Margo M. Criscuola, Ph.D.
Setting an agenda to start up students' thinking
A first step in managing thinking in class is to plan to prompt it when it will be most helpful.
When students are dealing with new material, their questions show their attempts to monitor and build their understanding. Many teachers have the valuable habit of asking, at points during a lesson, "Does anyone have a question?" Repeating this with wait time is a good way to prompt thinking.
Assigning students to ask questions makes it easier for students to ask questions and for teachers to deal with them respectfully. Everyone knows a certain amount of class time will be spent on students' questions.
The assignment can be: "As you read, note whatever surprises or confuses you."
All students can succeed by pointing out something they don't understand. They will see that they are not stupid if they find new topics hard to grasp; they just need to take one step toward understanding, and their teacher is ready to help. Moreover, class time will be focused on the content that students find difficult, rather than on aspects they already understand.
When questions are assigned, dedicate time for dealing with them respectfully. Guide students to clarify their questions. Collect the questions on the board, so the class sees where the problems were. Then ask the class to develop answers to the questions one by one, supporting answers from the text or prior knowledge.
The teacher's questions can also set a powerful agenda for thinking. To accomplish their purpose, they should be authentic questions that will guide inquiry, not questions to check students' understanding or lead them to foregone conclusions. A good test is whether the teacher feel curiosity about answering the question herself, as well as about how students will answer it.
Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, in Understanding by Design, show how "essential questions" can set the agenda for a unit of student and for single lessons. These questions should be designed to lay the foundation for deep, integrated understanding of an issue, rather than a collection of facts with few logical connections. They correspond to the higher levels of questions described in Benjamin Bloom et al., Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Cognitive Objectives as well as to Common Core Reading Standards, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas.
Consider the thinking students must do to answer the following questions:
The first requires students to find the reasons for founding and the characteristics of the colonies and list them. The second asks students to make judgments about those characteristics--were they strengths or weaknesses?What were the reasons for the founding of each of the American colonies? Describe each colony.What were the strengths and weaknesses of colonies founded for religious reasons and colonies founded for commercial reasons?Were colonies founded for religious reasons more successful than those founded for commercial reasons? Why or why not?
The third question requires the factual knowledge and judgments of the first two, but also asks students to brting them together into a "big picture," a theory explaining how the colonies developed. This question the teacher and even experts in the field can be curious about. Yet it is easy for students to start to answer it with a "hunch," a yes or no impression they can later elaborate and support.
Teachers sometimes try to approach large questions like these gradually, starting with a question such as, "How was the Plymouth colony founded? How did it overcome its initial challenges?" However, questions like this can mislead students into thinking that learning the basic facts is their full mission. When faced later with a larger question, students must rearrange their knowledge and even discard some of it as irrelevant, demands they may resist. Letting them understand the full task from teh beginning actually makes it easier.
Confident student questions and insightful teacher questions will start students thinking. Helping them resolve their questions and develop strong, well-supported answers to their teachers' questions requires strong thinking instruction. Guiding Thinking explores some basic strategies.