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The Thinking Classroom. Don’t Call it Challenge!
April 20, 2016
1

“Is History hard sir?” Year 8 student asking about options

“Only if you aren’t good at it” replies the teacher

Challenge and high expectations. That’s what you would expect to see in an evaluation of a lesson which was highly effective. They are words which indicate that students were “stretched” and that their learning was maximised. This is all very positive, but what does challenge actually mean? It could mean lots of things to lots of people, which is why I dislike the phrase when thinking about developing teaching. For example; In a one hour History lesson if students have to sift through twenty sources to find out information is this challenging? Possibly, possibly not. It’s “only” selection of materials and some students may find this easy. If however, on closer inspection students really had to think about the selection of information then in actual fact they are thinking like Historians and this could be highly “challenging.” It is not the task that is challenging it is the thought that goes into it. Watch a professional sportsman run through drills, it may seem “low level challenge” but they are thinking about every movement.

What a lack of challenge in a lesson really means is students didn’t think enough. They didn’t think about the problems in front of them, they didn’t “self –regulate” they didn’t think “Meta-cognitively”  they weren’t given enough to think and struggle and then succeed. In short they didn’t have to think.  In terms of effect size the two biggest things teachers can do to have the biggest impact on student achievement is to give effective feedback, and make students think “meta-cognitively” (think about their thinking).  In other words create a “Thinking Classroom”

Seems a bit odd to suggest that a classroom has be a “Thinking Classroom” surely that’s what happens in a classroom? Well yes, mainly. But, learning is messy, unpredictable and as Graham Nuthall suggests in his book, often “hidden” ( The hidden lives of learners will change the way you think about classrooms)  In order to be a great teacher you have to light up the classroom, because you can’t see learning easily.

Students “hide”; after because they can, and it helps them cope. With 25-30 student in a class, mountains of content to “cover” and the 1 hour lessons, revolving door, factory system we have, it is little wonder that in this controlled chaos students can tactically hide. They hide in a number of obvious ways, they don’t put their hands up, or they give short answers, often knowing that the teacher will “move on”. They do “just enough” so that when the teacher looks at their books they nod, moving onto those who for many reasons haven’t written anything down, or who are distracting others. This is not always deliberate, cunning – work shirking, rather a mechanism to cope with 5 lessons a day. If you have ever shadowed a pupil for the day, and tried to do their work you’ll understand how confusing and tiring a day can be when you are 13.  Thinking is hard, it takes deliberate effort and often support. Ever wondered why students like writing in the title and date? It gives them a rest-bite form “thinking”.  Our brains are great at conserving thinking energy. Consider why the staff car park looks exactly the same every day; people park in the same spot because they then don’t have to think when they finally traipse out at 6.30pm.  Students are the same.

So how do we stop this? How do we “light up” the hidden lives of learners and create thinking? Lighting up the classroom is an area that has vastly improved since the articulation of “formative assessment” by Black and Wiliam back in 2001. Assessment for learning as a buzz word  almost doesn’t exist anymore as it is so entrenched into teaching practices.   A better phrase would be “responsive teaching”. Trying something with students, measuring it there and then, evaluating if it has been effective (students get it or not) then adapting the teaching.  There are a huge host of ways to do this that most teachers are aware of these use them regularly. As effect sizes go, effective feedback is about the best thing you can do to improve achievement. Please note “EFFECTIVE” feedback. If you feedback too soon, or it is too shallow the feedback can actually have a negative effect. However, teachers are generally good at AFL. They use Traffic Lights, thumbs up/ down, no hands , post-it notes which all help during the lesson.  Peer Assessment, Self Assessment, Criteria in student speak, personalised learning check lists, exemplar answers, the list goes on and on and on.  Not to mention; diagnostic marking, quizzes, mock exams (mocks after mocks, after mocks) doddle and online testing,  grades reported every six weeks. Students are monitored more than they ever have been before. This is a good thing. Mostly.

“Mostly” because challenge and thinking do not automatically come about because a teacher can “light up the classroom”. There is absolutely no point in a teacher demonstrating a host of AFL strategies which clearly show that students have moved from A to B, when they could have moved from A to E. Often you will hear OFSTED inspectors and observers to a classroom use the phrase “Expectations”. Expectations were too low of both students and teachers, or that the teacher had high expectations. This is a non- sensical phrase in many respects. I had great expectations of my guitar playing at 13, doesn’t mean I’m a rock star driving 15 cars. Expectations have to be high of course, but what really has to be high is the level of “Thinking” in a classroom. Teachers have to create thinking in their classrooms. Not challenge, that can mean lots of things to lots of people; they have to create thinking.

Creating the “Thinking Classroom”

This is a challenge (no pun intended) because “thinking “ is almost impossible to see. Performance is easy to see: Students are set them this, they did (or did not) do it. Thinking though? Other than the obvious signs of head scratching it’s difficult to see. But there are some things teachers can do to allow students to “think” :

It starts with the planning – make things harder not easier

Do not mean simplify. Do NOT simplify. It is worth saying twice because as teachers we are brilliant at it; we often have to because we are “breaking down” complex things for students to learn. BUT this habit can betray and our students.

Consider this; A Geography teacher is planning a series of lessons on the Amazon Rainforest to a year 7 class. Logically they want to break this down into manageable “chunks” for students. So it goes something like this:

  • What lives in the Rainforest?
  • Why is it so wet?
  • What is the temperature of the Rainforest?
  • Where is the Amazon Rainforest ?
  • What is it like there?/ Why is it called a Rainforest?
  • Why is it so hot?
  • What grows in the Rainforest?
  • Why must we conserve the Rainforest?

Once these questions are thought through is it logical that lessons are as follows

Scenario 1:

Lesson 1 Q1-2

lesson 2 Q3 – 5

lesson 3 and 4 Q6- 7

lesson 5 and 6 – Q8

They are very logical lessons, they follow on from each other, with the effective teaching at the end of the 6 lessons students would have gained new knowledge of the Amazon Rainforest without a doubt. How much thinking would have occurred though? Well perhaps lots, but how else could this series of lesson potentially create more thinking?

How about this:

Scenario 2:

Lesson 1 to 4 – What is the climate of the Amazon Rainforest?  Why is the climate like this and how does it affect what grows and what lives there?

Lesson 5 and 6 – “There is no need to conserve the Amazon Rainforest, we can cut more trees down for farming, homes and resources” How far do agree with this statement?

As you can see lessons 1 – 4 now create more thinking. Students have to consider what “climate” is, and the relationship this has to what grows and lives in the Rainforest. They are forced at the start of the series of  lessons to think about the relationship between location, climate and environment.  The last two lessons of scenario 2 force students into arguing and evaluating.  Scenario 1 and 2 could have exactly the same resources, exactly the same teacher, and exactly the same “challenge” in the resource but in all probability there will be more thinking created in scenario 2

Of course it all depends on how these lessons are managed. If for example students are just given the two questions in scenario 2 and the resources, without the teacher effectively explaining and questioning there is a real danger that this “independence” just results in confusion.   The “independent” classroom should not be confused with the “Thinking classroom”. Independence does not of itself create thinking, in fact the opposite can happen.

What these two scenarios do illustrate though is that planning a series of lessons with “Thinking” in mind is crucial. As teachers we are naturally very good at breaking up very complicated things into smaller parts so that people can understand. It is our default setting, because we do it all the time; we have to, we are teachers. But what we really want to do is to create learners.  To do this we have to sometimes stop breaking things up, not so they are more difficult or more “challenging” but so they create more thinking.

Scenario 2 could and I stress could create more thinking than scenario 1. But equally it could descend into chaos (as could any lesson) because the teacher does not consider that when you make students “think” you have to make them think! This takes time.

Below are five “tips” for scenario 2:

  • Be sure students understand the key words (climate, affect)
  • Give them TIME, time to investigate, to get stuck.
  • Discuss/engage students with the questions – Get them to work out what is being asked? What information will they need to have in order to answer these questions and how might they go about this?
  • Because there may be more chance of getting stuck than in scenario 1 have a mechanism for students to ask questions – a question wall, post it notes , traffic lights
  • Create a culture of three before me? Book, Buddy, Board. So students have to look at the board, ask a friend, refer to the book before asking for help.

Creating a thinking classroom is hard. It is much more than what is in this blog. It is about creating a culture of thinking through high quality questions and series of lessons. It is about giving students the opportunity to stop, wait and struggle.

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  1. Great article. Really got me thinking about how to create more challenge in my classroom, although I am a primary teacher so I feel that at the stage I teach, the children need to be trained about how to think for themselves in more depth. As you say, creating a 3 before me culture. I like the book, buddy, board system.

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