Thanks to Descartes, we all know the famous adage “cogito ergo sum” — “I think therefore I am.” He means that the act of wondering if you exist is, itself, proof of your existence.

In the education world we might offer a slight revision: I think therefore I learn.

And this is the basic principle of active processing. Students learn by THINKING — not reading or writing or listening to lectures. So, if we want them to learn, we have to get them to think. Period.

“What?!” you cry. “Reading and writing aren’t learning?!?” We must be crazy, right?

Let me clarify: When reading and writing and lectures (and other activities) involve thinking, they lead to learning. But too often we ask students to participate in these activities without requiring them to THINK. And then we’re disappointed when they don’t seem to have learned as much as we hoped.

Part of the problem is that teacher professional development often offers us new classroom strategies without revealing the principles behind them.

A quick illustration:

A teacher I worked with learned about “gallery walks” during a professional development session. The leader of the PD encouraged all the participants to try this great new strategy in the classroom. So, when I sat down with her for a planning session she was eager to incorporate it into her lesson. She planned for groups of students to move around the room to look at a variety of historical sources — some images, some quotes, some charts and graphs. I later observed her lesson and she beamed with pride as students seamlessly executed the gallery walk, moving from source to source in small groups to the cadence of her timer, copying down information from each source in a chart. When we debriefed the experience, she was pleased. It had gone exactly as planned. 

The next day, though, students seemed to remember nothing from the activity.

What went wrong?

The answer is simple. The lesson had gone as planned, but the teacher had not planned for any thinking. Instead of planning for what should be happening in students’ brains, she planned for their physical movement and the copying of words from posters on the wall.

Raise your hand if you are guilty of this type of planning.

Don’t worry — me too. : )

When professional development sessions fail to highlight the THINKING involved with a strategy, it becomes harder for educators to plan for it. So, we need to approach new strategies by asking ourselves one simple question: How does this get kids to think? This one question will help us derive the bigger principle from any single strategy. And it will help us use it better in the classroom.

If the teacher in my story had realized that gallery walks only get kids to think when they are required to stop and discuss each source, or do more than copy information into a pre-made chart, she would have planned for that.

Tomorrow we’ll post a list of strategies — some familiar, some new — and the THINKING that they can elicit. For today, think about your own planning. Did you really plan for what’s happening inside students’ heads?

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