Designing Effective Projects : Teaching Thinking
Environments that Encourage Thinking

Room Arrangement
Clearly, thinking can happen in almost any kind of physical environment. Abraham Lincoln did it with a candle by the fire, and political prisoners have done it in solitary confinement in a cell. Most people, however, do better with a little support from the physical world around them.

Most deep thinking requires, at least at some stage, talk. Thinking classrooms need to be full of it, so an environment that makes it easier for learners and teachers to talk to each other is likely to encourage deep thinking. Tables or desks arranged in groups facilitate meaningful interaction among learners although a clever teacher can find ways for learners to get together even in rooms where the desks are nailed to the floor in straight rows.

The best possible room arrangement is flexible. A teacher needs to be able to separate learners and group them as necessary. There should be a place for one-to-one meetings as well as places for learners to work in groups and places for learners to be by themselves. All of this can happen just as well in a conventional classroom as in a large open space as long as a teacher is committed to providing a physical environment that supports learner thinking.

Learners also need access to the resources for thinking in order to complete authentic projects. A classroom library, scientific equipment, math manipulatives, maps and globes, animals and plants, give learners interesting and meaningful fodder for thinking. Along with information, learners also need access to materials for publication and presentation such as, chart paper, markers, cast-off clothing and household items for plays and skits, clay, paints, string, and a variety of other materials which bring out the creative instinct in learners and appeal to a variety of learning styles.

Computers, digital cameras, and other types of ICT can play an important role in a classroom that fosters thinking. In project-based learning classrooms, these tools provide a way for learners to think about content as well as a way for them to share and explain their thinking. Email, electronic discussions, even a project visible on a computer screen where a group of learners can look at it and discuss it together can help to make processes explicit and open for discussion.

Internet access can be a valuable tool in developing thinking in learners by providing a structure for dialogue about thinking processes. In electronic environments, learners do not have to compete with others for the right to speak. They can also take their time to compose their thoughts, which is important for learners with learning disabilities and for non-mainstream language speakers.

Software that supports statistical analysis, visual representation of information through graphic organizers and multimedia presentations, along with conventional word processors, are essential in the 21st-Century classroom. Like any teaching method, however, access to computers does not guarantee deep thinking any more than access to great literature guarantees sophisticated literary analysis. This is especially true of computer games where, doubtless, learners can be exercising higher-order thinking. Without explicit teaching in how to transfer those skills to other contexts, there is not likely to be much learning from technology for most learners.

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Berman, S. (2000). Thinking in context: Teaching for open-mindedness and critical understanding. In A. L. Costa (Ed.). Developing minds: A resource book for teaching thinking, (pp. 11-17). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Dillon, J. T. (1988). Questioning and teaching: A manual of practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Marzano, R. J. (1998). A theory-based meta-analysis of research on instruction. Aurora, CO: McREL.*

Vygotsky, L. S. (1986). Thought and language.  Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press.

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Weil, D. W. (2000). Learning to reason dialectically: Teaching primary students to reason within different points of view. In D. W. Weil & H. K. Anderson, (Eds.). Perspectives in critical thinking: Essays by teachers in theory and practice, (pp. 1-21). New York: Peter Lang.

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