If we teach our children to think then they will do better on the test and they will do better in life.
This was one of the clear messages delivered by the presenters at the International Conference on Thinking (ICOT) in Bilbao, Spain held during the week beginning 29th June. The conference was a celebration of thinking and brought together many of the leaders in educational thinking including the teams behind ‘Habits of Mind’, ‘Teaching for Understanding’ and ‘Making Thinking Visible’. Attendees were given the opportunity to hear Edward De Bono interviewed by David Perkins, to be inspired by Art Costa on the topic of making our children more intelligent, to be entertained and challenged by Richard Gerver as he encouraged them to embrace change and enjoy keynote presentations from the likes of Guy Claxton, Lane Clark and Ewan McIntosh. In total some 109 sessions were made available over five days with time in between to share ideas and reflect on the messages presented. It was a week that was both challenging and uplifting, a week that presented the clear role that thinking and education can and must play in creating the bright and prosperous future we hope our students will experience.
An essential understanding developed across the week is that intelligence is not a fixed attribute but is a factor that can be changed. The research of Arthur Whimbey, shared by Art Costa reveals that IQ is not fixed and that intelligence can be taught. This also applies to and is influenced by the thinking dispositions an individual possesses. Through a better understanding of how the brain functions previous notion of intelligence as a fixed measure has been challenged particularly by the work of Dr. Reuven Feuerstein on ’Structural Cognitive Modifiability’. A growing understanding of Neuroplasticity along with a diverse range of strategies that target the enhancement of dispositions and strategies for thinking has shown that educators can play a powerful role in enhancing the fundamental abilities of their students and that in doing so can enhance their performance in both test situations and in life.
One place to begin a reflection on the messages from the conference is with the five headlines about thinking offered by David Perkins.
- Normal education does not improve general reasoning
- In programmes that target reasoning with specific elements then reasoning is improved
- Good thinking is as much about dispositions as it is about ability and strategies - People are not alert to the need for reasoning and they need to care about and have positive attitudes towards good thinking - It’s dispositions towards thinking not just ability
- Dispositions for thinking are independent of IQ - this also applies to creativity - a lot of the parts of thinking have nothing to do with IQ
- Students have impoverished models of what good thinking is like - students have an achievement or a talent oriented image of thinking and do not have a process oriented model of thinking
With this foundation the challenge becomes what might we do with this knowledge, what teaching strategies will allow our students to make the most of their potential and to expand their abilities? According to David Perkins the answer is ‘Hacking our Minds’. Building on a metaphor from the world of computer science Perkins suggests that we use thinking skills and strategies as hacks for our minds that enable us to use our intelligence to better respond to the unique challenges we face; to find and solve new problems. Perkins indicated that quality thinking does not occur naturally or automatically and as such individuals need to acquire strategies that enhance their thinking. Our cognitive capacity within the moment of thinking is limited and that because we have a limited cognitive budget we use this in a limited way. When confronted and overwhelmed by choices and issues, as is so often the case in the modern world we are not able to deal with the complexity of everything and so we choose the immediately obvious path rather than taking the time to assess all of the possible options and evaluating which is truly the best. While this survival mechanism often serves us well and our intuition in these circumstances can provide the rapid responses sometimes required the result is what Perkins calls ‘Satisficing’, a process in which our response is adequate but not necessarily optimal. Hacking the mind allows us to use more effective and efficient thinking strategies that allow us to assess the options available, find new alternatives and make decisions which are based on deeper thinking while keeping us within our cognitive budget.
Multiple speakers echoed these ideas across the week. Art Costa urged us to learn to think skillfully, to know what to do when we don’t know the right answer. Costa's first keynote was a sweeping overview of how the ‘Habits of Mind’ are applied within and supported by the cultural elements of a school. That constructivist knowledge building and approaches to learning have merit as they enhance learning and improve intelligence. Costa described how it is not the content but how it is constructed that sticks. Guy Claxton who spoke about the importance of learning more than just content echoed this sentiment. According to Claxton we should never be teaching just content, it should always ‘CONTENT +’ and it will be the ‘+’ that lasts longest with the students. It is the how of the learning, the thinking dispositions, the mindset towards success and failure, the methods of analysis that are applied and fostered through every lesson that will stick with the students and enable their future learning. There is no opting out of developing these mental habits; the long-term tendencies for deep fully engaged long life learning with dispositions that matter such as empathy, critique, self-evaluation. Probing student thinking adds value to the task of solving a problem and enhances the effect and longevity of the teaching according to Costa. Both Costa and Claxton reinforced that intelligence is about knowing how to approach novel situations and that it occurs because of the habits we bring to our learning.
Ron Ritchart spoke of the cultural forces at work within schools that shape the learning which occurs. He described the old model of education where results and achievement within a narrow set of skills linked to accuracy of writing, content knowledge and discrete skills were valued. This led to a belief that it was success against this limited criteria that demonstrated if you were smart or not. Ritchart spoke of the ‘Residuals of Education’ as being what is left with the individual long after the lesson is over, the bits that stick. The subtle messages we send as teachers and schools play a critical role in this process and our students learn as much from the culture and language of an institution as they do from the deliberate intent of the lessons provided. A school might have a stated belief in the development of long life skills but then undermine this by placing an emphasis on test results. According to Ritchart we teach a lot of very fragile knowledge and content that we know will not stick two weeks after the test. Instead of building a culture that equates learning with work and measures success with test scores he describes a set of cultural forces that influence attitudes and beliefs about our learning potential and our engagement with it. From the structures and routines we have in place, to the allocation of time to certain aspects of learning over others, to the modeling of learning we provide, to the way we use language to empower learners and connect them to their learning, the little details that create the culture of a school play a significant role in developing dispositions for learning. 'Changing the curriculum is a naive response to a belief that all teachers do is deliver curriculum, but we enact curriculum, the quality of the culture will allow for the success or failure of any curriculum more so than changes to the curriculum or changes to pedagogy.’ (Ron Ritchart)
Claxton, Ritchart and Clark spoke of the importance of how we share and value the thinking that students engage in and this fits nicely with ideas from ‘Making Thinking Visible’. Most schools are rich with displays of beautifully displayed student works presented as finished pieces and error free. While such displays are attractive for visitors they show nothing of the process of learning, they fail to celebrate the thinking that goes towards that finished piece and they establish a culture that does not accept mistakes as a part of the learning process. A better approach is to utilise the display space available as a place for planning and sharing ideas. Claxton described an art show that one school presents where the works are all unfinished. Clark described how in her classrooms students use walls as spaces to develop their ideas and to share their thinking along the way. This combined with scaffolds that move her students from initial explorations of content towards rich projects of inquiry centred on student initiated ‘So What’ questions allows Clark to enable powerful learning and to develop skills for learning and problem solving that ‘stick’ with students. Other ideas for the creative and learning centred use of display spaces included ‘Wonderwalls’ used to share student wonderings or questions (Claxton) and folding display walls that allow a space to be instantly repurposed to meet the needs of a project team (McIntosh).
Mindsets and Dispositions added a further theme to the presentations with many speakers referring to the importance of not just knowing how to think but for students to understand the importance of actively engaging with the process. Claxton called for a move away from the idea of skills and a shift to dispositions or habits as ideas that include an inclination to DO it - whatever that might be. Carol Dweck’s work on Mindsets was cited by multiple speakers as important in allowing students to see learning as a process that involves mistakes and will require them to bounce back from failures. The roles of thinking about thinking and reflective practice linked to the thinking processes were touched on by many. Costa described metacognition as an internal compass and the control centre for all other dispositions and Habits of Mind.
Beyond thinking the other critical theme of the conference was student ownership of the learning. For real learning to occur the students need to see themselves as partners in the process and that they must be able to participate in deciding what is learned. Multiple speakers stressed connecting with personal interests and passions as a strategy for enhancing engagement and ensuring the learning would stick. Lane Clark described how personal relevance played a critical part in student engagement with learning. Robert Swartz spoke of the importance of including students in the selection and evaluation of the thinking skills they use as a step towards their use becoming internalised. Claxton described the success one student had attained when given responsibility for tracking his level of attention. At regular intervals the young student placed a marker on a line to indicate his level of focus on the task he was engaged with. The ownership of the evaluations and the regular self-evaluation of this aspect of his learning resulted in significant and rapid improvement. The question is how do we invite encourage and empower students to become responsible and agentic learners?
Claxton presented an excellent model for what this might look like with the example presented in this video from Landau Forte College in England. The biggest strength portrayed in this comes from including students in the development and planning of their learning. Students are active and equal participants in the learning, the learning has meaning, they are engaged and have key responsibilities in their learning, they are co-constructors of knowledge learning together across age ranges with and from each other. The school empowers students to evaluate their application of learning habits and encourages active and meaningful reflection on the process of learning. The students are engaged with diverse and important social and extracurricular learning. Where this video demonstrates a school going beyond the norm is that it encourages students to challenge the learning system, to question the methods used and the curriculum that is mandated through their active engagement in the political process. In this school education is not something that happens to the students it is something they are fully engaged with.
This is just scratching the surface of what was presented and future posts will cover specific speakers and ideas in greater depth. Speaking on the last day of the conference Edward De Bono, famous for his Six Thinking Hats stated that ‘Complacency is the biggest barrier to better thinking’. Let us not be complacent in our teaching of thinking but have it as a goal in every lesson we teach for if our students are not thinking they cannot be learning.
by Nigel Coutts