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Posts Tagged ‘critical thinking’

  1. Visible Thinking

    23 February 2017 by shartley

    (not my niece but from

    Over the last week I have been visiting my brother and his wife and their 9 month old baby, Ruby. As I watched Ruby live and learn about the world through experimenting with lots of trials and errors, I thought of the students in my classes expected by the system to learn in a linear and orderly fashion.  It’s just not how it’s done.  

    Ruby started to crawl not long before my visit. While I was there, she couldn’t decide whether it was worth her while to lift from the commando style crawl to the more rigid hands and knees crawl. She was partly deterred from using her knees because as soon as she left her alphabet play-mat she would encounter the hard and slippery wooden floors.  But tonight a video was posted online of her crawling, hands and knees, down the length of the hallway, slippery wooden floor and all. The way she placed her hands so deliberately it looked like she’d studied a textbook, or I really should say, YouTube, or that she had been coached.  It’s like my daughter after 8 years of tennis coaching running to the net with her coach’s voice in her head telling her how to exactly move her feet and swing the racket. On the other hand, my son, with minimal coaching, runs around on a tennis court like a cartoon Tasmanian devil and has a similar success rate.  Yet Ruby wasn’t coached as to how to crawl, by a textbook, video or human.  It is part of her natural development, even if some babies skip the hands and knees stage (like her father), and she will become more fluid with practice. How much do we stifle our students’ natural development?

    Ruby is normally contained to an area defined by two couches and two walls with just a small gap between a couch and a wall.  Sometimes that space is plugged by an ottoman but when it isn’t present off she goes! However, she doesn’t go far because soon she is distracted by a well stocked wine rack. “No”, her mother says. She stops, hesitates, but decides the bottles just look so good she has to touch them. Down swoops Mum to prevent glass shattering, wine loss and a bleeding baby as a result.  I’ve always been an advocate for having a few things in the house which babies and toddlers can touch but shouldn’t, to start early the idea of self regulation. I’m not so sure now.  How much do we harm our students by forcing them to be contained within classrooms, subjects and timetables?

    Our children need freedom to discover and learn, to try and fail and fail again.  Ruby tried to pull out a bottle of wine several times in the 5 days I was there but she was thwarted on every occasion, as is necessary for her safety.  But still she persisted.  When do children lose persistence?  I suspect it is when they discover adults have all the answers.  Or Google.  They can then become passive in their learning.  I remember when I was little asking my Mum what certain words meant or how they were spelt and being told to look it up in the dictionary.  Now I just type unknown words in Google and the answer appears almost instantly.

    While I was visiting my brother’s family I revisited the book, Making Thinking Visible, by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church and Karin Morrison.  Ron Ritchhart is going to be presenting at a conference I’m attending this Saturday so I thought I’d refamiliarise myself with the language he speaks.  One of my favourite quotes from the book is:

    Thinking doesn’t happen in a lockstep, sequential manner, systematically progressing from one level to the next. It is much messier, complex, dynamic and interconnected than that. (p.8)

    A baby doesn’t suddenly shift from commando crawling to hands and knees crawling to standing to walking along furniture to walking freely.  Babies are usually learning to do bits of these skills at a time, simultaneously to various degrees.  Ruby likes standing with people holding her and by leaning on furniture but sometimes she forgets that she hasn’t gained complete control of this standing business and topples over when she doesn’t maintain a hold. And that’s OK, as long as someone is around to stop her hurting herself in a significant way.  Our role as teachers is to provide a safe environment, conducive for learning.

    Ruby doesn’t need to be given a mark for her crawling ability. The nurse, GP and/or paediatrician just want to know she is doing it within the parameters of the normal age. My son had trouble relative to his peers with his fine motor skills before he started school so he attended occupation therapy (OT) to be sufficiently ready for school, meaning preparing him to hold a pencil.  The best advice the OT had was to give him Lego.  For him, having mild autism, the control freak aspect of it, the linear progression of building Lego by numerated steps was bliss. He’s now 17 years old and it is still one of his favourite activities. It also helped immensely with his fine motor skills. The beauty of play, huh!

    Learning though has become a very serious business in our institutionalised system, and is a political fireball thrown around parliament and in the media. This week the NSWESA released new syllabuses (or is it syllabi?) for English, Mathematics, History and Science subjects with the hashtag #strongerHSC repeatedly employed by their main account on Twitter and their human representatives. I constantly have the impression from our dear NSW education authority that it wants the HSC to be known as the toughest, most stringent and demanding course across the country. Too bad about the stress and anxiety that high-stakes testing causes.  Too bad that an emphasis on exams and phrases like “mastering knowledge and skills” reduces the desire to learn and the enjoyment thereof.

    Additionally, as the book Making Thinking Visible claims, mere knowledge does not produce understanding. Deep understanding requires a range of thinking skills that isn’t clear from our content heavy syllabuses/syllabi. The book lists the thinking required for understanding as (p.11 and p.13):

    • Observing closely and describing what’s there
    • Building explanations and interpretations
    • Reasoning with evidence
    • Making connections
    • Considering different viewpoints and perspectives
    • Capturing the heart and forming conclusions
    • Wondering and asking questions
    • Uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things

    Of course we don’t only think to understand phenomenon, we think to solve problems, make decisions and form judgments (p.14):

    • Identifying patterns and making generalisations
    • Generating possibilities and alternatives
    • Evaluating evidence, arguments and actions
    • Formulating plans and monitoring actions
    • Identifying claims, assumptions and bias
    • Clarifying priorities, conditions and what is known

    This is what I want my students to be doing.  The trick, as the book’s title suggests, is to make thinking visible.  We need to ask what is going on in our students’ heads (p.16) and provide them with the strategies that instigates the thinking and reveals it. As teachers, we then need to listen (p.36) and document (p.37) their thinking. Not merely hand out marks for attainment of knowledge. It is difficult to understand the thinking process of babies without language but oh boy, crying, frowning, smiling and laughter are effective forms of communication.  My son has difficulties expressing what’s going on in his head but his body language can be quite clear. We just need to pay attention.

    I hope to post before Saturday some of the thinking routines promoted in the book and how I’ve used them in class and how I intend to use them in the future.

    One final note, however. As I‘ve typed this up I realised there is one key component missing from these ideas of thinking, and that is creativity. Last night I watched the first two episodes of My Year 12 Life (ABCTV) and felt for the girl lamenting about the emphasis on the subjects that scale, like those in the new syllabus release this week, instead of her favourites, which are deemed optional extras, like her Drama and Textiles. She was considering continuing with her study of Modern History just because it scales better than her other subjects. There’s something wrong with the system that makes students think like this.  She mentioned she is also studying Society and Culture so I’m looking forward to following her journey there. I’ve loved teaching Society and Culture due to the range of topics that stimulate thinking and encourage looking at alternative perspectives.

  2. TeachMeet: Solve For x

    20 October 2016 by shartley

    Phillip taking a selfie before presenting. I'm the one waving up the back.

    Phillip taking a selfie before presenting.
    I’m the one waving up the back.

    * This blog post is also found at

    I have been to several TeachMeets.  This particular TeachMeet was held at Google headquarters in Sydney which was one of the main attractions for me.  I missed out on one two years earlier and as I searched for the Twitter hashtag for this evening I found an exchange that occurred about the use of #TMGoogle – the issue being that TeachMeets are supposed to be teacher ran and teachers as presenters, no sponsorship.  However, to host a TeachMeet in a cool location such as Google HQ there is a trade-off.  Tonight I felt the trade to be rather unequal.  The hashtag was not #TMGoogle but perhaps it should have been. It seemed every second speaker represented Google and was promoting something, useful somethings, but advertisements nevertheless. An extra grating factor was that teacher presenters were held to their time limits, albeit poorly, speakers not being deterred by soft Star Wars toys being thrown at them when their time had expired, yet Google presenters had limitless time.  And trust me, the teachers were much more interesting than the Google employees.

    The stated theme of this TeachMeet was ‘Solve for x’, thereby promoting problem solving in education, that students solve whatever issue ‘x’ represented for teachers and/or students. The evening was officially launched by Kimberley Sutton through a YouTube video to explain the concept: Moonshot Thinking: Solve for x @ Tribeca Film Festival. Our first teacher presenter linked a goal to this theme nicely.

    I have known Phillip Cooke through TeachMeets and Twitter for many years.  He is a passionate secondary school educator and declared this evening that his moonshot concept is teaching for life instead of for exams, a policy I am also passionate about.  I have enjoyed seeing Phillip present on this theme in many variations before. He is always interesting because not only does he and his colleagues come up with the ideas but they actually implement them, although I’m sure he wish he could implement more.  Phillip was intricately involved in the complete rebuild of his school, a school often seen in the industry as an alternative option for the misfits in our education system and thus had a poor reputation for a long time for drugs and disruptive behaviour. However, its hands-on practical approach to education is becoming more dominant in industry discourse and it has featured on a TV show for doing things a little differently.

    Phillip’s attitude towards authentic learning is borne out by some of the initiatives he has shared:

    • Establishing an annual Creative Careers Day where the future implications of their learning come to life through the people operating in creative enterprises
    • Implementing cross-curricular activities, such as Design and Technology with English and Drama to create wearable art costumes for a production of Othello, “Students didn’t just read Othello – they lived it
    • Printing art designs of students on tea towels and selling them, simple but effective (also make great thank you presents at Teach Meets)

    If I was to give my own moonshot for teaching and learning is that I desperately want students to be thinking for themselves. As a senior school teacher, I hate how much teaching is about preparing for HSC exams, such as artificial artifice that it diminishes authentic learning.  This is why I always like what Phillip has to say.

    Dominic Hearne set the tone of his talk by quoting Gary Stager, “Schools have a sacred obligation to introduce children to things they don’t yet know they love”. In line with this philosophy, Dominic’s school has introduced a series of compulsory critical thinking courses, which I absolutely applaud. These include:

    • Future Problem Solving
    • Visions of Leadership
    • The Art of War / The Ethics of Peace
    • Epistemology (how do we think, why do we think, what influences our thinking and perception)

    My daughter is currently studying International Relations and Human Rights at university. She would have loved the opportunity to examine some of these topics at school.  Her response being:


    One of the students undertaking this course used several sources to investigate the Jewish holocaust and, as might be expected, referred to movie representations of the holocaust such as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. He also had access to his grandmother’s letters and other documents depicting her time as a Jew interned by Hitler.  The result was not just a well researched product but the rest of the class had a new insight into the atrocities.

    Nick Brierley hooked me by not only emphasising the thinking skill of problem solving but linking to the TV show Stranger Things, where the children in the show are constantly having to solve problems, not always successfully. He advocated the use of BreakoutEDU, a resource for creating engaging problem-solving games in classrooms. This is definitely a tool I will investigate further.

    Technology definitely has a role to play in developing students’ critical thinking skills. A primary school teacher, Alfina Jackson commenced with the statement that she hasn’t heard students say they need PD before they can use technology, so if they can do it, teachers can do it too.  Glib, but mostly true. I have come across many teachers who are so ingrained in teaching the same way, with the same worksheets, year after year, that they truly struggle with making more than the occasional change to their regular modus of operation.

    Alfina has her own YouTube Channel, mainly consisting of videos made by K-2 students.  These videos demonstrate learning in an authentic and meaningful way for our modern age.  Without many of us realising it, children are learning all the time through YouTube.  Actually many adults too.  I recently used YouTube to learn how to cast-off my knitting.  Alfina is therefore not only teaching students a particular topic, she is teaching digital responsibility.  Creating public videos also motivates students through the hands-on activity and real audience feedback.  All of this requires several higher-order thinking processes.

    Another initiative Alfino implemented was Year 1 completing book reviews on Google Slides. For the content, the teacher taught students to use three simple sentence word-starters:

    • I liked the part…
    • I disliked the part…
    • I would change…

    However, after a quick introduction to using Google Slides, the students worked out for themselves and taught each other the various creative features of using the slides.  After the first drafts were completed the teacher provided feedback through the comment feature which prompted students to comment on each other’s reviews, leading to a discussion of how to write positively, particularly in a public domain.

    On the other hand, I don’t believe technology should be used for simply its own sake.  Alfino showed how students learning to write could trace the letter on an iPad.  I’m not sure how this particularly improves on the pen and paper version except simply for the hook that it is on an iPad.

    The highlight of the evening was the dynamic Kathleen O’Rourke. Kathleen is learning to become a Primary School teacher at Macquarie University after a decade or so in the workforce. She is passionate about many things and her LinkedIn profile reveals she is not only an advocate for education and the marginalised but she walks the talk.  At first I thought she was also going to emphasise technology due to her tagline, “Is it OK to ask students to do something that we are not comfortable to do ourselves?” Instead, Kathleen answered that question with, “If we don’t pursue our x’s how can we expect our students to?”

    As part of being a pre-service teacher, Kathleen decided there wasn’t enough professional development on offer, beyond the regular uni courses and practicum experience so out together some events and now the concept has exploded.  As a full-time carer for her grandmother, Kathleen found it difficult to access working disabled toilets, particularly in medical institutions.  Consequently, she has an aim to develop an app that lists and user-rates them. I spoke to Kathleen at the end of the evening and found just how determined she is to put theory into action. Earlier that day she had been at a school presenting to teachers and discussing with them a university assignment. This was not part of the set work.  She has also tutored primary-aged students who are newly settled refugees on a volunteer basis.

    I was not the only one who thought Kathleen was amazing. This was the reaction on Twitter:

    screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-6-25-15-pm screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-6-25-30-pm screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-6-25-47-pm screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-6-28-48-pm

    All in all it was worthwhile attending this TeachMeet.  I learned about some new Google products and enjoyed hearing how other teachers are implementing problem solving and other critical thinking activities.  However, I’d prefer it if future TeachMeets adhered to the no sponsorship ideal, even (especially?) if it means returning to the pubs and clubs where they began.

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