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.

If a Tree Falls in the Forest: More Thoughts on Teaching & Learning

A few months ago, I found myself in a third grade classroom, modeling a social studies lesson. The class had just finished a six-week unit on geography, and this lesson was going to launch the next unit, which focused on Nigeria. My job was to help teachers create more opportunities for kids to engage in the kind of productive, collaborative talk that’s more about thinking than answers. And to that end, I’d decided to crack open the launch lesson that came with the packaged curriculum the school was using to allow for more thinking and talk.

The packaged lesson plan asked teachers to review the geography terms the class had just learned to, in the words of the lesson plan, “make sure students understood that Africa was a continent, just like North America,” Instead, I decided to ask the class to look at the following maps of North America and Africa, then give the kids a chance to turn and talk about what they thought was similar and different about the two based on what they noticed and already knew.

And here’s what happened: After a lively turn and talk, I brought the class back together and invited students to share. The first students I called on said she’d noticed that Africa had many more continents in it than North America—and I could tell from the look on other students’ faces that some were questioning that. I invited one of those students to share, and he hesitantly said he thought those were countries, not continents. So I asked them to turn and talk once again about what they thought the difference was between a country and a continent.

The consensus was that continents were made up of countries, and with that in mind, I asked them how many countries there were in North America. The class agreed that there were three, but when I asked what they thought all the different shades of red, blue and green were on the North American map, the first student to respond said, “countries”—and no one else raised their hand. “Hmm,” I said, “so New York is a country?” Again, many students looked puzzled, until finally one said, “No, I think it’s a state.”

All of this material had been covered in the just finished unit, yet clearly a majority of the students hadn’t learned it sufficiently enough to apply what they’d learned to a different setting, which brings me to the tree in forest. Like the philosophical question about whether a tree that falls in a forest makes a sound if no one hears it, I think there’s a similar question to consider: If students haven’t learned something we’ve taught them, have we really taught it?

The great progressive educator Paulo Freire would definitely say no. According to Freire, “There is, in fact, no teaching without learning.” Yet, I fear I see it all too frequently—and I hear about it as well whenever a teacher moans about how her kids didn’t seem to learn something from their previous teacher.

I do think there are some reasons why students don’t learn that are beyond our control, such as students who chronically come to school too exhausted, hungry or anxious to learn. But I believe the expectation should be that students should learn what we teach, and learn it deeply enough not just to pass a quiz or hand in an assignment but to transfer and apply what was taught to a new situation.

This is also what the late, great Grant Wiggins believed when he wrote  that “the long-term and bottom-line goal of education is transfer of learning.” Sadly he noted, though, that transfer in literacy is poor, which he attributed to numerous indicators that suggest we, as teachers, don’t make it crystal clear that transfer is actually the goal.

Making that goal explicit for kids is certainly important, but I think there are some additional reasons why students don’t always transfer what we teach. For one, we don’t always give them enough time to practice and apply what’s been taught for it to truly sink in. Many learning experts, for instance, believe that mastering anything involves a four-step process, in which learners move from not even knowing what they don’t know to becoming aware of that. Then they use that awareness to deliberately practice until the concept or skill becomes internalized—all of which takes times. And I think we don’t give kids the time they really need because of how much we’re expected to cover.

I also think we don’t always make what we teach meaningful enough for kids to value. Take the skill of identifying main ideas, for instance, which we often reteach year after year because students still don’t seem to get it. As I write in Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading:

© Vicki Vinton. 2017. Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

And when it comes to something else we often moan about, kids not using end punctuation, do we truly help them understand its importance beyond that it’s a rule that helps readers know where each sentence ends? To make that concept meaningful for students, I like to share an unpunctuated passage of a text, like the one below (which I invite you to try reading yourself), so they can feel the confusion readers experience when there’s no punctuation to guide them:

Becoming more aware of the value of punctuation helps students attend to it more. But they still need time to deliberately practice before it becomes second nature. And for that I like to use Jeff Anderson‘s practice of having kids do what he calls an “express-lane edit.” Like express check-out aisles in supermarkets, express-lane edits asks kids to reread whatever they’ve written that day—be it a draft or a notebook entry—to quickly check for a limited number of things, like capitalization and end punctuation, until writing with those things become a habit.

For me, all this means that, barring those external reasons we simply can’t control, we’re responsible for student learning. And if students don’t learn something we’ve taught, perhaps, in addition to giving kids more time and making what we teach truly meaningful, we need to heed these words from the educator Ignacio Estrada:

What’s in a Word: Some Thoughts on Learning & Achievement


Earlier this month I had the opportunity to work with teachers at the American School in Doha, which is located in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. The school belongs to an organization called NESA (the Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools), whose mission is to “serve member schools by facilitating sustainable and systemic school improvement to maximize student learning.” And whenever I work in a NESA school I’m struck by their use of the word learning, rather than achievement, which is far more often the world of choice in Stateside schools’ mission statements.

As I’ve written about other words (such as rigor, grit and productive struggle and evidence and claim), I think there’s something worth exploring about these words. To me, learning has to do with truly understanding something deeply enough to be able to apply and transfer the concepts from one setting to another, while achievement is focused on skill-based goals that can be measured by grades or scores. And Merriam-Webster’s online thesaurus echoes this distinction, with enlightenment popping up as a synonym for learning, while words like performance, execution and success show up for achievement.

To see how this difference can play out in life—and why it’s important to think about—consider this anecdote from Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better TeacherAt some point the fast-food chain A&W attempted to compete with McDonald’s Quarter Pounder by offering a burger with a third-pound of beef. Strangely though, customers “snubbed” it, wheres-the-beefdespite the fact that it was cheaper than McDonald’s Quarter Pounder and preferred in blind taste tests. Turns out the problem was that customers believed they were getting more beef for their money at McDonald’s, because they’d reasoned that one-fourth was greater than one-third since four was larger than three.

My hunch is that in grade school many of these customers had been able to answer questions about fractions well enough not to fail math. That is, they managed to achieve a passing grade without having understood the concept of fractions. And unfortunately this doesn’t just happen in math. In Doha, for instance, I worked with teachers on ways to more deeply teach grammar and conventions, and right off the bat, the teachers acknowledged something Mary Ehrenworth and I had shared in The Power of Grammar: Students could often correctly punctuate or fix grammatical mistakes on worksheets, but they weren’t transferring that to their own writing. So before we headed into classrooms, we looked at some ways of helping students not just learn rules but the concept behind them in more meaningful ways.

When it came to punctuation, for instance, I shared something I’ve been doing for years: showing students a retyped unpunctuated chunk of text, like the one below from The Watsons Go to Birmingham. Then I ask them to read it, as I invite you to, paying attention to when you’re confused or do a double take because there’s no punctuation to guide you.

the-watsons-go-to-birminghami couldnt believe it the door opened in the middle of math class and the principal pushed this older raggedy kid in mrs cordell said boys and girls we have a new student in our class starting today his name is rufus fry now i know all of you will help make rufus feel welcome wont you someone giggled good rufus say hello to your new classmates please he didnt smile or wave or anything he just looked down and said real quiet hi a couple of girls thought he was cute because they said hi rufus why dont you sit next to kenny and he can help you catch up with what were doings mrs cordel said

This activity brings home to students the concept that punctuation isn’t just about rules; it serves a vital purpose, helping readers navigate uncharted seas of words that otherwise might not make sense. And that, in turn, invites students to consider what might happen to their readers if they failed to include these signposts.

Similarly, to more deeply learn—and understand—the role of verb tense in writing, I shared the following two versions of a nonfiction text, one in the present tense and the other in the past, and asked the teachers to consider if and how the tense affected them as readers:



As you may have felt, the present tense seems more immediate and suspenseful—or, as kids often say it makes you feel like you’re there. The past, on the other hand, can feel more authoritative but also more distant. With students, once students have noticed and felt this, you can then give them a choice: Which effect do they want their readers to experience, the suspense of the present or the authority of the past? And once they’ve decided, their job as writers is to make sure the tense is consistent.

alfie-kohnLike the inquiry work I shared earlier, these kinds of lessons help students not just know the rules, but more deeply understand their purpose in ways that support the transfer of learning. Of course, letting students wrestle with concepts takes longer than explicitly teaching rules through direct instruction, which might not make it seem like the most expedient path to achievement. But as Alfie Kohn wrote in a blog post, there are costs to focusing on achievement over learning, beyond forgetting what was learned. According to Kohn, when we overemphasize achievement, five things tend to happen: “Students

  • come to regard learning as a chore;
  • try to avoid challenging tasks;
  • tend to think less deeply;
  • may fall apart when they fail; and
  • value ability more that effort.”

It’s worth noting that Kohn wrote this post before the concept of growth mindsets took hold. But a survey taken just last year by The Princeton Review shows that high achievement-vs-learningschool students care far more about achieving good grades than they do about learning. This is truly unfortunate because the thing about learning and achievement is this: If we focus on deeper learning, achievement tends to happen as a natural by-product. So why would we choose the word achievement when learning supports application and retention and increases the likelihood of achievement?

My hunch is that it has to do with our fear and obsession about competing globally, in a way that’s also tied to our culture of testing. Most American overseas schools, however, have adopted the Common Core Standards but not the standardized test apparatus that comes it here, which helps them to focus on the higher goal of learning. But I think it would do us good to remember these words of Marilyn French (as quoted by Kohn) and consider which word we want to embrace:

Only extraordinary education is concerned with learning; most is concerned with achieving: and for young minds, these two are very nearly opposite.