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Cultures of Thinking: Simon Brooks on Using the Force of ‘Expectations’

Posted by Colin Klupiec on June 13, 2016 at 11:16 AM

Cultures_of_thinking.pngDo we have expectations ‘of’ our students, or ‘for’ our students?

My guest in the series is Simon Brooks, who spent years implementing cultures of thinking into his classrooms. He now helps teachers introduce the framework in their schools.

In this series, we’ll take a closer look at practical ways to implement the theory behind it all.

This is part 1 of the 8 part series with Simon Brooks about implementing cultures of thinking in our schools.

In part 1 we discuss the cultural force of expectations.

Listen to the podcast.

Topics covered

  1. Cultures of Thinking
  2. The cultural force of expectations
  3. Expectations “of” versus expectations “for”
  4. Learning versus work
  5. Surface learning versus deep learning
  6. Teaching for Understanding

People & organisations mentioned

  1. North Ryde Public School
  2. Ron Ritchhart
  3. Project Zero at Harvard
  4. Sir Ken Robinson
  5. Elon Musk
  6. SpaceX
  7. Harvard Graduate School of Education
  8. Prof John Hattie
  9. Roxann Rose-Duckworth 
  10. Winston Churchill
  11. Prof Guy Claxton
  12. Dr David Perkins

Resources/books/articles mentioned

  1. “Changing Education Paradigms” by Sir Ken Robinson
  2. “What's the Point of School” by Guy Claxton
  3. Google
  4. “Visible Learning” by John Hattie
  5. The Monty Hall Problem

Previous podcast episodes on SoundCloud

If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:

 Episode 66 of The Learning Capacity Podcast

Cultures of Thinking in Schools: Simon Brooks on the Cultural Force of 'Expectations'

Colin Kulpiec: Expectations, well broadly put, can be thought of as demands that we place on others. Perhaps a strong set of beliefs surrounding future outcomes and anticipated results. And I've just taken that semi-quoted from Ritchhart's book. And we're talking about expectations of versus expectations for. Now Simon, let me just run you through this before we get started.
Simon Brooks: Okay.
Colin: There's a couple of different ways that we can think about expectations. So if I say that I have an expectation of you, then there's an expectation that you will do this or that you will do that. And there's this sense that there's very much a command and controlled type approach to creating an environment. Now...that's something that I think is fairly common in classrooms but there's a way of flipping that around. And we talk about expectations for, and the suggestion is that this happens at a much deeper level. What's going on with that do you think?
Simon: Yeah, thanks for the question, Colin. And it actually speaks to something for many years that I've been working on with teachers with whom I work. One of the things I ask teachers to do is to go away and do a little bit of research with their learners, and actually ask some questions of their learners.

And for a long time I phrased it like this. I suggested that they go back to the classroom, they hand out a piece of paper, just a blank piece of paper to all of the students in their class, and they ask them a question. And the question would be along these lines, "Look, guys, I'm doing some research on the sort of teacher I am. I really want to elicit your thoughts.

So on this piece of paper can you write down what do you think are my expectations of you as your teacher?" So that's the way I used to phrase it. And I was doing that for good reasons. I think it was really valuable for teachers to get some feedback from their students, I still think that's really valuable.
But I think the phrasing of the question, "What do you think are my expectations of you as your teacher?" in a way was leading those teachers down the garden path. I think it was in many ways preempting a particular sort of response. Because the responses that they'd get back quite often would be behavioral related.

Students would write things like, "Your expectations of me are that I should arrive early to class, line up outside, wait to be invited in, stand silently behind the desk until you ask me to sit." Or in a primary school classroom, "When I'm sitting on the carpet, sit with a straight back at all times."
Colin: With a straight back and crossed legs. 
Simon: Very much so. Deeply attentive.
Colin: Yeah. There's a command and control thing coming straight away isn't it?
Simon: Absolutely, and I think it was the phrasing of the question that led to that. And so as time went on I thought about re-phasing this question that I was asking teachers to work with. And this was in part inspired by the fantastic work that comes out of Project Zero and particularly the works of Ron Ritchhart. 

And rephrasing it as you've suggested. So instead of, "What do you think are my expectations of you as your teacher?", to, "What do you think my expectations are for you as your teacher?" And immediately there's a difference in the response that comes. And even that's interesting I think Colin because it sort of suggests that it's actually the way we phrase the questions we ask that determines the responses we'll get. And I think there's insight in that.
The type of responses that would come back were very, very different. So students in response to, "What do you think my expectations are for you as your teacher?" well instead of focusing on behavioral commentary then it became more dispositional. So they'd be saying things more along the lines of, "Your expectations for me are that I become a thinker, or I become an analyser, or I become a curious person." You know? "I'll be someone who loves learning." "I'm a scientific thinker." Things along those lines.
Colin: Yeah, it sounds to me like there's a shift from expectations of is towards me as the teacher. Whereas expectations for is actually I have a view of what I would like you, or what you could be in the future. So it's kind of shifting the balance back towards the student.
Simon: Absolutely. And then those students start tapping into the messages that they're receiving from their teacher all the time about what their teacher wants them to become in consequence of the time that they spend with them.
Colin: Yeah, it's an interesting idea isn't it? Sorry, I'll just reflect on that for a second because I guess sometimes students might have this expectation that they just have to go to school and do the work and learn stuff. Whereas it might be quite unusual for them to think that their teacher might actually have their best interests at heart.
Simon: Absolutely, and really powerful. And even the asking of that questions, to see their teacher asking that question, sends a message to those learners that the teacher cares about who they are becoming in consequence of the time they spend with them. And that's a really powerful message to send.
Colin: How do you think the focus on grades and assessments effects the emphasis on expectations “of”?
Simon: Yeah, well I think it's...what it does is communicates an expectation that its achieving academic success that matters rather than becoming a thinker. And that's something we want to avoid. I think it also speaks to this either-or mentality that can sometimes exist in education, both with teachers and with learners. It's either I perform academically well or we engage in these critical and creative thinking activities.

But not always that the second is in service of the first. So I think that's the danger there. If we focus on grades and assessments exclusively, if that's the message we're sending, if that's what really matters, then it does become expectations of rather than expectations for.
Colin: I think that also relates back to the whole idea of what a teacher might think of themselves if the grades and assessments of their students aren't up to scratch. So there's kind of a self-perpetuating thing here. My expectation continues to be of my students because of the grades and assessments that I have to administer.

And if the grades and assessments don't come up well, it's gonna mean that they look bad and I look bad. So it's kind of this spiral of expectations of. So there would be quite a lot of work involved in trying to spin that around to expectations for, I would imagine.
Simon: Yeah, absolutely. And let's be understanding here. I mean, it's very difficult to break away from that mentality for many teachers because they're tuning into the existence of that mentality within the educational system. So to break away from it can be challenging but there's undoubtedly ways to breaking away from it.
Colin: Ron Ritchhart mentions what he calls five belief sets when it comes to expectations. And that these can either inhibit or facilitate a culture of thinking. Let's talk about a couple of them. And we'll start with learning versus work.
Simon: Okay.
Colin: I love this one because talking about learning to me seems to be so obvious that it almost hardly seems to be worth talking about. Because isn't that what you do when you go to school, isn't that what a teacher does? They facilitate learning. But the irony is that the language that we use in classrooms, and we're gonna come to language in another discussion, but the language we use in classrooms is often focused entirely around work.

Like, get the work done. And in one sense you could even sort of zoom out and say it's like we're bringing up a generation of workers. How did we let that happen?
Simon: I agree. And I think the first thing to acknowledge is that that definitely does sometimes happen. But the good news I think, Colin, is we can change that. And if I may, I'll talk a little bit about some work I'm doing with one particular school, if that's okay.

Colin: Please do, yeah, please do.

North Ryde Public School
Simon: And I'll name the school because they're doing wonderful work. It's North Ryde Public School which is a government school close by to where I live that I'm working with at the moment.
Colin: And hello to our friends there.
Simon: Hello, North Ryde Public school. And look, the work I'm doing with them is that I'm helping them create action research projects. And what this entails is helping the teachers of that school to identify the big questions that really matter most to them, in terms of their students learning and the thinking that their students do.

And after spending a bit of time with them, they've identified some pretty powerful questions that speak back to this question that you're asking me here Colin about the different between learning and work. So I'll share a couple of the questions that they've come up with.

There's a kindergarten and year one teacher at North Ryde Public School who's question is, "How might I help my students become deeper thinkers in service of developing richer understanding?" The teacher is considering this question and thinking about, and here's the keyword that's in that question, become. That they want their students to become something in consequence of the time that they spend with them.
A teacher in year 5-6, their questions is, "How can I foster independent thinkers who show initiative in my classroom?" And it's the same thing again, it's about what children are going to become after their time that they spend with their teacher.

And then the last one I thought I'd share is another kindergarten teacher. Her question is this, "Beyond busy work, how can I ensure that rich thinking opportunities are woven into the fabric of my teaching and the students are not just participating in activities?"
Colin: Yeah, that whole busy work thing. I think that's a really tough subject. Because if you look at a school they're just...you can't help but think that they are simply just busy places.
Simon: Absolutely. And these teachers are changing this scenario that we're talking about. They're looking at finding ways to move away from just having students engage in busy work towards actually focusing on the learning behind that work. They're taking these questions as a focus for a whole year. In that, they all understand as well that there's perhaps no silver bullet answer to these questions.

If there was then I think everybody would already be doing it. But by the end of the year what we're hoping is that they'll have made significant progress with these questions.
Colin: Seems a bit strange to me though that it's 2016 and we're starting to ask these questions now. I mean presumably, we've known about this kind of stuff for decades, right?
Simon: Yeah. And look...but here's the thing. Maybe we shouldn't blame ourselves too much for this. I mean, it's almost...and I suspect for us as teachers, it's almost impossible to resist. There's a famous TED talk by Ken Robinson that I know many of your listeners would be familiar with, which is called Changing Education Paradigms. And in that talk, Ken Robinson talks about what's in the gene pool of education and suggests that there are a lot of things in education that date a long way back.

You know, maybe back to Victorian times and before. And if they're in the gene pool of education, they're pretty tough to resist. Maybe a focus on work rather than learning has been in that gene pool. And it is from that gene pool that teachers still draw this notion. So tough to resist but we can do it. Those teachers at North Ryde Public School are resisting it. They're making the focus on learning rather than the work. And so I know that all teachers can move forward with this when they put their minds to it.
Colin: Some people might say, well hang on a second. It's great that those teachers are doing that, and I commend them for doing it myself. But think about this, over the last few decades the human race has done things like transplanting hearts, it's gone to the moon, that is of course if you believe the story. We've invented...you know...jumbo jets. We've got crazy engineers over in Silicon Valley designing rocket ships, our friends over there in SpaceX. Hello, Elon Musk.

And you know, they're workers. They're hard, hard workers. I mean some...a critic of this conversation might say, "Well what's wrong with work?"
Simon: I don't think there's anything wrong with working hard in service of developing a deep understanding. I mean, that's really an important message to children, isn't it? Nothing comes easily. We've really gotta work at it.
Colin: Yeah.
Simon: I guess it's like marriage. I mean, I'm very happily married to my wife. But I'm also mindful of the fact that if I want that marriage to continue blossoming and coming to fruition that it's something I have to work at.
Colin: I think that might be that hardest work, is it not?
Simon: Well possibly, I mean I don't wanna get too far along those lines, Colin. But look, working at things in service of making them more effective is really important. So I'm not understating the importance of work. Children I think really need to understand that it's through hard work and through developing resilience and bouncing back from times of difficulty that we develop character. And that we develop lasting understanding that comes from those times.
I guess what we're talking about here is we don't want to go down the lines of work for the sake of work. Work just to keep us quiet and busy. What primary school teachers and that teacher I'm working with terms as busy work, there may not be much learning that emerges from just busy work. It sometimes reminds me of what used to happen at Victorian workhouses. Where a lot of people in society were struggling would end up.

And one of the jobs they used to give those people in Victorian workhouses was just to smash up rocks. Huge great boulders and to just smash them up into tiny pieces. And ironically that often didn't serve any purpose. They won't doing that for any reason, it was just to keep them busy.
Colin: Oh dear.

Focus on learning or focus on work
Simon: Is that of service of anything? And how can we move our classrooms away from work for the sake of work towards work in service of learning?
Colin: Let's talk a little bit about choice. Ritchhart makes the comment that the when the purpose of the task is on learning that teachers are more likely to offer choice. Whereas when it's more about work there less choice, and the teacher is exerting a greater amount of control.

Now for our teachers listening to this who might be trying to discover where the tipping point is between working and learning, like let's say they actually thought okay, there's something in this and I really wanna try to do this. If I wanna go into my classroom today and make the switch from a working mentality to a learning mentality, what's the first thing I would say to people?
Simon: Yeah and this is an important question. And it speaks to something that I talk about with teachers a lot. There's often a misunderstanding in cultures of thinking pedagogy that if we use routines, if we apply routines to the classroom, then we've got a culture of thinking. Hey, presto. Routines are definitely one of those cultural forces and they're really important and really powerful.

But coming back to your question, and perhaps when we think about where to begin with focusing on learning rather than work and wondering whether its other cultural forces such as interactions that we have with students, the language we use with students, the opportunities we create for students that can communicate that message that it's the learning we're interested in, not just the work.

And so on a practical level, I guess it's some of the language that we just use with students whilst they're learning. I mean, perhaps I'll stand aside a student engaged in a task. And I might ask something like, "By completing this work, what are you learning right now?"
Colin: Yeah, actually ask them. Actually, say, "what do you think that you're learning."

What's the point of school?
Simon: Absolutely. How does this activity relate back to the big question that we know that we're exploring at the moment in this unit? How is doing this activity right now extending your thinking in relation to that big question? I mean, there's another powerful question is, "What's the point in doing this?" What's the point of doing this homework? What's the point in studying this topic?

If we're in a English lesson, what's the point of English? There's a great book actually by Guy Claxton, and the subject of that book and the title of that book is "What's the Point of School". And I think that's a really powerful question.

When children ask those questions, "Whats the point of doing this?" so long as they're not asking it an aggressive tone like, "Whats the point in doing this?" But, "Whats the point in doing this?" that's an amazing question for young people to ask, and important for us as teachers to think about how we might answer it, and for we ourselves to have conviction in what the point is in doing it.
Colin: Actually I had a student ask me the other day in class. I said, "look, imagine that you're going to design a project. It's entirely your own design." And the idea of the exercise was to try to get them to see the relationship or the importance of the relationship between an idea, the finished project, and the visual representation of the project. In other words, the drawings, because it's hard to build a house without a set of drawings.

And a student said to me, "Am I going to make this?" And I said, "Well, maybe." And they said, well what's the point of drawing it if I'm not going to make it? And my response to that was was, I thought well, okay. That's a very good question, and let's see if I can get some thinking out of this situation. And I said, "Are you planning on visiting Antarctica?" And the student said no. And I said, "All right. What about Kenya?" And the student goes, "No." And I said, "Okay, fair enough.

What's the point in knowing about those places if you're never going to visit them, interact with them, or want to do anything associated with them?" And I was very surprised. There was just a long pause. And I could see, and this is a student who talks a lot. To get a pause I thought, all right,something has happened.
Simon: Yeah well you've obviously asked a probing question if the pause is there.
Colin: So let's talk about, and this relates closely to understanding versus knowledge. And David Perkins is an author we've talked about before on the show. And he's got a nice of putting it. And he likens understand as knowing your way around a subject. And I quite like that too. How would you explain that idea to a teacher?

Teaching for Understanding 

Simon: Yeah, I think this connects to another framework that emerges from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.. And that framework is the teaching for understanding framework. In that particular framework, activities are not described as activities but rather as performances of understanding or performances for understanding.

So when we have students actually engage in something, we ask ourselves well, why is it that we're getting them to do that? What is the purpose of this activity that they're engaged in? If it's a performance of understanding then it may well be an opportunity that through that activity they can demonstrate that they have understood something. And that's particularly valuable.

But it's the phrasing of the performances for understanding that I particularly love. That by engaging in a particular activity, their understanding is enriched. To use Perkins' language that you mentioned there, they're finding their way around the subject. In an attempt to engage in the task, they're developing and enriching their understanding. That would be my way of trying to explain what Perkins is describing there, understanding is knowing your way around something.

Google can be part of the solution 

Colin: So let me throw a spanner in the works here. Is Google a part of that problem? As in, is Google a part of the problem of people not feeling or seeing the value of knowing their way around something? When they can just say, "Look, I don't know that. Bang, I'll just Google it." 

Simon: I don't think it needs to be a part of the problem, but perhaps it'll be a part of the solution. Perhaps it is what children do with what they find on Google that matters. I mean it's a wonderful and vast repository of information.
Colin: Yes and Google are our friends. I just want to reinforce that. Hello, Google.
Simon: Yes, wonderful. You know it's such a great repository for children. There's so much information there. But I guess it's what they do with the information that they find from Google that matters. If it's just being recipients of that information then that is useful up to a point. But then when they take that information and they try to make sense of it, they try to understand it through performance of or for understanding then that's where that information in Google can just augment the development of their understanding.

I don't necessarily think that just because it's there, and I have heard other speakers talk about this, that it's perpetuating a spoon feeding culture. It might do, but great teachers know that they can help their young people draw on what they find on Google just to enrich the development of their understanding through what they get them to do with it afterwards, through the thinking opportunities that those teachers marshal their students towards.
Colin: What do you think about the idea that understanding then can never be complete or absolute? What do you think that means for teachers?  

Living in the muddle - The Monty Hall Problem
Simon: I think that's probably the greatest gift of all for learners and for teachers. There's a concept I actually talk about a lot with teachers around this idea of understanding never being complete and absolute. And the phrasing that I give to this, and it's absolutely linked to cultures and thinking pedagogy. But it's an English term. For me, I call this living in the muddle.
Colin: Okay, talk us through that one.
Simon: Well how can we as teachers create a muddle for the students with whom we work? Create a confusion, create a situation when they actually don't have absolute understanding of something. That it's far from complete. That they've got elements of understanding. That parts of it make sense but a lot of it is still confusing.

If we can as teachers build situations like that and have students live in that muddle, live in the lack of absoluteness for as long as possible, then what we're doing there is we're creating a powerful incentive for them to carry on learning. An example of that that I sometimes share with teachers that I work with is something called the Monty Hall problem. So the Monty Hall problem is a probability based problem. And it arises from this notion that there's a game show.
Colin: Yeah, it's the one where you get to win a Ferrari or something isn't it?
Simon: That's right, exactly. There are three doors, there are two goats behind one door and there's a Ferrari behind the other door.
Colin: That's right. The goats and the Ferrari.
Simon: That's it. And we're asked to pick a door. Once we've picked the door then the host, Monty Hall, shows us what's behind one of the other doors, which is a goat. Then we're asked whether should change the door choice or stick with the door choice we have.

What's interesting in this problem is that the intuition suggests it doesn't matter whether you stick or change. But actually, probability dictates that you should change. The great way of doing this is to present this problem to young people and say, "Look, here's the problem." Because it doesn't seem like an intuitive response.
But rather than as teachers, rather than jumping in and trying to solve the problem for them as quickly as possible with our absolute knowledge of mathematics, what would be like if we let these young people just live in the muddle of that problem for as long as possible so that their understanding is not complete, it's not absolute, it's an understanding that's growing?

If we keep them in that space for as long as possible then that's in service ultimately of developing really rich understanding. So I guess in answer to your question Colin, I'm saying that if understanding is never complete and absolute, well that's a pretty wonderful thing because that just drives us as humanity towards developing richer understanding.

Surface learning versus deep learning
Colin: I wanted to ask you about surface versus deep learning. And to confess, I actually have a question written in front of me that says, "How deep is deep enough?" And as soon as I wrote that I just couldn't get out of my head the Bee Gees song, How Deep Is Your Love.
Simon: Perhaps you can just give us a brief rendition of that.
Colin: No, I won't do that. I'll spare our listeners the pain of that. But I just wanted to get that clearer. I'm not asking how deep is your love. I am actually asking how deep is deep enough. The bigger question I've got is, I think deep learning is important.

But what if my students don't? How do I overcome that hurdle? Practically, when I walk into a classroom what are some of the words that I can use, the languag. Although that may be segueing into our next discussion on language, but what can I do to try and communicate the importance of deep learning?
Simon: Let me address some of the ideas behind that and then I'll respond to that next part about what we actually do next as teachers. Something interesting, and I'll go to John Hattie first. John Hattie in his book Visible Learning, he argues that a balance between surface and deep learning is important. And with utter respect to John Hattie, although I don't agree with all of Hattie's thinking, I do suspect that there's merit in that idea.

And that sometimes some surface learning and deep learning together can be powerful. If surface learning is knowing and applying a set of facts, but deep learning is cognitive engagement with that, with those facts, connection making, analogising, evaluating, those types of things, perhaps sometimes there's space for both.

And a good example of that I think would be long division, which isn't always taught as much these days as it used to be. I know if you remember learning long division, Colin, there's a long and elaborate process for long division which involves pulling numbers down to the next column. And I think that often when children learn how to do long division, they're following a process but they don't know why.
Colin: I'd say that's probably universally true.
Simon: They're doing it because they been shown that that's how you do long division. And for many years, I was concerned about that. And I thought well, they should know why they're doing it. But a few months ago I had a conversation with a fantastic mathematics teacher. And he said to me, and he helped me reevaluate this. And he said, "well actually maybe it's good that they learn that process through surface learning first. Maybe it's good first that they just learn about how the process works."
Colin: Yeah, so they just get the mechanics of it first.
Simon: That's right, that they get the mechanics of it, they can then do it. So long as at some point in the future, once the mechanics of the process have become real and practical and easy for them replicate, at some point in the future the teacher says to them, "So why do we do it like this? What does it mean to pull the number down from there to there? What's the reasoning behind it?"

So I think in terms of surface and deep learning, sometimes surface learning first can be important so long as ultimately we move towards a space where deep learning comes to support that surface learning, to explain why the surface is that way.
Colin: Let me finish with this quote by Rose-Duckworth and Ramer, which also comes out of Ritchhart's book, and then I'll ask you a final question.
Simon: Okay.
Colin: Goes like this. "Independent learners are internally motivated to be reflective, resourceful, and effective as they strive to accomplish worthwhile endeavors when working in isolation or with others. Even when challenges arise, they persevere." If I as a teacher wanted my students to be independent learners, what's something that I could change or work on about myself today that could help to make this happen?

Routines like "what happens next" and "how do you know"
Simon: I'd start with curiosity there, I think, Colin. And I talk a lot about independent learners and a lot about self-directed learners. But the question behind those questions is why do students want to be independent? Why would they want to be self-directed? And the answer there is that whatever it is that they're being independent with or self-directed about, they need to care about.

They need to want to learn about it. So the question that underpins that for teachers is how can we ignite that flame of curiosity? In consequence of the time that we spend with our learners and what they're doing in the classroom, the environment that we're creating, how are we engineering a situation where they really want to learn, where it feels like an exciting thing to engage in?
And there's a routine there that I've developed over the years. It's a routine called what happens next. I think this is a really good example of what I'm trying to talk about. So let's imagine we're a history teacher. We've taught about a moment in history up to a particular point. Perhaps we're looking at Winston Churchill. And we're teaching about the whole set of circumstances in history up until a moment when Churchill needed to make a decision.

We might be working on that in the history classroom. And we might stop at that moment and we might say to our learners, "Okay, so what do you think happened next? What do you think Churchill did in this situation?" But not tell them what he did next. Let's first get them speculating based on all of the factual events that took us up to that point.
And one student might say, "Oh, I think this happened next." Another student might say, "Oh, I think Churchill did this." Another student might say, "no, no, he wouldn't have done that. This is what he would have done in that moment." Let's hold the students in that muddle for as long as possible. Because at the core of who they are, they'll be thinking I really wanna find out what Churchill did do next. We've been theorizing but now I wanna find out. There's an energy in there.

And how can we as teachers try to string out that energy for as long as possible? Let's keep them in the muddle. Let's not solve things too quickly. And then when we finally might share what Churchill did next, there's an energy there too.

Because then they'll be going, "Oh no, I can't believe he did that!" Or, "Oh yeah, I was right. Yeah, that was a sensible decision." And it's through routines like "what happens next" and "how do you know" that we foster curiosity in our classrooms. And maybe that's what we need to do if we really want young people to become independent learners.
Colin: It's been great to speak with you, Simon. Thanks so much for your time.
Simon: Thanks, Colin.

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Cultures of Thinking is an educational framework that emerged from the work of Ron Ritchhart and the Project Zero team at Harvard University. This episode belongs to an 8 part series on the Learning Capacity Podcast, where I delve into each of the 8 cultural forces that, according to Ron Ritchhart, we must master in order to truly transform our schools.

Topics: School, Learning Capacity, Podcasts, Teaching, Cultures of Thinking

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