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Building Thinking Skills to Help Students Access Their Best Work

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Students at Bronx Arena High School explore erosion through a sand table simulation. (Elizabeth Leitzell/reDesign)

Urban Maker Assembly Academy serves students from all over New York City, many of whom come in behind grade level. The school uses a mastery-based approach, focusing on helping each student become proficient in the necessary skills no matter how long it takes. They’re also committed to doing interesting, hands-on projects and letting students have autonomy over their learning. Despite the greater freedom that comes from this kind of learning, a couple of years ago, principal Luke Bauer realized his students needed more direction.

“A lot of schools that start with project-based learning think that you can throw this ambiguous project out and kids will naturally know how to solve it,” said Bauer. “The thing we’ve found is that kids need some more structure than that.”

Bauer brought in reDesign, an education consulting firm, to help him and his teachers intentionally build skills they hadn't previously realized were required for the projects they had planned.

The premise of reDesign’s approach is that there are many “portable skills” required in any academic project, no matter the subject. These are things like determining importance, asking questions, thinking about purpose and audience, and even clarifying confusion. Students need these skills in everything they learn, but often aren’t aware of them as interstitial thinking steps necessary for a deeper analysis or more meaningful product. And often teachers don’t realize students are missing those thinking skills either.


An informal study of college syllabi found remarkably similar requirements of college freshman. (Courtesy reDesign)

reDesign works with many schools that serve over-aged and under-credited students, so their goal is to find the fastest way to raise student skill level without succumbing to rote learning. Co-founder Antonia Rudenstine said their approach is rooted in a fundamental belief: “You get to deeper learning by taking students through a deep thinking process.”


So whether the project will ultimately result in a website, a speech, a three-dimensional model or an academic paper, there are certain thinking skills like identifying evidence or choosing a focus that can be embedded across subjects. When teachers explicitly name these skills, and identify them as something that can be learned, students become more aware of them. With practice they build up a comfort level with a thinking process that will be required again and again in any learning situation. And crucially, because these skills are found in almost everything, they can be baked into more traditional lessons, as well as project-based curriculum.

“Projects are breaking down at the level of the thinking,” Rudenstine said. “There’s just way too many intellectual jumps that are expected of students who have had no exposure.”

She says teachers have to be very clear about the skills they are teaching through the content and communicate those learning goals to students. So, for example, rather than asking students to name the five causes of the Civil War -- essentially a memorization task -- a teacher could explain that the goal is to understand cause and effect. She could then ask students to read an article and pull out causes and their effects.

“That’s really different from breaking content down into bite-sized pieces,” Rudenstine said. “You’re breaking thinking into bite-sized nuggets.”

The advantage of this modular approach to skill building is that it can be mapped across a school to ensure students are getting enough practice. Especially when students are coming to high school without key skills, they’ll need more practice analyzing and synthesizing than they can possibly get if those skills are only taught in Humanities classes. Instead, analysis and synthesis have to become part of every performance task in every class. Rudenstine calls this “opportunity mapping” and says it’s a crucial step to make sure students are prepared for the kind of learning expected in most colleges.


Earth science and AP Human Geography teacher Ben Hoser has also found the reDesign modules to be a helpful tool to evaluate and rethink his projects. He’s in his second year of teaching at Urban Assembly Maker Academy and has struggled to find the right balance between content and skills-based work.

“One of my main takeaways from last year was kids’ engagement rates were really high, submission rates were really high, but then their scores on their Regents exams were really low,” Hoser said. That made him wonder if he wasn’t teaching the content explicitly enough.

A student at Phoenix Charter Academy in Massachusetts explores the concept of density by measuring mass. (Courtesy reDesign)

In his first year, he’d started out with a natural disaster project that didn’t have much core earth science content in it, but did bring up some key skills like asking the right questions, researching, and entering into an inquiry. At the time he thought the project was a success because it showed him that if he could help students establish a base ability to cite sources, read accurately, and find patterns he was setting up a framework for them to digest any content. Over the year, he was increasingly able to give students work without scaffolds, until they were leading socratic seminars.

Now, Hoser is taking the good elements of that first year to the next level, making sure the content is the explicit vehicle for skill building. To do that, he’s been clear that all his assessments will focus on skills, but the tasks themselves are rooted in content.

“I’m actually finding that I’m more able now to step away from the reDesign resources because I’ve used the reDesign stuff to identify what skills they need and that’s helped me reinvent the standards for our department and then my projects are more content driven,” Hoser said.

For example, Hoser has to teach a unit on landscapes, which is split between map reading and more traditional landscape topics like erosion and rivers. Previously he had struggled to bring those two ideas together in one project. Now, he has students creating maps of their neighborhoods to identify how they would fare in another storm like Hurricane Sandy.

Diving into designing competency-based professional development series. Thank you @reDesignLLC for inspiring the work.

Hoser asks students to survey their neighborhoods on foot, logging waypoints in a data table. Then they map the data and draw contour lines. “That’s testing are they understanding what a contour line is and can they construct a continental map from these spot heights,” Hoser said. He thinks it’s more rigorous to have students create their own maps than to read existing ones, which is what the Regents exam requires.

Hoser built an augmented sandbox in his classroom last year with students. Step three of this project asks students to input their data into the sandbox and project what they’ve recorded in three-dimensional contour lines. That essentially creates a 3D topographical map of the student’s neighborhood, which they can then flood to see what happens. Lastly they have to write to their congressperson addressing the issues they found.

“The final tasks is a writing task, not a scientific one, so they have to really understand it and use evidence to make their argument,” Hoser said. It’s also a good example of how those “portable skills” show up in science class and reinforce what’s happening elsewhere in the school.

Hoser thinks the augmented sandbox element added a lot to the project because students didn’t expect some of the ways the water moved across the landscape. They didn’t all know, for example, that downhill isn’t always south, but they figured it out as the water flooded areas they know well in real life.

The augmented sandbox helps students visualize the data they collect. (Courtesy Ben Hoser/Urban Assembly Maker Academy)

“It’s so heavily grounded in and driven by the content, but each stage of it requires them to use skills that I think they need,” Hoser said. He thinks he’s found a model for what a really good project looks like. And now he’s not shy to run smaller skill-based lessons for things that might come up in a project. For example, he taught students how to read a map for their landscape project, but it was a quick mini-lesson within a project that students otherwise largely drove themselves.

“What I’m trying to do is set kids up with those skills so they can feel that feeling of discovery,” Hoser said. He likes the reDesign tools because he can check his projects against them to make sure he isn’t missing key skills; they've become a back stop as he iterates on his projects. The tools have helped guide his thinking, but haven’t limited his creativity or autonomy as a teacher.

Margarita Lopez teaches sophomores and seniors English. She’s only been teaching for a few years and has found the reDesign modules helpful as she evaluates what worked and what didn’t in various projects. For example, she wanted to understand why students weren’t turning in the level of work she expected in a multimedia storytelling project she does with sophomores every year.

“What I realized using the reDesign materials when I reassessed that entire project was that it needed more of the little pieces that make the connection to the overall bigger project,” Lopez said.

The project requires students to interview an immigrant in their community and represent their life story in a video. While Lopez thought the aim was clear, she hadn’t realized that her students weren’t independently doing things like researching the history of their interviewee or scripting out their questions. They were diving in without planning, which resulted in shallow products.

Now, Lopez scaffolds these steps more explicitly. She discusses different types of questioning strategies with students so they have tools to use when doing their interviews. Lopez hadn’t realized that students didn’t know how to get started on such a big project, but once she made the switch students turned their work in at higher rates and were ultimately able to approach the next project more independently.

These successes are exactly what Rudenstine is hoping to support. She has experience teaching in both traditional settings and more progressive ones, but worried that neither truly served students. She’s firm that there are fundamental skills students need if they want to be successful in college and that educators can’t expects students to pick those up through osmosis while doing a project. But with expert guidance from a skilled teacher, students can do the exciting hands-on project work that many constructivist educators love without sacrificing skill development.


Even in more traditional schools where drilling academic skills is the focus, many teachers still skill over fundamental skills required for deep thinking, working with other people, and figuring things out on one’s own. That’s where Rudenstine says the reDesign materials might help.

Karen McCallion, a biology teacher at Epping High School in New Hampshire, teaches at a fairly traditional high school -- they still have rows of desks and bells. McCallion, like so many teachers, feels pressure to get through the content, but as she’s looked at the skills laid out by reDesign she’s given herself permission to slow down and make sure students have what they need to succeed.

“It does feel like I’m going away from the content -- or it did at the beginning -- but then I realized I’m teaching them how to learn,” she said. She’s begun to realize that to succeed in science her students need to be good readers, and they need to be able to determine what’s important. She’s started helping them do that work with non-science texts first, then later asking them to apply those skills to science texts that can feel daunting to students.

“If you can give them some ownership and some skills then whatever content you put in front of them, even if it frustrates them, then they’re going to be able to engage with it,” McCallion said. She’s never going to give up lab reports, but she does see ways she can open up assignments she’s done in the past to build student skills beyond memorization.

For example, McCallion used to do a “design a cell project,” where each student was assigned an organelle and had to research and present on its function in the cell. “That’s not really what I want. It’s very surface. So I changed it,” she said. Now, she’s trying to emphasize collaboration and connections.

She modified the project so that students work in groups to come up with an analogy for what the organelle does, along with a representation of the analogy. At first, McCallion thought she had made a big mistake. Students didn’t know how to work together, they struggled to come up with a plan to collaborate and when they ran into problems they wanted her to solve them.

“Instead of telling them how to solve it we conference,” she said. “We sit and discuss and I have them speak up. I enjoy so much watching those light bulbs go off, and I don’t see them go off as much when I make them regurgitate facts,” she said.

As we talk, McCallion looks at her white board and tells me almost every assignment written in the top corner comes out of reDesign. She’s got the learning goal, the competency being covered, and the product she expects students to produce. Perhaps more importantly, she’s thought through some bigger questions about her lessons: Why is she doing it? What will the product look like? How will she support them? What strategies will she explicitly teach along the way?


McCallion says she’s even starting to think this way about her tests. She always writes in a few questions that require synthesis -- that’s where kids either fall down or wow her. And it’s a good indicator of where she might need to offer a little more support.

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