Margo M. Criscuola, Ph.D.


Respecting Thinking

Encouraging work and risk  


Thinking involves work and risk. Students are more willing to think and share their thinking when they know that their thinking is respected. Every good teacher respects students as people. Respecting students' thinking requires something further.
It's easy to respect the student responses that we anticipated. It's harder to respect an "off the wall" idea. It's tempting to try to get past such ideas as quickly as possible. After all, there's a lot of material to cover and the whole class is waiting. But those unexpected, unclear and just plain odd ideas are usually the first steps in thinking of students who most need encouragement and respect.
Consider the following interchanges: Which teacher responses show more genuine respect for the student's thinking?
Student: Do cumulus clouds have more water in them than cirrus clouds?
Teacher 1: They are both made of water vapor, right? So that answers your question.
Teacher 2: Yes, you're quite right! They look much bigger than cirrus clouds.
Teacher 3: Are you asking that because they look bigger, or for some other reason?
Student: It's weird. Freedom of religion and of the press and other stuff are all crammed into one amendment.
Teacher 1: Yes, the first amendment covers all of that.
Teacher 2: Right! that's the first amendment because it is the most important.
Teacher 3: Do you think they should be in separate amendments?
Student: No one says his name until Atticus does. Everyone else calls him Boo.
Teacher 1: It's just a nickname.
Teacher 2: That is such a great point. Atticus is much less prejudiced than other people in the town.
Teacher 3: What do you think about that? Why do you think they do that?
Teacher 1's responses are all aimed at settling issues and moving on as quickly as possible. These responses side-step the students' ideas, instead of fully responding to them.
Teacher 2's responses seem positive, even enthusiastic. But are they genuine? Teacher 2 doesn't know what the students meant, and has simply substituted his own ideas for the students'. The students had no opportunity to work out their ideas; the teacher's ideas were all that mattered.
Teacher 3 tries to understand what the students are thinking. She responds honestly, not praising ideas that are still unclear, but inviting the students to give them further thought. This is real encouragement to think.
Pursuing students' ideas will take up class time, and might lead to side issues. But it might also clear up misconceptions and spark deeper interpretations. In the long run, it teaches students to value themselves as thinkers about academic subjects.
Teachers, too, are rewarded--with closer rapport with their students, seeing more of their curiosity and original thinking.  
Still, managing the class and preserving the learning agenda are real problems. 
One solution: Assign students to offer questions and new ideas as a planned element of a lesson. The teacher has more control, and less confident students are encouraged to take the risk.
Prompting Thinking suggests some ways to do this.

| 3.1.2012 | Print |