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Developing Thinking Skills

I have been interested in and following the work at Project Zero for many years. One of the major thinkers there is Ron Ritchhart. Today, sitting at home as it rains and snows, I decided to catch up with some videos that I had earmarked for viewing. I watched on Youtube a presentation that Richard Ritchhart gave, Working Together to Develop Powerful thinkers and Learners. You can view it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSpR-oBx7h8. This video made me say, “Wow”.

The big question in education is really how do we make children’s learning visible so that the child, teachers, and others can “see” it. Can it only be seen through testing? Does the amount of testing we do lead to the development of thinking skills that we say we value so much or does it just lead to smart kids being able to answer preset questions on those tests?

At Project Zero, they have developed “thinking routines” that provide teachers with strategies for a way of “seeing” into children’s thinking. These thinking routines also provide children with strategies for developing awareness of what and how they are thinking – metacognitive awareness.

One quote in the video is from Vygotsky who stated that “Children grow into the cultural life around them”.  Ritchhart gave this quote as part of his definition of acculturation. Another quote that he presented was from Perkins, “Learning is a consequence of thinking”. From these two quotes, he presents what should be happening in classrooms and at home to develop children’s thinking. He asks us to think about what kind of thinking we value. He states that the kind of thinking we should value is the type that is necessary for developing understanding, that we need to create an environment that supports thinking. We must create a group environment where “thinking is actively promoted” in every classroom and with every child as well as the group as a whole. We want this thinking to become routine and embedded in children  – so routine that it leads them to ask thoughtful, good questions automatically and which influences how children process information.

Surprisingly toward the end of his presentation, Richhart presented 9 strategies that he says parents can engage in to support the development of thinking in their children. To me, the list was not just for parents but for teachers. If teachers and parents followed these 9 suggestions, our children would be on their way to becoming independent learners and thinkers. (I have put some of my thoughts in italics.)

  1. Name and notice – noticing and naming the thinking in which your child is engaged.
  2. Develop a growth mindset in your child – focus praise on effort and process rather than their ability. Notice and name exactly what they did to succeed.
  3. Challenge but don’t rescue – don’t jump in and solve problems for your child because it leads to dependence. Ask questions that help them solve difficult problems on their own.
  4. Rather than asking a child what they learned today, ask them if they asked any good questions today.
  5. Focus on learning over the work. Ask your child, “What do you think your teacher wants you to learn from this homework?” This one was really interesting to me. Richhart stated that learning is the goal of any assignment, so the question to ask a child is what the purpose of each homework is. The purpose often gets lost for teachers, children, and parents.
  6. Support your child in arguing effectively and persuasively. Push them to give evidence for their opinion. What I found interesting about this one was research Richhart presented that doing this leads to resilience in children, which gets transferred to the peer culture. Developing this enables a child to more effectively resist peer pressure and less of this at home (a more dogmatic home approach) leads to more susceptibility to peer culture.
  7. Provide time to pursue passions. Provide unstructured time, which leads to self-directed learning.
  8. Make your own thinking visible. Richhart suggests that you talk through your curiosity, decisionmaking processes, and mistakes. The best cooperating teacher that I ever saw working with a student teacher, talked out loud about her thinking about what and how she was teaching and why she was doing what she was doing.
  9. Asking what makes you say that.  Ritchhart says that asking this provides you with a window into the thinking behind the person’s initial response.

Surprisingly, Richhart mentioned a conversation that he had with the CEO of the DOW corporation who said that there are a lot of “smart” kids out there but that many of them cannot solve problems. Learning content is not enough. We need more from schools. Schools have gone too far in seeing testing as the way to improve the outcomes of education but, according to the DOW CEO, we do not need a trade-off between testing and thinking. They need to co-exist

Finally, the most surprising set of remarks from Richhart asked of us, “What do we want children to be like as they grow up? What is left after kids leave school? What stays for the long run?” For me, these are really critical questions with which we, as a society, have to grapple in order to have our children develop as learners and thinkers. If we started there, we would create schools that enable the development of children’s thinking skills.

By norakrieger

I was the Chair of the Education Division at Bloomfield College until my retirement. My main interests are early childhood education, Reggio Emilia, and preparing teachers from underrepresented groups.

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