Pop Quiz

Consider the following problems.




(image credits: blogs.telegraph.co.uk, waterhapsody.co.za, autismspeaks.org)

Considering these problems, which do you think would be the most important response for our schools?

A. More math classes in schools

B. More science classes in schools

C. More technology use in schools

D. More thinking in schools

Instead of telling you the answer I present two true stories to illustrate the point. Researcher John Holt interviewed a student identified by his teacher as bright in the subject of mathematics.

Researcher: If you have six jugs and you want to put 2/3 of a pint of lemonade into each jug, how much lemonade will you need? 

Bright kid: 18 pints

Researcher: Hmm…. How much lemonade do you put in each jug?

Bright kid: 2/3 of a pint

Researcher: Is 2/3 more or less than one?

Bright kid: Less

Researcher: And how many jugs do you have?

Bright kid: Six

Researcher: So that answer, 18, doesn’t make any sense.

Bright kid, shrugging: Well, that’s just the way the system worked out.

Another quick story:

I walked into a 9th grade Earth Science classroom to see a lesson plan that I wrote in action. The teacher was projecting her computer screen onto the board and students each had a laptop. She was using a cause-effect graphic to illustrate both aspects of pollution. The energy in the room was, well, painfully still and boring. What was the teacher doing? Telling and showing them the causes and effects and the students were…screech!… simply copying what she typed into their graphic organizers on their laptops. The pain! The horror! Sigh.

Do you know the answer to the quiz now? Let’s assess the two stories above with our potential answer choices.

no thinkingYes, our students need to know about STEM subjects to solve problems — BUT — and this is a big BUT

Today’s students need to solve problems that adults do not yet know how to solve!

Thinking and discovery, we might argue, are the most important goals in schools today. Not only for these grand world-saving purposes, but engaging students in actively processing information simply helps them to retain traditional information longer and retrieve it more easily. So this week’s topic is HUGE for us. We can’t afford to mother robin our students for one minute. The state of the planet and humanity’s ability to thrive require something different.

Actively processing, aka thinking or engaging the brain, while learning is also key to college success. David Conley, perhaps the greatest authority on college readiness says,

  • “The ability to think systematically and logically is perhaps the single most important skill students can gain from a study of mathematics.”
  • College readiness requires: “Facility with a range of key intellectual and cognitive skills that can be broadly generalized as the ability to think.”
  • After interviewing faculty at the best universities: “It was not that students did not know anything; they knew quite a lot. However, they were often unable to connect what they knew or see how the pieces fit together.”

Education expert Tony Wagner also cautions against more STEM-related education unless we dramatically shift how we instruct and measure students’ progress in those fields in a way that promotes creativity and critical thinking skills.


(image credit: pyschsearch.net)

Let’s be sure the two cautionary tales above make their point. Perhaps the single most common and most painful error that I see teachers making in classrooms is over scaffolding or spoon feeding information to students. Scaffolding and G-R-R (Gradual Release of Responsibility or I do, we do, you do) have their place in teachers’ tool kits. But we must be vigilant against robbing students of engaging their intellects.

I used to be very guilty of telling the students what to think and how to think. It can be daunting to figure out how to do it better. This week we will work hard to help teachers boost the amount of active processing of learning even in traditional classrooms.

Active Processing = Thinking

Tuesday: How to spot principles of active processing

Wednesday: A practical guide to active processing strategies

Thursday: Monitoring and improving students’ thinking

Friday: Making complex student thinking visible for both teachers and students

Can’t wait to read your comments!

Sing it with us, “What the world — needs now — is thinking — sweet thinking!”