely do amazing things.

Last year, each student in Communities found and interviewed a local veteran of World War II, the Vietnam War, or the Korean War. They prepared questions, conducted and recorded hour-long interviews, edited them into stories, and created keepsake DVDs for the veterans and their families. The students then planned and ran an event celebrating the service of these people and presenting them with the DVDs. Afterward, many families contacted Oliver to tell them how moving and powerful the experience was, and how the DVD was a priceless heirloom they would pass down for generations.

Pretty awesome stuff for high schoolers.

Sun Glasses

By kallerna (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or
GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

If you teach in an inquiry- or project-based classroom, you probably use guiding questions to help your students really dig into a topic. Well, now that summer is officially upon us, it's time to consider what questions will guide your summer and help you really dig in. Here's a list of 100 guiding questions that can help you get the most out of this season. Pick a question from the list, or let the ideas here inspire you to fashion your own. Then get busy with your summer of inquiry!

In order to get students to think critically, you need to help them break through their mechanical thinking and manage their emotional thinking.

What is mechanical thinking?

When students think mechanically, their brains are just repeating looped recordings of thought without considering them. For example, students might have the mechanical thought, “I'm not good at math.” It just crops up in their brains whenever they look at a math problem. Often that little mechanical loop doesn't even relate to reality.

Why do we think mechanically?

Group Expectations

Mechanical thinking is useful for routine tasks like walking, riding a bike, keyboarding, driving, playing an instrument, and other activities that have become part of muscle memory. To learn any of these skills takes a lot of critical thinking, problem solving, and practice, but once the skill is learned, it is stored in the cerebellum at the base of the brain. Often a person can do something with great ease but can't explain how to do it to anyone else. The skill is no longer conscious. But to learn new skills, students need to think critically.

How can students break through mechanical thinking?

When students are thinking mechanically about a topic in school, they are recalling old ideas about it and are not engaging the material in a new way. Most often, mechanical thoughts manifest themselves in statements that shut down possibility. You can teach students to recognize such statements, stop them, and replace them with questions that open up possibilities:

The Internet began as a U.S. military computer network meant to survive a nuclear attack. ARPANET, developed in the 1960's, stored information in a broad network of computers linked by distributed hubs so that an attack against one or more hubs could not bring down the entire thing.

Decentralized. Interconnected. Robust. Nuke-Proof.

Wouldn't it be great if you could get your students to build the same kind of neural networks around the subjects you teach? How can you move beyond superficial, short-term learning to create learning that sticks? Modern brain science suggests one answer that you can apply in your classroom today.

Providing a Sensory Banquet

The key to creating robust neural networks in students' brains is to give them a rich sensory diet as they engage with material. Here's what Ronald Kotulak says in Inside the Brain:

The brain gobbles up its external environment in bites and chunks through its sensory system: vision, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. Then the digested world is reassembled in the form of trillions of connections between brain cells that are constantly growing or dying, or becoming stronger or weaker, depending upon the richness of the banquet.

By engaging many different senses, you lay the information down through multiple interconnected neural pathways, placing it in long-term memory and making it robust and "nuke-proof."

Map of the Reading Brain

Map of the Reading Brain: Imagine that you ask your students to read a paragraph about the Treaty of Versailles. The information comes in through the eyes, imprints upon the retinas, and then travels through the optic nerves to the occipital lobe at the back of the brain. The information there is decoded into words, and impulses travel to the temporal lobes, where language processing occurs. The impulses then arc up to the frontal lobe meaning of the words is evaluated.

Stone Henge

Photo courtesy of rupjones from Flickr Creative Commons.

People say that Stonehenge was built to be a giant calendar that marks the winter and summer solstices. To me, that claim has always seemed a little odd. Who would spend 1,500 years building a calendar out of stone? Invent paper, people.

But let’s think of a calendar in deeper terms. A calendar doesn’t just track the days of a year. It tells which days are significant and why: Mardi Gras, Passover, Tax Day, Bastille Day, Election Day, New Years. . . . More than that—a calendar tells us what we ought to be doing on these special days. It is a meeting place where we can plan our future. In that sense, Stonehenge is very much a calendar. It wasn’t meant just to track time, but to provide a space for people to come together for meaningful activity.

Your Class Calendar as a Meeting Place

If you’re like most teachers, you’re used to thinking of your class calendar as an organizational tool that you create to guide you through presentation of the material. It’s your plan. But what if your calendar could be a meeting place? What if you invited students into the process of building the calendar—or at least part of it?

Understand that the students wouldn’t be building the class calendar on their own. They would be participating with you in building it. Here’s an example of how you could build a calendar together:

As you know, group work can give teachers headaches and students nightmares. If set up poorly, collaborative projects often result in one person doing all of the work, while others contribute minimally or actually disrupt. Arguments, inefficiency, mess, and chaos follow closely.

When set up well, though, group work taps into the power of collaboration. Here are 5 keys to setting up successful student collaborations.

Group Expectations

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