If We Want to Teach Children to Think . . .

The title of this week’s post was inspired by Bertrand Russell, who wrote,

When you want to teach children to think, you begin by treating them seriously when they are little, giving them responsibilities, talking to them candidly, . . . and making them readers and thinkers of significant thoughts from the beginning. That’s if you want to teach them to think.

I love Russell’s words for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is the question he seems to raise at the end: Do we really want to teach kids to think—or not?

My hunch is that most of us would say we’re committed to teaching children to think. But I sometimes wonder if this is one of those values that isn’t always aligned to our actions—like saying we value growth mindsets, which honor approximations and mistakes, while evaluating students through rubrics that score not how close a student came but whether he ‘got’ something or not.

As for thinking, I worry that to make sure students ‘get’ whatever we teach them, we often provide too much scaffolding, breaking down complex skills or tasks into bite size pieces or steps that minimize the need for thinking. Or as fourth grade teacher Jeremy Greensmith pithily put it in his interview with Zoe Ryder White for The Teacher You Want to Be,

The danger with a lot of what gets done at the moment is that there’s so much scaffolding that you end up just teaching the scaffold, and you really don’t teach the way of thinking and the way of reading and writing—you just teach [students] to deliver the tool you taught them.”

Of course, Jeremy also raises questions, such as, What do we really mean by thinking? What are the ways of reading and writing? And how do we effectively teach those? And to consider those questions, let’s take a look at a common unit taught in third grade, reading and writing biographies.

When it comes to reading biographies, many units focus on teaching students things like:

  • The difference between expository and narrative nonfiction
  • The difference between biographies and other kinds of narrative nonfiction
  • The structure of biographies (chronological)
  • How to identify the traits of a biography’s subject (like you would a character in fiction)
  • How to identify the theme, big idea or life lessons of a biography
  • How to learn about a historical period through biographies

While some of these objectives require inferring, many involve the kind of thinking found at the first level of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge: identify, recall, recognize, and match. And thinking is even more limited if we offer additional scaffolds, like providing lists of character traits,

thought prompts,

or common biography theme statements.

As for writing biographies, students are usually taught how to take notes, paraphrase, use transitional sequence words, and craft hooks, topic sentences and conclusions, none of which necessarily involves higher order thinking. But what was the deeper thinking work of biographies for readers and writers?

As an occasional biography reader myself (and author of a historical fiction novel), I recognized that a biography is the biographer’s interpretation of the significance of someone’s accomplishments and life, not just an objective recounting. So the thinking work of reading a biography was to try to figure out what the biographer wanted her readers to understand about the subject’s life, while the writing work was figuring out what story do you, as a biographer, want to tell about your subject.

This is exactly the kind of deeper vision of genre I explored earlier, and I kept it in mind as I planned for a day with third grader teachers working on biographies. For the demo lesson I looked for biographies that conveyed slightly different stories about the same subject through the author’s choice of what events to share (and leave out), what words to use to describe those events, and what message she seemed to want readers to take away. And I hit the jackpot with two biographies of George Washington Carver, one from the “Who Was” series of biographies and the other A Weed is a Flower, by the award-winning writer and illustrator Aliki.


In the classroom, I began by asking the kids what they had already learned about biographies, and it turns out they’d met many of the unit’s objectives already through their whole class study of Jane Goodall and their biography book club books. They also said they’d noticed that biographies of the same subject didn’t always contain the same events—which made them think they had to read multiple biographies of the subject they’d be writing about to be sure they knew everything about him or her. And with that I segued to my lesson.

It was possible, I said, that some biographers didn’t have the same events as others because they hadn’t researched enough, but more likely, it was because biographers choose which events and details to include based on what they want us to understand about their subject. And to help us understand that, we’d look at the opening of two different biographies of George Washington Carver and about what each writer might want us to understand about Carver.

I began with the “Who Was” book, which opens with an anecdote about a woman who “lived in the biggest house in Diamond Grove, Missouri” and was frustrated that her roses weren’t as nice as her friend Susan Carver’s were. So she asked Susan what her secret was and we learn the following:

When the class shared out what they thought the writer wanted them to understand about Carver, they said thinks like, “He was really helpful and hard-working,” “He loved plants,” and “He loved his foster mother.” And with that in mind, we moved on to the opening of A Weed Is a Flower, where the students literally gasped when I read the word slaves.

Immediately they realized that Aliki was telling quite a different story about George Washington Carver. Here he was helpful, not simply because he was thoughtful and nice, but because he was committed to helping his people—and his life had been nowhere as pleasant or easy as it seemed in the “Who Was” book. Also they were bursting with questions: Was he still a slave? Did Mrs. Carver own him? What happened to his real mother? and Why did the other author not say he was a slave?

Over the next week they would explore the different choices these authors had made and why, but at that point, I invited them to go back to their tables and think about what story they wanted to tell about their subject by first looking at the books they had read to see what each biographer had emphasized and then to consider what they, as biographers, thought was important. And that required far more thinking than filling in the blanks of a thought prompt or matching a book to a theme statement.

So if we really want to teach children to think, we have to create and give them opportunities to do so—and I’ll share more about that in another post.