“I didn’t know they could think!” an excited high school principal blurted out. The principal was reacting to what he had just witnessed: his 9th grade students engaging in their first-ever Socratic Seminar, facilitated by my colleague and wife Denise a few years ago in a Louisiana district. It was a poignant moment (even though the students might have taken offense), since their chatter and body language made clear that they, too, were pleased with what they had done.
While it is easy to have a laugh or wince at the Principal’s remarks, I think we all too easily forget how often we have all said such things. “Would you please think about this!?” “Boy, you people are not thinking at all!” and “Hello! What are you thinking?” are just a few phrases that signal our own doubts about student thought.
We sometimes go further and speak cynically (if elliptically): “You know, he just doesn’t have much going on upstairs,” we say to a colleague who knowingly nods. Or we complain about the number of students we have who are “just not cut out” for demanding work. My thesis title, Thoughtfulness as an Educational Aim, came in a flash when a colleague of mine in a summer program for talented kids none the less said of his students, “They’re bright, but they’re so damn thoughtless!”
I was reminded of all this while in a 5th-grade ELA class recently. An exercise required the kids to describe the character based on the actions in the story. Yet, a group of boys – it often seems to be the boys! – simply could not do it. They kept pointing back to a fact in the text or something the character did rather than a descriptive phrase about the character.
In pondering the scene, I became increasingly sobered by just how challenging the exercise really is. On the basis of some physical actions and words used, infer the character of a character. How does one make such an inference? How does one get a child to understand what is wanted cognitively?
Kylene Beers, in When Kids Can’t Read What Teachers Can Do, describes this teacher puzzlement (and initial frustration) perfectly:

We talk about inferences. We make inferences all the time. We tell kids to make inferences. When pushed, we can even define inferences… [Yet] the problem with comprehension, it appeared was that kids could not make inferences…

So, she complains to her principal:

On this particular day, I stood leaning against her office door, complaining that the kids she had given me that year could not make an inference. She quickly replied, “Well, teach them.”

“Teach them what?”

“Inferencing. Teach them how to make an inference.”

“You can’t teach someone how to make an inference. It’s inferential. It’s just something you can or can’t do,” I said, beginning to mumble.

“Tell me that you don’t believe that,” she said.

“Well it’s just really, really, hard,” I said, now definitely mumbling….

It took me years to get a handle on that one. [P. 61-62]

The remainder of the chapter is filled with practical techniques on how to teach inferencing; here’s a brief section:

Instead of telling students something vague like “make an inference” we can give students specific types of inferences to make by using comments like those [below]:

  • Look for pronouns and figure out what to connect them to.
  • Figure out explanations for these events
  • Think about the setting and see what details you can add.
  • Think about something that you know about this (topic) and see how that fits with what’s in the text.
  • After you read this section, see if you can explain why the character acted that way….
  • As you read this section, look for clues that would tell you how the author might feel about (topic or character).

The 5th grade teacher I watched gave a very helpful prompt related to the last bullet when challenged by her boys’ inability to describe the characters: “I want descriptive adjectives, like ‘happy’ or ‘tough’ based on these details, not the details. Not ‘what they do’ but ‘what they are like’.” Slowly but surely, adjectives emerged.
As someone who taught philosophy electives in a very fine high school, I resonated with the Beers story. I was constantly puzzled by students who seemed, well, thoughtless. They would not connect an ethics reading to their own lives; they could not follow the argument the author was making; they had great difficulty seeing that two authors were addressing the same issue from different points of view. Like young Beers, I had naively assumed that if the students engaged with the text that they would make the inferences needed to grapple with the ideas in the text.
In fact, this might be said to be the archetypal error of all secondary level and college level teachers. They often wrongly assume their students know how to think about what they are learning. I once was told by a HS English teacher when I wondered what they might do in their department to improve reading performance (which was weak), that “We teach English, not reading, in high school.” Righhht.
But I had unthinkingly made the same mistake as a young teacher. I assumed that as bright and bushy-tailed 11th-graders that they all knew how to read for meaning. That assumption was shattered one day when a boy sought my help after class to say that he was having great difficulty keeping up with the reading and did I have any advice? Well, I said, what is making you fall behind? How do you use the time? Well, he said, I just can’t memorize that many pages.
In the next class, I asked everyone to write me a half page on just how they approached each night’s reading, step by step. Yikes. Only a handful really read the text deliberately, with self-conscious goals and techniques. Few took useful notes. Many aimlessly yellow-highlighted ad absurdum. Most just scanned and re-scanned the words, hoping for divine enlightenment. But then, I had done the same thing, through two years of college. And, as Harvey and Goudvis put it, I then realized that I had assigned reading but not really modeled how to do it. That was when I dug out my old copy of How To Read a Book and began teaching them the skills they needed. And that was when I began to use what have come to be called Essential Questions.
What does it mean to read? What does it mean to think? What does it mean to solve problems? What should you be doing in your head when you translate the Spanish? In sum, what is meant to be going on inside that black box called the mind and what is actually going on in their minds? These are our Essential Questions as teachers. It is the continual addressing of these questions that moves us from the ranks of the naïve and ok teachers to skilled professionals. We move from being “teachers” to coaches of learning.
That is why John Hattie titled his important work Visible Learning because the best academic achievement results from explicit and practical clarity about learning goals and means of achieving them. That is also why the literature on student misconception is so important for all teachers to study, since it reveals that mere teaching, no matter how precise, is insufficient to overcome widespread naïve and erroneous thinking about key ideas.
So, as school winds down (or has just ended), you might do some thinking. You might consider a summer research project to think through how you are going to better find out next year what actually goes on in students’ heads when they try to learn vs. what you want them to be doing in their heads as they try to learn. You will no doubt find that it gets you, too, really thinking.
Postscript: news of a new test in the works to distinguish rational thinking ability (lack of rigidity, bias, etc.) from mere smarts and factual knowledge: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/inside-school-research/2013/05/storify_test_to_fill_in_iq_gap.html



23 Responses

  1. Grant, another Great entry. I’ve enjoyed Beers’ book, and Tovani’s I read it but still don’t get it is another good resource (particularly for the non-ELA folks trying to integrate literacy into their classrooms)

  2. What a fascinating post; thank you. I teach 12th grade English-the last chance in HS to get our hands on them. It always amazes me when teachers lament out loud “these kids don’t think!” I have to agree that they are sometimes deliberately not thinking. So it seems to me that I have to force them to think. The nicer way to say that is that I need to put them into situations where thought is both required and able to be demonstrated through writing or discourse. When they don’t they are “punished” with bad grades. But the problems with this approach are obvious–where’s the intrinsic motivation? They are thinking to get a good grade only? Maybe, but isn’t it a start? The truth is I do attempt to motivate them with relevant thought questions, essential and otherwise, instead of grading everything. I suppose by this comment’s end I haven’t asked a question or left a specific remark but I certainly thought. Any insight on this conundrum would be great. I appreciate your work.

  3. I found the quote “We teach English, not reading, in high school” telling. English teachers are expected by the rest of academia to teach reading and writing, but most have redefined their mission as teaching “literature”, defined by whatever literary theory was fashionable when they were college students. Perhaps we need to eliminate English classes from high schools and replace them with reading, writing, rhetoric, and logic.

  4. I suspect brain development is probably why most 10 year old boys can’t describe a character’s motivations, but most 10 year old girls can. Exercises designed to teach them how may not do much until their brain gets the right wiring. Like my son, who couldn’t read at 6 but suddenly read well at 9.

    • Well, I confess that the idea occurred to me, too, as I listened to them, but when the prompting of ‘come up with an adjective’ worked I began to wonder – as I often do – about what exactly is ‘developmental’ and what is just inadequate instruction? Because obviously little boys can and do make generalizations about other kids’ characters all the time orally. And I confess that I often hear the ‘developmental’ issue thrown out as more of a discussion stopper than the start of thoughtful inquiry – and that’s really part of the point of my post: to get everything thinking instead of just reacting.

      • I disagree with the developmental idea. I think it is :
        1) a relevance issue ( Why should I be worrying about this? What do they want? Is this important? How should I do this?) I agree that quite often think we have successfully communicated what we want from our students but have not (or that we think we have taught that already and have not.)
        2) a communication issue from the perspective that when studying young girls and boys role playing in general, girls’ play is more relationship based (How are you feeling? I didn’t like that. What do you want to do?) while boys’ play is more action centred (We need to build a fort to repel the attackers. I am a pirate and I am sailing a ship.) This is fostered by parental/adult ideas of appropriate play for children prior to school. So a student who has spent more time in relationship play will be more able to describe and understand “what they are like.”
        As to reading, it is a decoding skill that comes with time for any student, some not until they are in high school. Just like teaching map reading skills are a waste of time until some students are older. It clicks when it clicks. Grades are artificial guidelines for grouping students together and are not (should not be!)relevant to student development.

        • I agree with points 1 and 2 especially. It seems clear to me that girls just draw upon a greater repertoire of experience and judgment about character – in a sense, therefore, asking the boys of limited experience to do so with a text is thus a much more abstract and difficult exercise than it is for the girls who have this bent/experience. Piaget, late in life, modified his own theory to make this very point: one could be highly advanced in thinking in domains of expertise while quite concrete operational in others where our experience is limited.The example he used was telling: plumbers, working at their craft, display very sophisticated abstract thought in their work but not in response to typical tests of intelligence or scholastic aptitude. (I can’t recall the paper, but I used in my thesis 235 years ago! I’ll try yo track it down.)

  5. This is such a ‘thoughtful’ topic to consider for summer learning. Explicitly teaching our students to think is both one of the most important and challenging responsibilities we have as educators. This post honors the high level of planning, understanding of content (HOW students think, read, learn) and best practice strategies we need to have in our toolbox in order to provide all students equitable access to curriculum. Thank you!

  6. We had Roland Case, from the Critical Thinking Consortium, come into our school and talk about critical thinking (of which, being able to make inferences is one example) and talk to us about some ways we can explicitly teach critical thinking skills. I watched John Sweller talk to Derek Muller about this issue, and he makes the claim that you can’t teach thinking skills (see http://davidwees.com/content/can-you-teach-thinking). How do you respond to people who are looking for evidence that this approach works?

    • The evidence is very strong on this – I have no idea what the evidence is for saying there is no effect. Look at Hattie’s list: the following all have significant effect sizes: Questioning .46, concept mapping .57, problem solving teaching .61, self-questioning.64, Meta-cognitive strategies .67. Effect of higher-order questioning as found in Redfield and Rousseau .74… Here is a study: http://www.criticalthinking.org/resources/SScanlan.pdf. Here is another:http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/effect-of-a-model-for-critical-thinking-on-student-achievement/596. Finally, here is a helpful literature review from a Pearson researcher: http://www.pearsonassessments.com/hai/images/tmrs/CriticalThinkingReviewFINAL.pdf
      As much as I respect Daniel Willingham’s work, I think his argument doesn’t hold up in his 2007 American Educator article. (That is likely the source of the claim you cite). No one that I know, however, says (as Willingham does) that critical thinking is a single context-less skill, yet that is the straw man he sets up in which he claims that the answer to the question Can you teach critical thinking? is Not Really. But that answer requires you to accept his assumptions as to what CT is, which I do not. Critical thinking is a set of learnable dispositions and technical skills; it is a cluster of abilities that can be improved, much like learning better game-sense in soccer. And he is awfully quick to dismiss the good work of DeBono, Feuerstein, and Lipman who have shown great results over the years.
      In short, the claim that it can’t be taught is suspect, as I see it.

      • Thank you, Grant. I happen to absolutely agree with you, but it is certainly useful to have resources to share with people who make the claim that you cannot teach thinking skills, so thank you for that.

  7. A few years ago I was buying some bicycle parts and struck up a conversation with Alex Blosser of the Oregon wine family. He mentioned that he had worked here and there, and was currently studying philosophy (my first major at Foothill College). He said, “I discovered that people don’t know how to think!”
    So, yes! Replace algebra with philosophy-PERHAPS A GOOD IDEA! Ray

    • Wine, bikes, philosophy – what is not to like? Seriously, having taught philosophy to adolescents i can say, unequivocally, that it would make for a much better HS experience. The kids ate it up.

  8. My husband and I often speak a different language. I usually leave out details, work backwards, and think from whole to part. My husband, is very detailed in few words, works from point A to point B, and works part to whole. We can try to communicate the same thing and say it differently. When I read this piece, I thought those boys are not responding to the teacher’s communication style. Perhaps we all need to understand how we think before we can help kids think.

  9. Reblogged this on Learning Curve and commented:
    Great entry on putting students in situations where they can show us what they know. I’ve been a firm believer in Socratic discussion for years, and this entry gives great background on why and how Socratic Seminars work.

  10. This is such an interesting post, and very timely for what we have been discussing in one of my education classes! I have seen already in my student teaching how easy it is to lament that our kids don’t know how to read, problem solve, be creative, etc., but have they been taught? Most won’t learn (at least not well) without explicit instruction. Do you have any recommendations for a book for new teachers to read on this subject?

    • The Beers book that I cite is a good one. May I also humbly recommend our new book on Essential Questions, too? In a similar vein: Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions. Finally, though it is primarily written about college teaching, Open to Question by Bateman is excellent. Check out the longstanding body of work by Richard Paul at the institute for critical thinking.

  11. I too found the quote “We teach English, not reading, in high school” very telling. Unfortunately, I have found this to be true all too often. A lot of English teachers are too busy with symbols and allusion and whatever else to deal with the basics of reading. When I have asked, they almost always respond that the students should have already learned the basics of reading in middle school. Go ask the middle school teachers and they pass the buck too…
    I have made all the same mistakes throughout my teaching career. Now I model anything and everything. I talk through how I read a page, model my note-making (not note-taking), talk the students through how and why I revise my poems and much more. I think the transparency shows the students that teaching and learning and inseparable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *