Creating a Thinking Classroom
Learners learn to think in thoughtful classrooms, places where learners enthusiastically grapple with important issues by considering multiple perspectives, developing informed opinions, and effectively communicating their opinions to others. Creating this kind of environment is the biggest challenge teachers face, but teaching in such an atmosphere is not only rewarding, but enjoyable for learners and teachers alike.
In order for learners to develop their thinking skills, they must feel comfortable taking risks and failing occasionally. Project-based learning, in which learners can exercise their thinking muscles on authentic problems, provides an ideal structure for infusing the teaching of thinking into curriculum content.
Language of Thinking
A thoughtful classroom is infused with a “language of thinking” that is used by both teacher and learners. This language highlights the process of thoughtful learning and differentiates between thinking that is shallow and superficial and thinking that is deep and meaningful. Vygotsky (1986), the father of constructivism and learner-centered learning, reminds us, “Thought is not merely expressed in words; it comes into existence through them” (p. 218). Talking helps people think and it helps learners learn to think.
One of the most basic kinds of language used in the classroom is teacher questioning. Teachers are often encouraged to ask higher-level questions to improve their learners’ abilities, asking more “why” and “how” questions and fewer “what” and “when” questions. There is no evidence, however, that answering these kinds of questions alone has a direct effect on learners’ ability to think.
Wegerif (2002) illustrates this conclusion with the example of a teacher asking “Why did Huck Finn’s father abduct him?” This question could elicit deep thinking and may help some learners improve their thinking abilities but, as he explains, if learners “are in the habit of guessing or making hasty judgments about what causes things to happen,” they will just continue to practice patterns of shallow thinking.
Some, so-called deeper questions, ask learners for subjective judgments: “What did you think of the poem?” “Should we clone human beings?” Learners can usually answer such questions easily, but without having to justify and support their opinions, they are not likely to grow as thinkers (Appelbaum, 2000). In a thinking classroom, the teacher’s response to a “why” or “how” question is “How do you get that?” “What reasons do you have?” “Where do your reasons come from?” “What about this other point of view?” These kinds of questions from a teacher and from learners become part of the culture of a thoughtful classroom and ensure that there is more to answering a good question than a flippant, easy response.
Building classroom learning around good questions is an important part of encouraging thinking in learners, but it is not sufficient. The questions must be accompanied by appropriate feedback, assessment, and teaching in how to think about them.
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