Creating Opportunities for Students to Think

The other week I shared some of the wonderful thoughts and ideas of Aeriale Johnson‘s often-labeled-as-struggling second-graders as part of a case I hoped to make for not underestimating children’s intellect and for focusing less on teaching academic skills and more on nurturing students’ intellectual lives. But I’m aware that post may have raised the question of how, exactly, do we nurture and support our students’ intellectual lives?

The British writer and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell had this to say about  about that very question. I love his ideas, but he doesn’t really delve into the instructional role that teachers can play—that is, how can we help students become “readers and thinkers of significant thoughts right from the beginning”?

My hunch is that many of you have discovered ways of doing just that. But for me, it almost always involves making a shift from teaching a lesson with an explicit teaching point and teacher modeling to creating some sort of opportunity for kids to start thinking right from the get-go.

In Dynamic Teaching for Deeper ReadingI decided not to use the word lesson when talking about instruction, but instead focused chapters around specific kinds of opportunities teachers could create for kids to think, such as:

  • CREATING OPPORTUNITIES FOR READERS TO FIGURE OUT THE BASICS
  • CREATING OPPORTUNITIES FOR READERS TO INTERPRET
  • CREATING OPPORTUNITIES FOR READERS TO CONSIDER IDEAS AND OPINIONS IN NONFICTION
  • CREATING OPPORTUNITIES FOR READERS TO SOLVE PROBLEMS IN THEIR INDEPENDENT READING BOOKS

Many of these opportunities involve kids using a Know/Wonder chart, which Dorothy Barnhouse and I first shared in What Readers Really DoNot to be confused with a KWL (What I Know/What I Want to Know/What I Learned) chart, which asks students to access what’s already in their heads about a topic, consider what they’d like to know about that topic, then share what they learned about it from a text, a Know/Wonder chart invites kids to think about what they know or have figured out in a text and what they wonder about what that (which could be something that confused them or that made them curious).

You can see examples of kids’ thinking using Know/Wonder charts in Interpreting Interpretation: A Look at an Overlooked Word and When Is a Scaffold Not a Scaffold? But there are other kinds of opportunities I try to create for kids to think. I often invite them to compare and contrast in ways that support discovery and thinking, whether it’s looking at two different biographies of the same person to realize that biographers aren’t just sharing facts, they’re interpreting the life of their subject, or comparing different books by the same author to discover patterns, recurring themes and an author’s obsessions. And recently (with thanks & hopefully forgiveness from Georgia for the Poem A I drafted), I shared this chart with a class of third graders during their poetry unit to get them thinking about how they might revise their poems—and amazingly, without me saying a word, they started talking about nouns and verbs!

What I think is important about all these examples is that in each case I could have delivered an explicit teaching point and modeled my own thinking through a think aloud before releasing responsibility to the students. But instead I did what Eleanor Duckworth writes about in both her book The Having of Wonderful Ideas and her essay in The New Educator, “Helping Students Get to Where Ideas Can Find Them“: I “put the learners in direct contact with the subject matter”(which can be a text, a math problem, a primary source document, etc.), without the need for me, as the teacher, to be an intermediary.

When we do this, Duckworth says, we help “students get their minds, their awareness, and their feelings so active and thoughtful and informed that they are in a place where connections, understandings and new ideas can find them.” On the other hand, she writes, “Contributing our own ideas and thoughts about subject matter almost always short-circuits the students’ thoughts and decreases their interest.” So if we truly want students to think and are serious about nurturing their intellectual lives, perhaps we need to create opportunities that allows students to explore—and even struggle with—subject matter before we step in and teach.

P.S. Thursday was the day that, for better or worse, I really started feeling the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. I’m not sick, thank heaven, but between empty subway cars and bare shelves at supermarkets and drugstores, it’s clear that I have to change how I live, especially when it comes to public transportation and socializing. I’m imagining that many of you are wrestling with the impact of all this as well—along with the work and financial implications if you or your children’s schools are being closed. And that made me wonder if this is really what I should be writing about now, as the world goes strangely silent. But then I caught this Facebook post from Elllin Keene:

Thank you, Ellin for reminding me how lucky we are to spend time with children and what a privilege it is, even now, to spend our days thinking about how to engage and empower them.

3 thoughts on “Creating Opportunities for Students to Think

  1. Even now, with our schools changed so drastically by the coronavirus, “…how lucky we are to spend time with children [even if it’s in virtual spaces] and what a privilege it is, even now, to spend our days thinking about how to engage and empower them [taken to whole new levels by distance learning].”

    • Yesterday I read Julieanne’s SOL post about getting her kids ready for life without school, a.k.a. distance learning. Her post and your comment makes me realize that it may be as emotionally hard for teachers as it is for students. Have to imagine, though, that like Julieanne, you’ve figured out some ways to connect with kids and for them to connect with you. May those connections feed you and fuel you in these strange, disturbing times.

  2. As I am faced with a 4 week school hiatus, I am thinking about using my student blog site to inspire my students to think, read, and write every day. I hope they will. It’s important.

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