Should teachers be good role models? And if so, how should they go about it?
Cultures of Thinking is an educational framework that emerged from the work of Ron Ritchhart and the Project Zero team at Harvard University.
In a series of interviews on The Learning Capacity Podcast with education consultant Simon Brooks I have been delving into each of the 8 cultural forces that, according to Ron Ritchhart, we must master in order to truly transform our schools.
Simon has spent years implementing cultures of thinking into his classrooms, and now helps teachers introduce the framework in their schools.
In this interview we take a look at what it means to be a role model and what that might look like in the classroom.
This is Part 4 of the 8 part series with Simon Brooks about implementing cultures of thinking in our schools.
Listen to the podcast.
- Teachers as role models
- Mirror neurons
- Cultures of thinking
People & organisations mentioned
- Dr Ron Ritchhart
- Dr Daniel Tosterson
- Project Zero at Harvard University
- Harvard Graduate School of Education
- Edenham High School in South London
- Schindler's List (movie)
- Shakespeare’s Macbeth
Previous podcast episodes on SoundCloud
If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:
Episode 70 of The Learning Capacity Podcast
Should teachers be good role models? Simon Brooks on the cultural force of ‘modelling’
Colin: Dr Ron Ritchhart of Harvard University tells the story of Dr Daniel Tosterson who is the Dean of the Harvard Medical School in the 1970s. What I like about this is that this idea is therefore not entirely new. He was already at that time thinking about the issue of students being able to access far more information than we could possibly hope to tell or deliver them and he wanted to shift the model from acquisition of knowledge to the use of knowledge to solve problems.
I find that interesting because there's a lot of talk about that sort of thing these days. And what Dr Tosterson said was, "We must acknowledge again that the most important, indeed the only thing we have to offer our students, is ourselves because everything else they can read in a book or discover independently usually with better understanding than our efforts can convey."
And then he went on to say, "I believe that the modern jargon for this is role models." Interesting that he says "the modern jargon" back in the 70s. Now, the idea here is that a role model doesn't necessarily mean an exemplar. Can you talk us through the difference between a role model and an exemplar.
Don’t focus on knowledge acquisition
Simon: Yeah. Perhaps the first interesting thing to reflect on is... I'm glad that Ron went back to talk about Tosterson in the 1970s, this idea of... Let's not focus too much on knowledge acquisition, let's focus more on knowledge resolving problems. I think we could probably go further back than the 1970s. I reckon we could probably go back to Socrates.
Colin: Now, that's a long way.
Simon: And perhaps even before Socrates. And that was the core of the Socratic method I think, this idea of asking questions in order to equip people with the capacity, with the disposition to be able to solve future problems. I think that was the core of what Socrates was talking about. It's such an important question and therefore it's probably a question that's always been around.
It's probably just even more prevalent in modern times because of the presence of things like Google and the internet, and the information. I mean it's just so accessible now. It's so easy to get that it makes using that information even more important because there's been this leveling effect of information being utterly free and utterly accessible for everybody.
Your question was around the lines of being an exemplar. To be a model does not mean to be an exemplar, and that's such a fascinating question. I think if we position ourselves as a role model, there's a sense that we're representing ourselves along the lines of what it might look like to be a thinker and learner.
A thinker and a learner
Simon: But the word exemplar suggests that we are priming ourselves as the perfect example of what it means to be a thinker and a learner.
Colin: Yeah. In other words the difference between perhaps being somewhat like me as opposed to being me.
Simon: That's right. I don't think anybody wants to be me and not even I want to be me. If we set ourselves up as being an exemplar, that the perfect example of a thinker and a learner, I actually think that goes completely against the grain of building a culture of thinking anyway.
There isn't any right or wrong exemplar for being a thinker and a learner. We're all muddling our way through life, exploring different ideas, making mistakes as we go and that's why it's good to role model that so that students understand "Oh yeah, well, actually it's just about making mistakes." I don't think there is an exemplar of what that looks like but we can certainly role model as teachers.
Colin: Interesting. What if a student said, "Oh look, I'm just going to make myself just like you. So not model myself off you, but I'm going to copy you." It'd be interesting then to look at the behaviors of that student and then think, "Really? Is that what I'm like?"
Simon: Well, yeah. It could be interesting holding up a mirror to ourselves and seeing what their perceptions are, of how we are.
Colin: Well, I'd like to talk about mirror neurons in a minute, but first of all, I'd just like to suggest then that if we are to model ourselves or... sorry, if we are to be role models to our students, that implies vulnerability. In other words, we have to be... there's a certain element of how we're opening ourselves to our students and I guess teachers are always trying to juggle that. How much of ourselves do we open up? I guess that's the unanswerable question in some sense, but what's your take on that?
Reveal ourselves as intellectually vulnerable
Simon: I think it's healthy for us to reveal ourselves as utterly intellectually vulnerable. There are many things we don't know and I think it's fine to communicate that to the young people that we're working with. Perhaps it's unhealthy to communicate to them the suggestion that we are some sort of omniscient being, all-knowing creature.
Are we sending them the message that their goal is to become like that themselves and then perhaps we're sending them a message that mistake-making isn't worthwhile. I love it when I hear teachers saying things like this to the students in their class; "What a great question. I don't know the answer but maybe we could both go away and do some research and compare the notes next time."
Colin: That's a much more descriptive way of providing that sort of an answer. I've been known to say things like "I don't know." Thank you for providing an example as to how I can extend my unanswers. That's very helpful. But I guess the idea of intellectual vulnerability can be quite uncomfortable for many people. If they are feeling uncomfortable about that, what advice have you got for them?
Simon: I think it also depends on career stage and context. I think for newly qualified teachers who may be feeling intellectually vulnerable anyway just by means of being in a new profession, that could be even more challenging for them to reveal that, "Oh wow, I've never actually thought about it in that way before." When a child shares a really insightful comment because they might feel that it undermines them in the eyes of that child.
So I think it's probably context-dependent. But to answer your question; how can we get better at it? Well it's like anything, to get better at it, we've just got to keep doing it. The more intellectual vulnerability we model to them, the more they receive the message that it's okay to be intellectually vulnerable and then the whole thing turns on itself and we start building this really rich culture of thinking where we know that, "Hey, teacher and students together are working on constructing, understanding together." That's much more exciting, isn't it?
Teachers & students constructing understanding together
Simon: We're at the coalface trying to construct understanding together rather than, "I have the understanding and I am going to bestow it upon you lot."
Colin: Yeah. Exciting and less mundane because teaching, given the fact that the years roll by, the terms roll by, things can become mundane. So it's exciting and also less mundane, I think.
Colin: Ritchhart talks about mirror neurons. Obviously, we're starting to talk about the brain. How much of our actions and behaviors do you think are been picked up by our students, simply as they observe and watch us, as those mirror neurons in the brain start activating?
Simon: Okay. So I always like to start with I'm no great expert on mirror neurons. But I'm interested in it and it's certainly drawing on recent neurological research that suggests human beings are wired in such a way that we vicariously experience events and feelings simply through observation of others.
So the first thing my mind turns to is when you see those sometimes dreadful TV shows on YouTube channels, where there is somebody in Canada on an out of control toboggan and it's sliding down the hill and then slams into a tree and as it hits the tree, our mirror neurons fire and we sort of wince for them.
Simon: That's how I sort of make sense of this idea of mirror neurons. In terms of teaching and learning, well what we're thinking is that if children observe us loving our learning, being really curious about the world around us and experiencing awe when we explore that world around us, then hopefully their mirror neurons are going to fire and they're going to share that feeling.
And that's the value I think here of what we're talking about. Can I tell you about my English teacher when I was in school?
Colin: Yes, please do.
Simon: So this is many years ago, I went to a school, Edenham High School in South London.
Colin: That sounds like a very English school.
Simon: It was a very English school. It's a government school. And I had mixed experiences at that school but I had one amazing teacher and the guy was called Mr.Vigus.
Colin: It doesn't sound so English.
Simon: No, that's right. I think his name was Rachardo Vigus and when he wrote his name it looked like "Ravigus." So we would call him "Rivigus," so that was the nickname. If Mr. Vigus is still alive, it would be wonderful if he could hear what I'm saying to you now because...
Colin: Oh, we should get him on the show?
Simon: Well, absolutely. Because he really was the man that inspired me to love English. And I have one really stand-out memory, which is that he was teaching me and the rest of the class Shakespeare's play, Macbeth. And I remember him taking on the persona of Lady Macbeth who, towards the middle and the end of the play is unraveling because of the part she played in the murder of Duncan.
So she's walking around, sleep walking, rubbing her hands together furiously, saying, "Out damn spot! Out, I say. Who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him."
Simon: And I remember Mr. Vigus performing this speech in that way. So immediately we're engaged. But what it was, I think, as I reflect on it, is he just demonstrated wonder at the craftsmanship of Shakespeare's language. He showed through everything he said, how much in awe he was of the way that Shakespeare employed metaphor to such amazing effects in that speech that the excess blood is a metaphor for Lady Macbeth's feelings of guilt that she can't ever escaped from.
This sense of awe that he showed at Shakespeare's language, I think it helped my mirror neurons fire and it was a big part of engendering that same love of Shakespeare in me that he had himself. So what a wonderful gift that he gave to me. What a wonderful gift it is that teachers give to our students. When we demonstrate our passion, students pick up on that passion.
Colin: We can have an enormous impact just by being there.
Simon: Yeah, in a really engaged and passionate way.
Dispositional and cognitive apprenticeships
Colin: Ritchhart talks a lot about some different types of apprenticeships that are related to the idea of modeling. He talks about two in particular: dispositional and cognitive. What's the difference between those?
Simon: Yeah. I think it's a subtle difference. I think the difference between those two forms of apprenticeship is essentially deliberateness.
If we think about what a dispositional apprenticeship is, the notion there is that we as teachers are modeling all of the time in our interactions with children, the type of thinking dispositions that we hope that they will develop.
In our time with them, if we're connection-makers, if we are curious, if we show that we are healthily skeptical, that we're evaluative thinkers, then by demonstrating the presence of that disposition in ourselves, we hope the children will pick up and mirror that disposition in their own development.
And that side things, that dispositional apprenticeship, we do that even without thinking about it. It just happens that they pick up on that disposition that we have and hopefully it becomes part of their disposition.
The cognitive apprenticeship, there's more deliberateness involved in that. There, what we do is we make a particular point of making thinking visible, of surfacing it and making it a point of discussion and once we've done that, once we've made it visible, where we can coach them, we can correct the thinking if it's wrong, we can also feedback, we can celebrate the thinking.
But we're bringing it to the surface in a deliberate way. I think that's the core of that notion of cognitive apprenticeship.
Colin: In a cognitive apprenticeship though, how do we... again this comes down to making things visible, how do we take what is essentially cognitive like a brain-type function and make it visible?
Simon: I think one really powerful way to do that, is through the use of thinking routines. If I think back to a lesson or a learning experience where I might have accomplished that hopefully in quite a powerful way as an English teacher, I think back to a time when with some year 10 students we were studying holocaust texts. So the texts about the holocausts, one of which was the film Schindler's List, which is a very, and this is in a Jewish school by the way, a very confronting film to watch with year 10 children in a Jewish school.
Colin: Yeah, no doubt.
A three-two-one bridge
Simon: And I remember the way I got into that was before we watched the film and interestingly hardly, and even though they came from Jewish families, very few of them had seen the film, which I thought was interesting. Before we watched the film, I started, I engaged with them in a thinking routine which is called three-to-one bridge. I said to them, "Okay, think about the holocaust," and they know a lot about holocaust. "What are three statements you can make about it? What are two questions you have about it? And what one analogy or simile that you can come up with to represent a key idea of the holocaust?"
And then what we did is we watched Schindler's List together. And afterwards I got them to then come up with three new statements, two new questions and one analogy. And here's the most important thing, got them to reflect on how and why their thinking had changed. How had watching Schindler's List developed, enriched, altered their understanding of the holocaust and why that was such an important moment in history?
And here's what that routine does. It surfaces their thinking. It makes their thinking visible at the beginning so that after learning experience they come back and think, "Wow! Was that my thinking, then?" It becomes tangible, it becomes part of a cognitive apprenticeship.
Modeling for independence
Colin: Let's consider modeling for independence. We often hear about trying to make our students independent learners or self-directed learners. But I think that sometimes they can give the impression that we're just handing it over to them and then off they go and we just kind of sit around, watching them being self-directed or independent.
But I guess a modeling approach is more than that. How do we go about this practically in a way that is effective and doesn't leave our students stranded, at least not stranded too quickly?
Simon: Yeah. We've talked in a previous interview about this and my position on this is strong. I don't think we get independent learners and self-directed learners by backing off and basically saying, "Here's a booklet of resources, here's a nice room to look at them in, off you go. Go and be independent." I think they can easily just become self-misdirected learners if we do that.
This is where the modeling thing comes in so much more. Your question was, how do we actually do this practically? For me it's in the time we spend with our students. There's a core routine that everybody who knows about cultures of thinking seems to know about. So it can unfortunately become a bit sort of tired, I think, sometimes.
Colin: A bit cliched perhaps?
See, think, wonder
Simon: Yeah, exactly. But It shouldn't be because it's so wonderful. It's the routine "See, think, wonder." And at it's heart, what is "See, think, wonder?," well, it's three very distinct intellectual moves. The first one is "see." If you slow down and pay close attention, what do you notice? And the second one is "think." Having slowed down and looked closely, what can you infer? What theories have you got about what you've seen? And then finally the final stage, "wonder," what questions have you got left out? Or What do you wonder about, this thing that you've looked at?
If as teachers we use routines like "See, think, wonder" over and over, and over and over again with our students, and if every time we use it, we name and notice the thinking, we talk about the difference between observation and inference, then slowly but surely, they become independent thinkers.
They understand the difference between observation and inference and are able to do it even when we're not there. That's the idea of thinking routines. It's about trying to embed ways of thinking into the identity of young people.
Colin: Something I'd like to talk to you from a very a very practical perspective in terms of modeling for independence is something I come across in the classroom quite a bit. Can I talk to you about that?
Simon: Please, please do.
Colin: I teach design and technology type subjects and I say "type subjects" because it can be so creative sometimes you suddenly wonder, "What am I actually teaching?" But it's effectively a creative endeavor. And I'll give a task to students where I say, "Well, here's your design brief and here's what I'd like you to consider."
And in some cases, what I've done is I've actually gone and built a few potential solutions to the design problems; so "Look, here's something that I've done," to just give them a little bit of a stimulus material and say, "Look it is actually possible to come up with a solution," so you're not just sort of leaving them to their own devices too quickly.
Colin: But then sometimes I find that the problem is that I then start looking through sketch books and having looked at a few drawings and I think, "Oh, gee that's an interesting design that I made last week." And there's the whole issue of imitation or copying comes out.
Now look, it's flattering to think that a student likes your idea, that they actually start to work on their own idea based on yours but that's not really the point or the idea. So how do we avoid modeling to the point where our students begin to imitate or copy us?
Model how to think, not what to do
Simon: I think that probably speaks to the difference between modeling what to do and modeling how to think. First of all, it sounds like you're a wonderful teacher there, Colin, and fantastic that you're sort of walking the talk or talking the walk. Certainly you can actually engage in this manufacturing and creation processes that you want them to be able to do.
But it's interesting that you think that sometimes if you model to them what to do that they end up just doing the same thing, and maybe that is the issue. If we model to them what to do then they can just do it, but if we model to them how to think in one particular context but then give them something different to think about, then they can't just replicate the same thing back at us because they're applying rather than recreating.
To just to try to make that more tangible, an example that I've got to try to support that: I'm sorry it's not in a technology classroom context but in an English classroom context, one of the thinking moves we want children to be able to perform is we want them to be able to evaluate.
Here's the interesting thing I ask all of your listeners to do just for fun, to see what happens; ask your students, however old they are, what does the word "evaluate" mean. What are we doing intellectually when evaluating? And in my experience, not many children have an answer to that.
Colin: It's a tough one. I've tried that a few times.
Simon: And that's because there's a lot of complex thinking moves happening there. So, one of the strategies that I developed over the years with that one was just to start telling a story to them, a little made up story. So, we've got two minutes for me to indulge in this story, Colin?
Colin: Yes, we do.
Simon: So this requires a massive leap of the imagination. I say to them, "Can you imagine that I'm a trainee mechanic." Now, if my wife was listening to this, she'd be laughing right now because I'm not a particularly accomplished mechanic.
So maybe trainee mechanic is actually not too bad to imagine that. And I'll say to some students, "Right, what I want you to imagine is that I'm a trainee mechanic and you, Bob, you are my boss." And then I'll say, "Right, you, Jane. Jane, you just brought your car in and it's not working. You've pushed it into the garage and it's not working. You brought it to me to fix. Bob, your job is to evaluate my performance as a mechanic in fixing Jane's car."
So then I say, right, what I do then is, okay I get underneath the car. I have a close look at it and I conclude that I think the problem is it needs an oil change. This is where this is going to go wrong, now, Colin because... But anyway, so what I do is I get underneath that, I pull out the oil filter then I go to the other side of the engine and I let all of the existing oil out. I put a new oil filter back in, maybe this is right. Then fill that with new oil. I've effectively changed the oil. Jane gets back into her car, and before she starts the engine, I say to Bob, "Right, Bob, what's your evaluation with my performance?"
And Bob says, "10 out of 10. Well done, you've changed the oil beautifully."
And then Jane starts the engine and the car doesn't start. So then I say to the students, "Was Bob correct in his evaluation of my performance, as giving me a 10 out of 10?" And the kids go, "No, no, no, of course not because the car's still not working." So then I say to them, "Well, what's the problem here, then? Why is Bob's evaluation of my performance wrong?" And they say, "Well, because he wasn't evaluating the right thing, because the purpose that you as a trainee mechanic had in mind was to fix the car and you didn't accomplish that."
And so what I end up being able to communicate to them is that when we evaluate something, we are commenting on how effective or successful it is in relation to it's intended purpose. I get that message across to them via a fictional story about me as a mechanic. Then I say to them, "Now, can you evaluate the effectiveness of that poem?" So they're no longer imitating me, to come back to your question.
It's not longer about imitating because it's a completely different thing. It's not a car, it's a poem. But what they're doing is that they are applying those same thinking skills. And that's how we get away from this idea of copying.
Colin: So rather than saying to my students, "Here's one I prepared earlier," I get to say to them something like, "Here's a product that deserves an evaluation. Why don't we try evaluating this particular product?"
Simon: Yeah. Or a complete... If you're getting them to make a box, show them an example of something you've designed which is a completely different product but uses some of the same skills, so that it becomes about the thinking and the processes rather than the replication.
Colin: There's only one problem with this whole idea and that is that being able to use the old phrase, "Here's one I prepared earlier," just happens to be a favorite of mine.
Simon: Well, in that case, I think you should carry on doing it. It's a Blue Peter phrase for our English viewers, that's where we hear that phrase a lot.
Colin: Simon, it's been great to speak with you. Thanks so much for your time.
Simon: Thank you. Thanks, Colin.