Contributed by Lucille Yap and Azahar Noor, Centre for Pedagogical Research and Learning, Raffles Girls’ School, for SingTeach Issue 73.
Thinking is often perceived as an essential skill that can be trained and taught, where students are given a set of thinking tools or strategies that they can use. Thinking is also often equated with dispositions, motivation and habits. It is of no use if having taught thinking skills, these abilities remain inert. As such, it is important to cultivate thinking dispositions in students so that they are motivated to make use of the thinking skills. Ron Ritchhart, in his work with visible thinking through Harvard’s Project Zero, highlights the role of classroom culture in nurturing the development of thinking in students. In this article, Mrs Lucille Yap and Mr Azahar Noor from the Raffles Girls’ School Centre for Pedagogical Research and Learning (PeRL) share some of their learning points from their research project “Cultures of Thinking in the RGS Classrooms”.
Eight Cultural Forces of Thinking
Thinking skills and dispositions must be developed and immersed within a classroom culture that promotes and values thinking. This enculturation or immersion is accomplished in the classroom through eight cultural forces comprising Language, Time, Environment, Opportunities, Routines, Modelling, Interactions and Expectations (Richhart, 2011). As teachers strive to nurture thinking in their classrooms, they can leverage on any of these eight cultural forces which are present in every classroom learning situation.
Research on Cultures of Thinking
The purpose of this research was to find out how far the culture of thinking is prevalent in Raffles Girls’ School (RGS) classrooms. Data collection method was primarily quantitative. A teachers’ survey was administered to all teaching staff using the Culture of Thinking Teacher Self-Assessment Tool which consisted of three to five statements for each of the eight cultural forces.
While findings and recommendations of the research relied mainly on data from the teachers’ survey, six lessons were also recorded for the purpose of triangulating the data. These lessons were selected from the following subject disciplines: Math, Chemistry, Physics, Humanities and the Languages (two lessons). The lessons were scored using the same Culture of Thinking Teacher Self-Assessment Tool that was used in the teachers’ survey. Teachers whose lessons were videotaped were also interviewed to gain insights into their classroom practices.
The research concluded that a culture of thinking is largely prevalent in the classrooms. Out of the eight cultural forces, Interactions and Modelling registered the highest score of over 98% in terms of positive response from the teachers. This underscores a strong culture of teacher-student relationships and positive interactions being cultivated in the classroom. Teachers also see themselves as role models by displaying open-mindedness, active listening and curiosity in students’ thinking.
The cultural forces of Expectations and Opportunities also registered a high score of 93% in the teachers’ survey. This points to a strong awareness amongst teachers in communicating learning outcomes clearly and explicitly to students, and placing the goal of developing understanding at the centre of classroom activity. Opportunities were also provided for students to engage in purposeful inquiry-based learning activities.
The teachers’ survey also recorded a high positive response (above 85%) for the cultural forces of Thinking Routines, Language and Time. Nonetheless, the research highlighted a few areas that can be improved (see Recommendations below). Lastly, Physical Environment registered the lowest score of 62%. This indicates that teachers have not sufficiently leveraged on the physical environment in the classroom to make thinking processes visible.
The research identified the following areas for improvement to further develop the culture of thinking in the classroom.
1. Create Opportunities for Students to Reflect on their Learning
In the teachers’ survey, one aspect of Opportunities that can be improved is: “I provide opportunities for students to metacogitate; students reflect on how their thinking about a topic has changed and developed over time.” Teachers can provide more opportunities for metacognition in the classroom by facilitating students to reflect on their understanding. In designing instructional materials, teachers can plan for periodic opportunities for students to monitor and evaluate their own learning.
2. Encourage Students to Respond to Each Other
The research noted a strong culture of collaborative inquiry and teacher-to-student interactions in the classroom. However, teachers could improve student-to-student interactions by enlarging the “space” for students to value and respond to one another’s ideas during class discussions. The use of Socratic dialogue and Community of Inquiry model of discussion can help students to develop the habit of questioning, extending, elaborating and developing ideas of their peers.
3. Use the Language of Noticing and Naming
Teachers frequently use the language of thinking such as explain, elaborate, evaluate and justify to inform students of the thinking moves that are required during lessons. This can be improved by being more intentional in noticing and naming the thinking moves that students use. For example, a teacher could say things like, “Amy is supporting her ideas with evidence here”, “Emily has presented an analogy” or “Caryn has made a connection between the two concepts”. Such deliberate naming of thinking moves will help students to acquire a language for their thinking and make thinking more visible to them. Teachers can enhance their use of thinking language in the classroom by applying the six components of language of thinking.
4. Use of Thinking Routines
One of the key recommendations of the research is the use of thinking routines in the classroom. These routines include “See-Think-Wonder”, “Think-Pair-Share” and “I Used to Think … Now I Think”. Teachers can explore more thinking routines from Project Zero’s Thinking Routines Matrix. The use and enculturation of thinking routines in the classroom is a powerful cultural force. It will equip students with a repertoire of thinking moves that they can draw on, and make them become better thinkers.
5. Leverage on Physical Environment
The classroom physical environment as a cultural shaper includes the design, aesthetic, setup, displays, artefacts and furnishings. The physical environment of a classroom can influence how learners interact with one other. It can also inhibit or inspire the work of the learners. Flexible, easy-to-move furniture makes the learning space more responsive to instructional and learning needs. The research recommended the school to use lightweight and wheeled tables and chairs to allow the classrooms to be configured in multiple ways to support varied learning activities and facilitate thoughtful interactions.
There is still much that can be done to make thinking visible. Teachers can enrich the classroom environment with documents, products and displays that stimulate idea development and promote thinking processes. Walls could serve to inspire learning, and invite students to interact with and reflect on what is being displayed. Teachers should also involve students in co-creating the physical environment. This will empower them, increase their motivation and develop class spirit.
A thinking classroom is one where the group and individual’s thinking are valued, visible and actively promoted (Ritchhart, 2011). By leveraging on the eight cultural forces that are present in the classroom, teachers have tremendous opportunities to create a thinking classroom that cultivates thinking habits and makes thinking processes visible to students.
Project Zero. (2009). Visible thinking. Retrieved from http://www.pz.harvard.edu/projects/cultures-of-thinking
Ritchhart, R., Church, M. & Morrison, K. (2011). Making Thinking Visible: How to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learners. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.
The authors would like to acknowledge their colleagues in the Centre for Pedagogical Research and Learning, in particular, Deputy Principal Mrs Mary George Cheriyan, Mr Lim Er Yang and Mr Thomas Lee for their contributions leading to the completion of this research project.