9 Strategies to improve your students thinking skills

It is a common complaint that our students lack the ability to think for themselves.  Maybe we should look at whether they have had the opportunity to learn thinking. We learn most things by observing with our senses, imitating what we have seen/heard and then modifying what we have learned to fit into our values, beliefs or abilities.

The problem with thinking is that it is largely invisible. If our students come from homes where issues and arguments are not rationally and explicitly discussed in open ways with justifications then thinking is something they largely have have to discover for themselves -Rather like trying to learn to play football, but the other footballers are invisible. This blog is trying to showcase some ways we can help our students to see thinking and be able to improve their own thinking ability.

What does the research say?

Hatties research summarised here indicates that the students being able to visibly teach themselves and the teacher visibly learn, using metacognition, self verbalisation, self questioning and Problem Solving Teaching (as opposed to Problem Based Learning) are some of the most powerful factors in learning.

I do think there are issues with research as I feel the variables, the biggest being the hormonal students themselves, are so huge that I am not convinced we can truly make sense of data. When a lesson can be stunning before break and bomb after it with a similar cohort of students, but during break time it rained, there was a fight, a teacher yelled at some students …..  how can we judge the lesson objectively?

How can we get them to think?

Thinking is effortful – see my blog on getting your students to think here – and humans do not put effort into things without good reason. Research tends to suggest that it is the disposition and desire to think that is more important than the thinking itself and we need to consider how we may increase that desire.  Dan Meyer in his Three Act Maths here and some of my efforts in science here trigger a natural desire from students to solve a puzzle and more importantly get them asking questions. Dr Muller under the name Veritasium on youtube has some great examples in physics. See his discourse on the effectiveness of videos in the teaching of physics here

9 Practical Strategies

  1. Get in the habit of asking “Is thinking visible here?” are thoughts being aired, justified, evaluated? Who is doing the thinking?  Using no hands up and Pose Pause Pounce Bounce outlined by @teachertoolkit here is a good way of directing the thinking and adding your own contributions
  2. Ask “Is the language of thinking being used here (A great overview is given by the ASCD here ) but key words are ; compare, analyse, predict, evaluate, speculate
  3. Are your students asking questions? If not make them ideally use Socratic Questions R.W. Paul’s six types of Socratic questions are an interesting place to start:

1. Questions for clarification:

  • Why do you say that?
  • How does this relate to our discussion?
  • “Are you going to include diffusion in your mole balance equations?”

2. Questions that probe assumptions:

  • What could we assume instead?
  • How can you verify or disapprove that assumption?
  • “Why are neglecting radial diffusion and including only axial diffusion?”

3. Questions that probe reasons and evidence:

  • What would be an example?
  • What is….analogous to?
  • What do you think causes to happen…? Why:?
  • “Do you think that diffusion is responsible for the lower conversion?”

4. Questions about Viewpoints and Perspectives:

  • What would be an alternative?
  • Is there another way to look at it?
  • Would you explain why it is necessary or beneficial, and who benefits?
  • Why is ‘x’ the best?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of…?
  • How are…and …similar?
  • What is a counterargument for…?
  • “With all the bends in the pipe, from an industrial/practical standpoint, do you think diffusion will affect the conversion?”

5. Questions that probe implications and consequences:

  • What generalisations can you make?
  • What are the consequences of that assumption?
  • What are you implying?
  • How does…affect…?
  • How does…tie in with what we learned before?
  • “How would our results be affected if neglected diffusion?”

6. Questions about the question:

  • What was the point of this question?
  • Why do you think I asked this question?
  • What does…mean?
  • How does…apply to everyday life?
  • “Why do you think diffusion is important?”

Use Thinking Routines. These are summarised from the Harvard Website on Visible Thinking here .

4.  Think /Pair /Share – Individuals are given a situation and asked “What is going on here?”  “What makes you say that?”  Then they       are asked to pair up and compare their views with their partner. They are then asked to agree and share with others their                   thoughts

5.  Fairness routine – Given a situation or dilemma. “Who might be affected by this? Who might care? What might their viewpoint            be ? (This can also be used in a historical context in taking the prevailing views of the time about slavery, witchcraft etc.)

6. Circle of Viewpoints – Students are asked to put across opposing viewpoints for a dilemma or a decision. The structure is  I am           thinking … topic … from the point of view of ……. . I think … (give view of that person with a justification) . A question that       my view generates is ….. They then do the same for as many characters as appropriate to the task

7. Claim/support/question – A way of structuring ideas . What is your claim? What supports your claim?  What may be questioned         about your claim?

8. Reporters Notebook – A very powerful technique in this world of political spin this puts things in context for analysis

  1. Identify the story/situation/dilemma
  2. What are the facts? what are the events? ie what do we really know?
  3. What are the thoughts/feelings of the parties?
  4. What more information do you need?
  5. What is your judgement and why?

9. Traffic Lighting – Ideal for analysing newspapers for bias. Using different coloured highlighters

  1. Red – Highlight strong – Sweeping statements, beliefs, feelings, self interest, one sided arguments, uncorroborated claims
  2. Amber – Highlight milder versions of the red claims
  3. Green – Highlight the facts or strongly evidenced claims

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