Thursday, April 25, 2013

The teaching of thinking

Posted by Tara Della Rocca

Nickerson, R. S., Perkins, D. N., & Smith, E. E. (1985). The teaching of thinking. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

This book is fairly dated because it discusses programs that were implemented in classrooms during the 80s to promote thinking skills for students K-12 and many of these programs are no longer used. Still, the major theme of the book is that teaching of thinking can and should happen in classrooms. The authors, without providing perfect answers (because ones do not exist), discuss possibilities for teaching thinking and discuss the different forms this can take. For example, some programs focus on thinking skills specifically, and others incorporate the teaching of thinking into learning about other content.

Here are some pieces that struck me from the book as I skimmed through in search of relevant research for teaching thinking today.

"It is reasonable, in our view, to think of thinking as a form of skilled behavior...Doing so invites the drawing of parallels with other complex skills, and speculation regarding how much of what we know about the acquisition of motor skills is transferable to the cognitive domain. One parallel involves the distinction between general physical conditioning and fine-grained control of specific motor skills on the one hand and the distinction between habitual thoughtfulness and the application of specific cognitive skills that are appropriate to specific task situations on the other."

The authors compare thinking to physical activities. By learning how to expend energy appropriately on a given task, we hone the task.
"If thinking skills are really learned behavior patterns, we might expect an analogous effect of training, namely an enlarging of one's repertoire of precoded intellectual performance patterns that function relatively automatically in appropriate contexts. We do not mean to suggest that there is nothing more to the development of thinking skills than this, but that this may be one aspect of it."

This is a list of thinking skills that one thinking program (The Philosophy for Children by The Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children) attempt to teach. I think it's a useful collection of thinking moves students use to build understanding, solve problems and make decisions - so I hope to use this vocabulary more frequently in my classroom to NAME what my students (and I) are doing in our heads.

Analyzing value statements
Constructing hypotheses
Defining terms
Developing concepts
Discovering alternatives
Drawing inferences
Finding underlying assumptions
Formulating causal explanations
Formulating questions
Giving reasons
Grasping part-whole and whole-part connections
Identifying and using criteria
Knowing how to deal with ambiguities
Knowing how to treat vagueness
Looking out for informal fallacies
Making connections
Making distinctions
Providing instances and illustrations
Recognizing contextual aspects of truth and falsity
Recognizing differences of perspective
Recognizing interdependence of means and ends
Standardizing ordinary language sentences
Taking all considerations into account
Using ordinal or relational logic
Working with analogies
Working with consistency and contradiction

This is a useful list of general thinking strategies I'd like to promote in the classroom. Not only do I want to make my students capable of using these skills, but more inclined to do so and aware of their usage of them.

Final word:

"It is difficult to imagine a more important educational objective than the teaching and learning of how to think more effectively than we typically do. Indeed, if we cannot learn to think more rationally and effectively, we are, as a species, in serious trouble."

"We believe the teaching of thinking should involve all four types of educational objectives: abilities that underlie thinking, methods that aid thinking, knowledge about thinking, and attitudes that are conducive to thinking."
Abilities: include classification, analysis, hypothesis formation, etc.
Method: include problem solving heuristics and self management strategies
Knowledge about thinking: metacognition and knowledge of one's own idiosyncratic strengths and weaknesses
Attitudes: sense of curiosity and wonder, the thrill of discovery, and the excitement and deep satisfaction that come from productive intellectual activity

After discussing various programs used to 'teach thinking' in classrooms, the authors discuss the difficulty of evaluation of these programs. This is a common theme I've seen elsewhere. Teaching thinking involves more than just giving instruction on skills so students are ABLE to think - it means developing their knowledge about thinking and attitudes toward thinking. Evaluation of students' thinking is therefore complex.

1 comment:

Paul North said...

Thanks for sharing, Tara. I like the paradigm for teaching thinking: abilities, methods, knowledge, attitudes. I agree that we should focus our efforts not just on teaching thinking but on developing students' positive attitudes towards thinking (and intelligence). Here's to building growth-mindset classrooms!

Have you connected with the National Center for Teaching Thinking ( They could be a helpful resource as you continue your study of teaching thinking.

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