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You are here: Home > Online Articles > Building Understanding Is Enhanced Through a Culture of Thinking

Pedagogy & Learning


Building Understanding Is Enhanced Through a Culture of Thinking

The Principles of Learning Column

By Dr Karen L. Taylor


Building Understanding Is Enhanced Through a Culture of Thinking

A couple of years ago I was visiting a Year 2 class engaged in a spelling lesson that drew from the Lipman method of Philosophy for Children. But this was no ordinary spelling lesson. The children all gathered in a circle around their teacher and collectively decided on the subject of their research for that day: the correct spelling of hippopotamus. The language the students used showed that they had already assimilated the vocabulary and habits of mind that we associate with key skills of 21st-century learning: collaboration, autonomy, critical thinking, and respectful interaction with others.

The children worked in groups of three or four to come up with several hypotheses on the spelling of hippopotamus. Together they evaluated the merits of each hypothesis, posed questions of each other, and respectfully challenged one another’s assumptions. I heard children use independently the terms “hypothesis,” “theory,” and “consensus.” It was really rather astonishing.

When each group had decided which of their hypotheses had the best potential, they went off into various parts of the school to research and, hopefully, to confirm its validity. Some children used the internet, others went to the library. Still others sought out an adult who they believed might be able to help them arrive at the truth. They were orderly but enthusiastic, purposeful, and cooperative in their research. About 15 minutes later, the groups returned to the circle to recount the process and to discuss the results. Obviously, there is only one spelling of hippopotamus and the class arrived at agreement on this matter. What is significant is the fact that students were able to explain how they did this, demonstrating both metacognitive and metalinguistic awareness. This was a class in which there was clearly a culture of visible thinking.

Watching this class in action, you couldn’t help but realize the potential of thinking routines as pedagogical tools that, by their very nature, promote the development of critical thinking skills. This doesn’t happen by accident. Classroom teachers work hard to create an environment in which such powerful learning experiences take place.

Words matter

In Creating Cultures of Thinking, Ron Ritchhart (2015) reflects on the force of language to shape the learning experience as “language that allows for the possibility of interpretation and that opens the door to even a small bit of ambiguity has the power to keep the mind in an open state, avoiding early closure, pursuing possibilities, and listening to information presented by others” (p. 78). The right combination of

  • the language of the classroom

  • the classroom environment

  • the kinds of questions we ask

  • the modelling we do to make our own thinking explicit and

  • the thinking routines we use

pushes our students towards more complex thinking and deep understanding. It also helps build community. The students in the Year 2 class I observed were not just learning about spelling, or even critical thinking. They were learning to live together in a respectful and inclusive community of enquiry.

"Culture is a way of coping with the world by defining it in detail."

- Malcolm Bradbury

Personally, I might have chosen to use a different word than “cope.” It seems to set the bar rather low. Nonetheless, Bradbury’s point about “defining the world” is significant. Words matter because they allow us to process, to assimilate, and to find our way in the world around us. Culture is also about socially transmitted behaviour that is in accordance with what we collectively value. When we work together as a community of learners to develop a culture of thinking among children and adults, we do much to promote the values we share as educators: student agency, critical thinking, deep understanding and respect.

As cognitive psychologist Lera Boroditsky reminds us, “things that are named are the ones most likely to be thought about and to be visible in our consciousness… what isn’t named can’t be counted. And what can’t be counted can’t be acted upon (cited in Maron, 2017).” Creating a culture of thinking is about deep understanding that is both cognitive and social. Let’s make it count.

Things to consider:

  • Do my students have the interactive instructional time and the structures (thinking routines) needed to delve into complex issues?

  • Are my students given the opportunity to explain their thought processes?

  • Are the processes of thinking and learning captured and documented? Do I collect data on the kinds of thinking I ask students to engage in and on the kinds of questions they ask?

  • Do I privilege generative and constructive questions over review and procedural questions?

  • Do I model visible thinking by making explicit my own thought processes?

  • Do I listen actively to what my students are saying so that they know their thinking is important to me? Do I show them that I am part of this community of learners?

Useful Resources

Project Zero’s Thinking Routines Toolbox

A Teacher’s Guide to Visible Thinking Activities

ULP Universal Understanding Guide

Karen Taylor serves as Director of Education and the Institute of Learning and Teaching at the International School of Geneva and Associate Professor in Practice at Durham University’s School of Education. Prior to moving to Switzerland in 2008, Dr. Taylor taught at the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC and in the Liberal Studies Degree program at Georgetown University where she earned her PhD in history in 2000. Dr. Taylor’s research interests focus on eighteenth-century French pedagogical writings, Global Citizenship Education, Inclusion and Plurilingual Education.

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