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Thought Club: A Grassroots Model of Professional Development

By Justine Hitchcock
Thought Club: A Grassroots Model of Professional Development

Creativity is inventing, experimenting, growing, taking risks, breaking rules, making mistakes, and having fun. Thought Club is all these things, and it is the sum of its parts. Thought Club models risk taking while growing and benefiting from the creativity it has inspired. It breaks the regular rules of professional development, providing a prototype model of grassroots collegial learning.
What is Thought Club?
Our Thought Club model applies design thinking to professional development by being flexible enough to shift and change as needed. The intent is to develop teachers as thinkers, the rationale being that in order to effectively facilitate thinking in students, teachers must understand their own thought processes. We want to create a school environment and culture in which teachers can be creative with their teaching in strategic and effective ways.
We began with Thought Club’s “Blue Skies” weekly meeting, where teachers are given the time and space to share daily experiences, successes, and worries with their colleagues. This is focused conversation, facilitated in such a way as to turn thoughts into questions that push our thinking forward through curiosity.
Sound too easy? This simple model has already made a significant impact on school culture and elevated thinking in our classrooms. Counterintuitively, all Thought Club meetings are voluntary, require no long-term commitment, and are held after school. They always begin with a round of “What’s on Your Mind?” where teachers take turns answering this question in whichever way they interpret it. The role of all other participants is to actively listen.
Once the round is complete, we pick out common themes that participants want to discuss further. The facilitator’s role during this time is to push the discussion through questions that promote deeper thinking, challenge generalizations or assumptions, and model beautiful questions* that will move teaching forward. The conversation is recorded, and all meeting minutes are shared immediately after the meeting with all Thought Club members, whether or not they were present at the meeting.
In an effort to model ideal teaching practices, Thought Club includes an online component that differentiates for different levels of interest and need. People interested but unsure are invited to “lurk” and be a part of our discussions via Google Classrooms. This is a deliberate effort to create multiple entry points for staff to take part in this learning, and it works.
Members are now beginning to offer samples of their practices, pose questions for consideration by others, and share professional readings and insights. The most active members in the online community are not necessarily those who regularly attend meetings, showing that the two forums serve different needs. It also functions as an easy archive of discussions and ideas while reaching a wider audience than meetings alone permit.
So what? How has this made a difference?
In the initial months of Thought Club, it was not unusual for sharing to take a negative tone, as people tried to offload stress that had accumulated over the week. However, in time, as the “club” feeling became more collegial, that tone shifted. Now, discussions celebrate successes in the classroom, or raise professional questions and concerns in more proactive, problem-solving type of approach.
In this way, the opening part of Thought Club meetings act as a temperature check to gauge school culture and morale, as the open-ended structure has become a safe place for people to be heard.
As conversations shifted from “downloading” to inquiry, a more positive language of bonding began to emerge. The discourse of the group changed from that of negative venting to one of shared problems and a collective will to bring change.
We also saw an unexpected effect from sharing meeting minutes. These became a springboard for further conversations by those who hadn’t attended, creating a domino effect. Minutes provided a model of motivated learners and used “water cooler conversations” to spread new expectations about the way we talk with one another as colleagues.
Now what? How has Thought Club developed?
After analyzing feedback, it became evident that some members were now ready for greater structure and focus than the “Blue Skies” format provided. This gave rise to “Thought Club In Focus.” Each fortnight, In Focus members are given an online assignment, which consists of student activities/lessons focused on a particular area of thinking (currently “creativity”).
Teachers then bring sample student responses to meetings, where we use a Visible Thinking routine to analyze and discuss student work. This provides a venue for teachers to collectively reflect on their practice, using evidence from their own classrooms, and keeps discussions directly focused on student impact.
Where this will lead us, we cannot yet tell you. That is the beauty of Thought Club. We are learning to embrace the greyness and unpredictability of creativity. We are inventing, experimenting, growing, taking risks, breaking rules, and making mistakes together. And boy, is it fun!
Justine Hitchcock is the Teacher Leader: Thinking and Innovation at Nishimachi International School in Tokyo, Japan.
*A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, by Warren Berger

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