Helping Students Think Better

Earlier this year I had my 10th graders read an excerpt from John Locke’s “Political Society ‘. I first  read aloud to them, stopping and explaining, had them re-read aloud with a partner and parse through the language with a few text-dependent stop-and-jots. Then, we moved to discussion as a whole class to do some critical thinking . While participation with the stop and jots was high, when I asked a more conceptual question, I didn’t see many hands moving. I gave the standard wait time, rephrased the question and got some answers filled with trepidation from students who otherwise were engaged in the lesson. I was stumped. So instead of moving forward in the lesson, I asked them to close their eyes and put their heads down for an anonymous poll. I asked: “how many of you are not answering the question because you don’t know what I’m asking?” Almost every hand went up. 

Thinking Is Hard. 

It’s easy for teachers to assume that when students read the words, they’ll just comprehend or that if we practice finding the main idea enough, they’ll be able to apply it anywhere. Reading instruction, especially in the view of secondary teachers, can mistakenly be just understood as the act of decoding but it’s significantly more involved than that. Given this discrepancy, we may skip the foundation and go right for Bloom’s pyramid: Interpret, justify, analyze, All the hallmarks of a great classroom. (And rightly so, because who wants a classroom where students only remember isolated facts?) . Language comprehension, however, is not a set of skills which can be aimlessly applied to and separated from context. 

D.T. Willingham in Why Don’t Students Like School tell us that unless the cognitive conditions are right, students will avoid thinking. Thinking. Is. Hard. Just because they’ve read the words (even if fluently and even paced), doesn’t mean they understand it, and students  cannot think about what they do not know (anyone who has tried to read Shakespeare for the first time can attest). By jumping to the analysis and interpretation stage without first laying a base of knowledge, we further privilege students that already have the understanding due to other experiences or have help at home, and we further marginalize those that depend on school. 

Robert Pondsicio said* reading comprehension is not a skill to be practiced, but a condition to be created. So how do we get those conditions right? This can be likened to a discussion of arranging furniture in a room (Pondiscio  said this. I think he got it from  ED Hirch. Not sure the origins, sue me). For instance, think of knowledge and facts and pieces of furniture in a room, except for novice and developing readers, the pieces are all out of place–  a chair might be upside down, tables are stacked on top of each other, and really the whole home  is in disarray. In order to  arrange these pieces of furniture in the “right” position, students have to first be shown how to do that. My mistake was asking them to arrange their homes without showing them what the design of the room could look like first. 

Creating Conditions to Help Students Think Better

Scarborough’s reading rope is a visualization of the many strands of skilled reading. While decoding becomes more automatic with explicit and systematic instruction, language comprehension is increasingly strategic and requires explicit teaching. Andy Tharby in “Making Every English Lesson Count” wrote that, ‘It is unlikely that [a student] will become an excellent reader or writer by magic’  and ‘the teachers job us to explain and model with clarity and precision’ (Tharby 3). So what I’ve learned this year and have consistently tried to get better at is hammering the fundamentals through different levels and types of questioning and explanations. Here’s what I’ve been up to:

  1.  Especially in the beginning of a new novel or story, We have to tell them lots of things about what we’re reading. We have to model our thinking, describe and point out what we’re noticing and what we gain by examining a certain sentence or excerpt.  We have to point out important metaphors, meanings of symbols. Just tell them these things. How many of us have said “what do you think this metaphor means?” only to be greeted by a blank stare? I have.  Ensuring that students have a solid grounding in the forefront of the novels lessens the likelihood that they will struggle later. When they have a solid base of knowledge built, it makes constructing representations of the text, and comprehending the language that much easier later on. 
  1. After you’ve told them things, ask them questions about what you’re telling them (and don’t tell them too many things at once!). A characteristic of explicit instruction, which is best for novice learners, is that back and forth questioning making it almost a dialogic classroom.  Again, Willingham again says we remember what we think about. So, actively make them remember the information you have decided is important. If you’re studying Macbeth, and comparing Banquo with Macbeth, tell them “these characters are foils for one another. Macbeth’s characteristic is “x”. How Is Banquo exhibiting a different/opposing characteristic in this scene? Find the evidence to support your answer”. They know that Banquo and Macbeth are foils. They know a characteristic of Macbeth, now they’ve found and will remember characteristics for both of the characters. Questioning is helping to solidify the concept here.  
  2. Ask them questions about what they are thinking as they are reading. This can take the form of a text dependent stop & jot, but it can also be things that come into your mind and give you pause. In one of my sections, we spent almost 20 minutes discussing “What do you think of Okonkwo”. If we go back to the furniture analogy, this step amounts to practicing arranging their metal furniture in low stakes situations. The only way to answer “What do you think about Okonkwo” incorrectly is to not answer it all. But, in order to answer these questions completely, you do have to have command of the knowledge you’ve learned so far. 

Some examples of this stage:

How do you feel about Okonkwo? What in the text makes you think that?

What is the author trying to make us think about individuals versus community?

Is Okonkwo’s punishment fair?

  1. Push them to consider the abstract concepts and themes.  Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is a brilliant novel that discusses the individual vs community, effects of colonialism,collective versus personal responsibility, and the notion of what is ostensibly  ‘good, bad, right, or wrong’ (among much much more). After having taught the first 1/2 of the novel,  the village begins to fall apart and the author uses the plot to further illuminate more ideas about these themes. I asked a number of questions, after doing the above steps, such as these:

**Why did the author choose to have these locusts play a central figure in this chapter? When is it acceptable to encourage people to change their way of life? Whose job is it to decide if they should? Does it matter who “corrects” the things people may find wrong?

At this point, and after the “ideal” cognitive conditions for thinking are created, I began to let the students do the “heavy lifting”. Not because I thought telling them things was wrong, but now they have sufficient knowledge with which to lift and think. They have sufficient pieces of furniture and had practiced arranging their mental furniture in their brains enough such that they could try new arrangements to answer the question on their own. They could finally, and successfully, debate and consider these concepts because a) they knew the novel and its characters and b) they understood historical and contemporary context. 

In this stage, the most significant probing from me tended to be “What makes you say that?”. This pushes the students to explain further, and allows other students to see how their classmates are arranging the same mental furniture that they also possess and leads to rich discussion. 

In the education system there’s an aversion to the simple act of telling students things. Choosing books for students to read is “racist” (1) , and images of empty brains paired with a quote from Paulo Freire written in cursive are the standard calling card for bad practice. This is nonsense. Students come to school to learn new things that they didn’t know before. We earn their trust and build relationships by doing what we were hired to do: teach them new stuff. Now let’s get thinking. 

I’m on twitter.

  1. There is a video/talk given by a former teacher with this title. Feel free to search it if you’re interested in the topic. I wasn’t. 
  2. Willingham is a gold mine of easily accessible and fascinating stuff. Seriously. Read any of the links I linked. 
  3. Doug Lemov’s text dependent stop & jot works wonderfully for the “we remember what we think about” piece. I wrote about that previously when teaching To Kill a Mockingbird here
  4. Andy Tharby’s “Making Every English Lesson Count” 
  5. * He has said this a lot of places, including on his twitter. Here’s one place at research ED presentation, here’s another blog he wrote.
  6. ** Per my reading of the novel and expertise in post/colonial literature and theory, these were questions that I believe the reader is being pushed to consider from the author. So, I had students consider them. 
  7. The display image is of Homer Simpson from The Simpsons. He attempted to assemble a BBQ pit with minimal skill and guidance, and it resulted in, well, you see the image. I couldn’t think of a better image for frustrating thinking 🙂

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