Thinking about Thinking: The Power of Noticing

According to Einstein, “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.” I completely agree that learning to think should be one of the essential goals of education, but as I wrote in an earlier post, many of the tasks we set for kids and the scaffolds we teach them to use don’t really seem aimed at fostering thinking as much as completing those tasks. In that post, I offered an example of what a lesson focused on actual thinking might look like. And here, I’d like to take a deeper look at what we really mean by thinking and how we actually do it.

One of the most common definitions you’ll find online is that “Thinking is a purposeful organized cognitive process that we use to make sense of our world.” That isn’t bad as definitions go, but it doesn’t offer any clues about how to think or what that process entails. Nor do any of the taxonomies and matrixes we’re often asked to use to ensure rigor. They all focus on the what, not the how in good part, I imagine, because of the fact that not even cognitive neuroscientists fully understand how we think.

So for how to think, I turn to writers, who not only engage in making sense of the world but can express how they do that in ways that, to me, feel more accessible, practical and authentic than the words of reference books or science. And one of the things I’ve noticed about writers is how much value they place on the act of noticing.

Here, for instance, is what Norman Maclean has to say about thinking, which Dorothy Barnhouse and I quoted in What Readers Really Do:

This is what The Fault in Our Stars author John Green thinks about people who notice things:

And here is Mary Oliver’s simple instructions, not just for thinking, but for living life fully:

As I’ve considered the implications of words like these on my own work in schools, I’ve come to think that the essence of thinking is noticing something then making something of what you’ve noticed, which seems implied in each of these quotes. And when it comes to reading, that process can look like this:

When doing read alouds with students,  I usually start out with a text-based Know/Wonder chart, which is a thinking routine that abbreviates the chart above. Unlike K-W-L charts, which ask students to think about what they already know and wonder about a book or topic before they read, then what they learned after they read, a text-based Know/Wonder chart invites students to pay attention to what they know or have figured out about a text as they read and what they’re wondering about. And to get a feel for what that thinking can look and sound like, here’s what happened in a fifth grade classroom that had just embarked on Katherine Applegate‘s wonderful novel in verse Home of the Brave, about a young African refugee named Kek who struggles to make a new home in Minnesota after a civil war erupted in his homeland, as a read aloud.

The class had already experienced how using this thinking routine could empower them as readers and thinkers. And here, without reading the book’s back cover or hearing a summary, they already had figured out much. In the first poem, for instance, they’d figured out that “the flying boat” Kek talks about was, in fact, an airplane, and that he must have come from a place quite different from Minnesota because he’d never seen snow before, nor seen, let alone tried to put on gloves. And they had a ton of questions: Why was Kek there? Where was his family? Where they already there? Would they be coming soon? Or had something happened to them?

Having noticed what was noticeable in that poem and then ‘made’ something of that (i.e., questions), they then noticed something in the next poem below they might otherwise not have noticed, a verb:

Their teacher Karen Bassano had paused here and invited the class to turn and talk about whether they’d figured out anything else or had answered any of their questions, and they zoomed right to the lines “He isn’t tall/like my father was,” where the past tense made them worry that Kek’s father had died.

Similarly, they made much of a punctuation mark they noticed in the third poem, in which Kek responds to a question Dave has asked him about the flying boat:

What they noticed was the dash, which they interpreted in two slightly different ways. One camp thought that Dave had stopped talking because he didn’t want to suggest Kek’s mother might be dead, while the other thought Kek had interrupted Dave because he didn’t want to hear what Dave might say. And those interpretations led them to wonder whether Kek was in a state of denial or if his parents might return in the spring, just as Dave had said the trees that looked dead in winter would do.

To be clear, all this thinking—and close reading, which was what I would say the students were doing—occurred without any teacher modeling, prompting or directing beyond Karen asking them to turn and talk about what they knew or had figured out and what they were wondering about. They had, of course, experienced this before—and had found the whole process meaningful enough that many decided on their own to use it for their independent reading books.

To be sure, there were other things Karen had done, especially in terms of creating an environment that valued thinking more than answers, that I’ll explore in another post. But for now, I’ll end with some final words about the power of noticing from the writer, musician and artist Brian Eno, which, I think, have implications for both students and teachers.

To learn more about this way of teaching, take a look at my new book Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Readingwhich contains more examples of students reading closely and deeply, plus lots of guidance and tips for implementing it in your classroom.

4 thoughts on “Thinking about Thinking: The Power of Noticing

  1. Hi, Vicki, I am so energized by this entry! I have been working with students on this thinking and some are reading this book. It is clear how important the above quotes matter across the curriculum, not just in reading and writing. As teachers, we need to do the same . . . there is so much to see when we use a problem-based approach to learning. And Katherine Applegate’s books offer so many opportunities for students and teachers to mine the simplicity (!) of her words, married with the depth of her thinking. AND Mary Oliver is such a powerful inspiration for this work. Her words stay with me all day long. Thank you for reminding us what really matters in teaching, learning and living.

  2. Oh, Vicki!
    This is so crystal clear that the students are doing the work, the thinking work, yes and the “close reading” work. I’m so worried about students who are on “text dependent question” diets, “test prep curricula” and “daily close reading” because I am not seeing any evidence that the REAL work carries over to any “un-prompted”, independent, life-long reading/writing habits.

    This . . .”To be clear, all this thinking—and close reading, which was what I would say the students were doing—occurred without any teacher modeling, prompting or directing beyond Karen asking them to turn and talk about what they knew or had figured out and what they were wondering about.” is what teachers must be on about.

    And of course that should mean that they, the students, are not all thinking the exact same thing but are constantly adding to and subtracting from the meaning that they have constructed. What a wonderful and so “telling” demonstration of Mary Oliver’s quote.


  3. Thanks for writing this, Vicki! And thanks for the quotes as a way to think through how thinking might happen. I love the story about the early poems from HOME OF THE BRAVE, especially the noticing of a single verb, which, if it were framed as a “text dependent question” would suck the air from the room faster than that first breath of cold, Minnesota air took the breath from Kek’s lungs. No one would care about a single stupid word, unless…it means something. And it’s hard to MAKE something mean something to another person, unless they have the desire to understand, in which case they’ll move heaven and earth (as well as the weight of a single word) to find out.

    On a side note, we’re using Notice/Wonder in science class, too, as we head outside to look closely at the small creek behind our school. That thinking routine is central to a nonlinear scientific process (NOT linear “method”) and we use it often. Science is built on questions, and questions are built on noticing stuff.

    And finally, I decided to start the year with Mary Oliver’s quote on a poster that I made. One aspect of our work, as we meander through our day together, has be to unpack what the words might mean: Is THIS what it means to notice something? How did we do that? What DOES it mean to be astonished? What happens inside? Where does astonishment come from? Lead toward? Who DO we tell about it? And why?

  4. Hello Vicki,
    As usual, I love this post. So much to think about here (pun not really intended- but I did “notice” it!). I loved all the quotes as they eased my entry into your thoughts. That Mary Oliver one is especially powerful. I used to lament that “kids these days just don’t know how to think!” Now I realize, of course, that “I” was the problem: I wasn’t providing a space or opportunities for them to do that. I think I was also not so subtly sending the message that their thinking wasn’t valued. I’m working hard to change all of that now, and am trying to learn to shut my mouth and let them open theirs more, and then to sit back and wonder at all they have to say.. I’m also going to print that quote of Mary Oliver’s and hang it where both I and my students can see it every single day.
    Thanks again for your wisdom. You know how much it sustains my teaching life.

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