Imagine the following classroom assignment:

Explain the causes and impacts of the Great Influenza outbreak of 1918

If we want to save the world, we need to learn to prevent (or at least very effectively treat) pandemics like this, right? We can imagine that studying the causes and effects of the Great Influenza might teach us something about how to deal with disease today.

So how might you approach this assignment?

If you’re a historian, you might consider the political, economic, or social conditions that led to the spread of the flu. You might look at evidence from the past, such as these, and make inferences:

If you’re a scientist, you might interpret the assignment differently. You might research and design experiments to determine how the flu virus operates on a cellular level.

If you’re a mathematician, you’d have yet another approach. You may look for data to create a mathematical model of the disease as it spread through the population.

All of these approaches help us understand major global issues, and all of them are distinct from one another. Each discipline interprets phenomena in its own unique way and each contributes a valuable perspective necessary to dealing with the complex problems we’ll face in the future.

Therefore, stage 4 of our framework emphasizes disciplinary thinking, which includes the ways of knowing and reasoning that are accepted as appropriate in a field of study. Historians make sense of the world by making inferences from evidence about the past. Scientists develop and test hypotheses about the way the world works through controlled experiments. Mathematicians seek to model real-world phenomena as closely as possible using numbers, equations, graphs. The evidence used by the historian is not valid to the scientist as she comes to argue what is “true” about the world. And vice versa.

Students need to understand this so they are not only the “receivers” of knowledge, but become disciplined “makers” of knowledge. Teaching disciplinary thinking means teaching students to construct knowledge the way that practitioners — historians, scientists, mathematicians — construct knowledge in the real world. This happens when students’ thinking in the classroom mirrors the type of thinking and reasoning done in the field.

Studies have shown that while teachers say they want to teach students to think and to improve student reasoning in their field, very few make this an explicit goal or plan specific teaching moves to make this happen. Instead, they focus their attention on the content of the class rather than the reasoning that makes the content possible. Why is this?

For one, it may be the result of confusion among teachers as to what disciplinary thinking actually is. Some think it consists of teaching kids to love the discipline, so they focus on conveying enthusiasm for the subject and work to point out the “interesting” aspects of the topics they study. Some think that by simply telling students what scientists or historians do they are teaching the discipline. Some do not understand how knowledge is constructed in these fields, and so they imply to students that historical or scientific or mathematical knowledge just IS — content becomes a pile of established truths that somehow fell from the heavens (or otherwise became obvious to humans).

Our posts this week will explore what it looks like to teach students to think in a disciplined way. Because each discipline has its own distinct way of thinking and reasoning, we will tackle each one separately.

Do you remember when you first discovered that knowledge was created, not just self-evident? Do you remember finding a discipline that naturally clicked for you because you understood how to reason well in that field? Leave a comment below to describe your experience.

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