Saturday, June 24, 2017

Creating Cultures of Thinking

Setting: The chemistry class for which I was a 4th quarter sub (see here for the longer story of how an English teacher managed THAT)
Me: What did you get for an answer to the next problem?
Student A: 2.4
Student B: 33.5
Student C: 0.22
Me: So, explain to me why you think your number is the answer.
Long pause
Student C: This is just like English class!  

I believe education—whatever class a student is in—should be not just about right answers, but about knowing how we got them so we can figure out when things go wrong, what we need to learn next, and how we can learn it so that we can tackle the progressively harder problems of real life with confidence, competence, and creativity. Ron Ritchhart calls this a culture of thinking. I just finished reading his book Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools, and I loved that it gave me a framework for thinking and talking about what goes well in my class and in my school, and how to help more of that good stuff happen both places. 

We all know that, by itself, changing a textbook, a set of standards, a curriculum, an instructional strategy won’t increase student learning (though it will increase teacher cynicism!). What will increase student learning? Changing the school culture. If we believe differently, we will act differently. These do go hand in hand—you can believe your way into action or act your way into belief. You can implement an instructional strategy and see it elicit thinking in a way you want to know more about and see become the norm for your students; you can desire a culture of thinking and gradually learn what attitudes, strategies, and practices will foster it. I think of belief and action as the blue and yellow that make the green of culture. 

So how do we change school culture from one of right answers to one of thinking? Ritchhart names 8 forces: expectations, language, time, modeling, opportunities, routines, interactions, and environments. I’ll give a brief summary or highlight of each, and I really hope it does whet your desire to read the whole book, talk about it with your colleagues, and create a culture of thinking in your school and in your classroom:
  1. Expectations: This is about our beliefs as they affect our behaviors, such as promoting learning rather than work, understanding rather than knowledge, independence rather than dependence, and growth rather than fixed mindset. I began this book last summer and this cultural force really struck me (see this blog). During the ensuing year, I changed the daily headings on my board from “agenda” and “homework” to “learning plan” and “independent learning.”
  2. Language: The words we use might seem insignificant, and yet they subtly but powerfully convey our beliefs to our students. Ritchhart breaks it down into the language of thinking (see above), community (using “we” rather than “you”), identity (speaking of the students as readers, writers, scientists, mathematicians, historians, etc.), initiative, mindfulness, praise/feedback, and listening.
  3. Time: “Learning to be its master rather than its victim” is Ritchhart’s chapter subtitle. Two points that interested me were prioritizing (we often do it by default rather than intentionally—see Stephen Covey’s classic “big rocks”) and managing energy, not time (we have only so much time, but there are activities within time that are energy boosts or energy drains—like meeting with students vs. writing comments we aren’t sure will even be read).
  4. Modeling: “As a culture shaper, modeling operates on both an explicit and an implicit level. Explicitly, we may demonstrate techniques, processes, and strategies in a way that makes our own thinking visible for students to learn from and appropriate. Implicitly, our actions are constantly on display for our students. They see our passions, our interests, our caring, and our authenticity as thinkers, learners, community members, and leaders. Adult models surround students and make real a world that they may choose to enter or reject” (115). At my Christian school, we talk about teachers as the “living curriculum.” This works in our subject areas as well as in our faith life and ethical practice. It’s also a chapter out of the last faculty book discussion I was a part of. 
  5. Opportunities: The tasks we design for students—from daily activities to larger assessments to long-term projects should be not just “work” (see expectations and language) but opportunities to learn. Ritchhart gives examples of a 12th grade English class creating a math equation involving selecting and weighting character traits for Othello, a 9th grade social studies class using VoiceThread to synthesize learning on migration, and an elementary music class creating songs to sell to support music classes in other schools. The takeaways for any class opportunity are novel application, meaningful inquiry, effective communication, and perceived worth.
  6. Routines: Ritchhart’s chapter subtitle is “supporting and scaffolding learning and thinking.” He mostly illustrates how one thinking routine (Claim-Support-Question) is used in a variety of levels of math classes (kindergarten, 2nd grade, 5th grade, and secondary). I think this is the heart of his earlier book Making Thinking Visible, which is on my to-read for later this summer. 
  7. Interactions: We set the pattern, interacting with students by asking good questions (not just procedural and review, but ones that deepen thinking and connections and elicit support) and pressing for thinking. We help students interact with each other in the same way by training them in roles and norms. (I loved these norms: “contribute to group work and help others contribute, support ideas by offering reasons, work to understand others’ ideas, and build on one another’s ideas” (220).
  8. Environments: The chapter subtitle, again, says it all: “Using space to support learning and thinking.” There is, of course, the seating—the default setting of my desks is in pods of 4 for collaboration, and if students ever walk in and see another arrangement, they freak out. Unexpectedly, this chapter revealed another insight into my 2016-1027 school year: I loved my room. It’s the first time I’ve had my own room in many, many years, and being a nomadic teacher has its advantages (like many collegial connections). And my room was nothing special design wise. But it was mine. And as the year progressed, the walls became covered with our learning—vocabulary words, group projects, books read, poems written, group thinking. From this chapter I got the okay that it wasn’t all beautiful display, and I got a word for why it works and made me happy: curation of learning. (See photos below.)

One of my happy spots is in a book discussion with other faculty members, working out how we can do an even better job of helping students learn. Another is in a class where students are learning and helping each other learn. Ritchhart gives a name to those settings: cultures of learning. Read the book, talk to someone about it, and be a part of helping them happen even more frequently for more of our students.

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