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How Do You Teach Thinking?

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Photo by Parker Knight via Flickr CC BY 2.0

We are in the midst of an education revolution where teaching critical thinking is pushed, prized, evaluated, and exalted. This is the first in a series of posts telling the story of my efforts to shift thinking to the center of my curriculum using a variety of resources including KQED Education’s The Lowdown.

While the ability to think is often taken as a natural byproduct of school learning, this year I placed teaching thinking front and center in my classes. Among the things I’ve learned is that analyzing the qualities of potential romantic partners and the powers of Congress have a lot more in common than I might have thought. I’ve also learned that the thinking experiences and skills students already possess have been mostly left out of the conversation when we talk about how to teach thinking to students.

Defining Thinking is troublesome. We use the word all the time, but it’s hard to explain what it means. After reading and talking and yes, thinking, about skills necessary for life inside and outside of school, my plan for this school year included two essential questions: “What does it mean to think? And, how can I get good at it?” To animate this question, I chose eight thinking strategies to practice with students. The book “Making Thinking Visible” by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church and Karin Morrison helped me curate my list of eight thinking strategies from the hundreds of possibilities (see right). These eight strategies, or thinking-routines, are straightforward and useful.

Re-Defining Thinking

The first week of school, I asked the students, “What is thinking? When you tell someone you are thinking, what might actually be going on in your head?” Students looked at me. They looked at the paper. They fumbled about and wrote down phrases like, “Thinking means to think about something.” I gave them examples. More silence. I received a few solid answers but most students struggled to articulate what it means to think about something. Although I felt okay about this introduction to thinking, the idea that something was missing nagged at me.

One day while grading at my desk, it hit me. Students THINK. Students think deeply all the time. Of course, right? I know this because when a student says something or writes something that makes me pause or feel or think, I write it down on a post it note and stick it on my desk somewhere. Here I was at my desk literally surrounded by examples of students’ deep and critical thinking processes covering a variety of topics – topics like how schools and prisons are similar, or how the United States treats people who make mistakes. In that moment I recognized that my job was not simply to “teach students to think” but to make connections between the types of thinking they already do in their everyday lives and the types of thinking that will help them excel in academic settings.


I re-named the strategies “Asset Based Thinking Strategies” as a riff off the concept of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) I learned about several years ago. ABCD always starts with recognizing the existing resources, skills, and experience in a community. Although many students struggle to explain what’s going on in their head when they are thinking, they are, nonetheless, experienced thinkers. I realized I needed to go beyond asking myself whether a lesson asked my students to think; I needed to activate their experiences with thinking they already engage in every day.

Asset-Based Thinking Strategies in Action

The “Powers of Congress” is a standard lesson topic for government classes. I revamped my lesson on this topic to deemphasize knowing the names and attributes of all the powers of Congress, and instead wanted to use the lesson as an opportunity to teach powerful thinking skills, not simply drill for facts they can look up on Google. I asked students to look at a fairly standard list of seventeen powers of Congress and select ten of them as the “most significant” powers.  To do this, they would FIRST develop a list of criteria to be used to evaluate the significance of different powers. Then they would run each power through the list of criteria to evaluate whether it was a “Top 10” power. I was feeling pretty good about myself because this lesson requires a lot of different thinking skills such as observing and describing the powers, developing the evaluation criteria, evaluating evidence, making claims and supporting those claims.

But, after we started, the awkward silence indicating lesson destruction took hold.  I walked around and explained the concept of criteria again to the groups. The awkward silence turned to unsure giggles. I exhorted them to “think hard” and use 100% of their brain. This unhelpful pep talk led to frustrated under-the-breath muttering and the final stages of the mutiny. They rejected the assignment and instead started talking about the TV show Empire. The bell rang. I had lost the day.

Before the next class arrived, I knew I had to make a change. And that change had to involve showing them they knew how to develop criteria, that they develop criteria all the time in their lives. I had to show them that they could start with their thinking abilities and then name and transfer their pre-existing thinking skills to this academic investigation. I started with the same definition and example but I introduced a new step. I asked the students to list the criteria they would use to evaluate a person they might potentially date. What criteria would they use to decide if that person was “dateable?” Students quickly and easily shouted answers: “kind”, “cute”, “a good sense of humor”. Before I could make the connection to the powers of Congress a student took the conversation to a deeper level by voicing an insightful question – “there is no way that someone will meet ALL these criteria so how do you use the list to evaluate potential romantic interests?” Other students chimed in with ideas about figuring out which criteria is the MOST important to you or deciding that if the person meets a certain number of the criteria then they are “dateable.”  The student’s question and the subsequent discussion allowed for a more sophisticated and nuanced evaluation of the powers of Congress when we transitioned to this activity. The lesson went much more smoothly because the students had the confidence in their ability to develop and use a set of criteria to analyze and evaluate a set of unfamiliar and complex information.


We have long known students come to class with content background knowledge and good teachers tap in to this knowledge. I am also learning the magic and joy of tapping into their emerging expertise as thinkers.

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