As an elementary teacher, I can’t help but notice that children today want quick answers and do not take the time to think things through. This is probably the result of living in today’s age of technological instant gratification. It is becoming increasingly challenging for teachers to successfully grab and hold students’ attention long enough for them to process the information they receive using critical thinking skills.
Ironically, even our testing methods detract from proper thinking and analysis. We set time limits on tests, and we ask only multiple choice questions, which leads me to believe that instead of teaching students how to think, they are learning how to quickly choose an answer.
We cannot assume that they know how. “Learning to think requires frequent, deliberate practice” (Terry Roberts and Laura Billings, Teaching Students to Think, ASCD, Feb. 2008). How can we help our students practice thinking? I believe modeling, questioning, and collaboration, all provided within a safe learning environment, are some of the most powerful tools teachers can use in the classroom in order to have a significantly, positive learning effect on their students.
We must start modeling the thinking process for our students at an early age. Think-alouds are essential if we want our students to know the discourse that must take place in their brains when they are processing information. When students observe others performing an action it predisposes them to that activity on a subconscious level. “They watch the activity, encode it, engage in it and finally comprehend it (Joyce Armstrong Carroll and Edward E. Wilson, Acts of Teaching-How to Teach Writing, second edition, Heinemann/Teacher Ideas Press, 2008, 214).
Barbara Blackburn explains that think-alouds are a verbal explanation of what you are thinking. “Many students have no idea of the processes used when learning new information. They see learning as a code that is unbreakable because they don’t have the key. What we know as teachers is that there are multiple steps that go into any learning process, and one way to break that down for our students is by modeling our thinking” (Modeling Thinking for Students, Eye on Education, April 2012).
If we begin this with students at very young ages, we can prepare them to deal properly with more complex information as they grow older.
“There is plenty of thinking that never achieved lift-off, never contributes to understanding and never casts light on issues of importance” (Jamie McKenzie, Learning to Question to Wonder To Learn, 2004). In order for thinking to lead to learning and understanding, students must ask questions. “Thinking that is guided by intense and strategic questioning is more likely to lift the thinker above hohumdrum levels that produce little of worth or note” (McKenzie). As such, we must allow students to question and look for answers themselves. This creates true, authentic learning because it is created by each student according to his or her own style of understanding. This makes the learning more meaningful within the context of their own lives. Students must be allowed to question themselves, their teachers, and their peers, and teachers should encourage questioning by asking even more questions, or even by answering questions with more questions.
Students help each other in powerful ways, explaining issues to each other in ways that sometimes teachers cannot. Gone are the days of students sitting alone and working quietly. More learning takes place when students discuss and question each other. There is ownership of such learning. “The collaborative setting is an ideal environment for constructing knowledge and learning. By giving students the time and the environment to discuss what they have learned and complete tasks that apply the skills or knowledge, they will develop a deeper understanding of their work and are more likely to take an active interest. Put simply, they use it so they don’t lose it” (Collin Hussey, Why Classroom Collaboration is the Key to Lifelong Learning, Edudemic, Aug. 2012).
Modeling, questioning, and collaboration must take place within the confines of an environment that students consider safe. They must feel safe in the knowledge that they may question, talk and make mistakes without being penalized for “wrong” answers. We must encourage them to do so explaining that it is the only way to learn. A threatening learning environment can cause the brain to lose its ability to learn, lose its ability to store and access information, become limited in its responses, and become less able to use higher-level thinking (Timothy Clapper, Creating the Safe Learning Environment, Pailal Newsletter, July 2010). We must allow students to feel free to take risks.
As I consider how to best help my students learn, I realize the tremendous power that we have, and it frightens me. Teachers can make or break a learner. I intend to make learners. I know every student can learn, so if I teach them well, they will learn.