Cultures of Thinking is an educational framework that emerged from the work of Ron Ritchhart and the Project Zero team at Harvard University.
On the Learning Capacity Podcast, I have been speaking with educational consultant, Simon Brooks about each of the 8 cultural forces in the framework. In this discussion we look at what it means to create ‘opportunities’ for learning in our classrooms.
This is Part 5 of the 8 part series with Simon Brooks about implementing cultures of thinking in our schools.
Listen to the podcast.
- Cultures of thinking
- Using opportunity based language
- The Tuning Protocol
- Living Historians program at Masada College
People & organisations mentioned
- Dr Ron Ritchhart
- Dr David Perkins
- Singapore Ministry of Education
- Masada College, Sydney
- Sir Ken Robinson
- Mike Schmoker
- Professor John Hattie
- Mark Church
- Project Zero at Harvard University
- Ferris Bueller's Day Off (movie)
- Teach Less, Learn More
- “Creating Cultures of Thinking” by Ron Ritchhart
Previous podcast episodes on SoundCloud
If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:
Episode 72 of The Learning Capacity Podcast
Are student perceptions of worth the biggest untapped learning opportunities?
Colin Klupiec: Opportunities. A set of conditions or circumstances that make it possible to do or achieve something. Simon, good morning.
Simon Brooks: Good morning.
Colin: Let me start with this opening quote from the chapter.
"Generally, the language that we use to talk about what we do as teachers is one of planning units, writing lessons, preparing activities, generating assignments, and assigning work. However, such language simplifies, obfuscates, and generally misses the point of what great teachers really do."
Now to me that sounds like it flies in the face of the common perception of teaching. What do great teachers really do?
Simon: I think those great teachers are interested in creating powerful learning experiences for their learners. And in those experiences, there are multiple opportunities for rich thinking that happens, multiple different types of thinking that happens.
And through engaging in that thinking, that's how children develop that deep rich lasting understanding. That's what great teachers do.
Colin: Yeah, all right. So why do we think that all of those other things are great? Like generating assignments, assigning work, and preparing activities, writing lessons. How do we get to the point where what you just said is better than what the quote says?
Simon: I think those things are necessities. So they are often the means by which we get to the rich learning that happens behind them. The problem is it can be so easy because they are the bread and butter of daily experience just to get carried away with those things so that they become the purpose in themselves.
But long term, what great teachers think about is that those things, like work and assignments, that they are there in service of the learning behind them. But it's the learning behind them that ultimately is what's important here.
The language of opportunities vs the language of tasks or work
Colin: I guess it's easy then for the assignments and those general day to day things to take some form of precedence, or to be emphasized in the day. But to continue to come back to the learning is the hard part. So why is the language of opportunities more effective or helpful than the language of say work or tasks?
Simon: Yeah, which speaks to what we were just talking about there. I think the language of work or tasks creates a focus on what gets done. Whereas the language of opportunities necessitates a focus on actually what gets learned. If we can keep our focus on opportunities then that's what happens.
And I also think there's something interesting about the word task. A task sounds like it has boundaries, and those boundaries might have been the boundaries imposed by the teacher in the creation of the task. Whereas an opportunity sounds much more open ended.
It sounds like an experience that a learner can take wherever the learner needs to take that experience.
Colin: I guess then if you're going to use opportunity based language with a student, instead of saying look, let's get this done, or here's something else I need you to do, you can say well, here is an opportunity. And the student might then respond by saying, an opportunity for what?
And suddenly you've got dialogue about the possibilities. Ron Ritchhart tells an interesting story about how he observed a geography class. And before the class, he had a chance to just walk into the room.
No one was there yet and he could see that there were things on the wall. Obviously, they'd been doing stuff. But over on the cupboard, there was a pile of textbooks, and presumably, it was the set text.
He had a bit of a flip through that, and noticed that it's the usual structure of a chapter of a text. And at the end you've got the summary section where it's basically distilled down the contents of the chapter and said here's what we think is important for you to take away from this.
And reflecting on that he thought well, why would the student have to go through all that stuff just to know what the stuff at the end is when the stuff at the end is already printed there? So what was the point of it?
And I think what he was thinking about before that class must have been surely there was an opportunity to do something different. Now presumably there was because the textbooks were on the shelf and there were other things going on.
What might an opportunity look like if we know that we've got a textbook that has that? How do we change that? Do we just not look at the summary?
Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Simon: I'm going to answer that question in a very long-winded way, Colin, so bear with me. I'm a 1980's American teen comedy movie tragic. And one of the movies I enjoy most from that period is Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
Colin: Bueller? Bueller?
Simon: That's the one.
Colin: That's the first thing that always comes to mind.
Simon: And there are many reasons that I enjoy that film. It's just thoroughly entertaining in many ways.It probably speaks to a generation which worryingly I'm a part of. But there's a part in the film which is really, really powerful and which I show in workshops that I run.
And that's when the teacher that you just referenced, who is played by an actor Ben Stein, delivers an economics lesson to a bunch of senior students. And I believe, from memory, he's speaking about something called the Hawley-Smoot tariff bill.
Simon: And a concept which sounds like it could be really interesting called voodoo economics. The problem is that whilst he's teaching this lesson, and it's a deeply satirical lesson, of course, that he's delivering, the students are completely disengaged from the experience.
He's talking, they're just staring vacantly. Indeed, one student is literally dribbling.
Colin: Yes. And I believe he sort of comes to and then suddenly starts to try and wipe the drool off his mouth.
Simon: Very much so. And he does that when Ben Stein scribbles something on the board and there's a high pitched squeak and it wakes him up. And it's interesting reflecting on that lesson. Actually, Ben Stein does have a thinking routine that he's using. And it's the 'anyone, anyone' routine, you may remember.
Colin: And he uses it very well.
Simon: Very effectively. Effectively he's delivering a monolog and the students are present in the room while he's doing it. He's doing a thoroughly good job of teaching himself about the Hawley-Smoot tariff act.
And the children are just sort of there along for the ride. They're present whilst he's learning because he's the one that's doing all of the thinking in that space.
So if we come back to your question and I think about this geography textbooks. Well the problem with that section at the end of it, the summary section, is that in the summary section the textbook is doing all of the thinking for the students. In a way, the textbook is functioning as a personified version of Ben Stein from Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
They're both doing exactly the same thing. They're trying to prepackage the learning in a way that's it's easy for students to understand. But the problem is it's done all of the thinking for them.
Perhaps at the end of that Geography textbook, it would be more powerful if it was the students who engaged in that process of trying to capture the essence of the ideas that the book presented.
Colin: Can I just jump in there? Before we talk about what a different opportunity might look like, I actually have had that experience from my own tertiary study when I did post graduate studies in business.
So I did actually look at the economics and what I noticed particularly from the MBA textbooks is that they all have those nice summary sections at the end.
And I found myself actually thinking all right, well I'm going to start this chapter at the end. So I went to read the summary at the end thinking okay, this is what I think is important. So when I then start at the beginning of the chapter, I'll make a note of those things as I come to them in the chapter.
And then you suddenly think all right, well if those things are important then what's all this other stuff? And then you suddenly realise that the textbook is only 200 pages long or 300 pages long because there's a whole lot of other stuff in there that's not in the summary. So why is it there? I mean, okay, so it might be useful to read anyway. But then shouldn't the summary be as long as the chapter?
Engage students in the summarising process
Simon: I'd like the summarizing process to be an intellectual endeavor in which the student are engaged rather than the publisher of the book is engaged. Otherwise, the publisher of the textbook and the writer will reach a point where they think wow, I've really captured the essence of the ideas in this chapter remarkably well.
I understand this chapter much better now than I did at the beginning. But isn't the goal of the textbook for the students to feel like that?
Colin: So is the opportunity here for the students to create the summary?
How do teachers "wild it up"?
Simon: That would be one really powerful thinking opportunity I think that students can engage in. We'd need to think about how we can wild that up a bit, to use David Perkins' language, of our role as teachers rather than taming the wild can be wilding the team.
So the concept of can you just come out with a summary of this book chapter? I'm not sure what interesting an opportunity that would be for children. It might sound a bit dry.
We need to think about how we can wild it up a bit. But the thinking moves there, that capturing the essence of ideas, that sounds really powerful.
Colin: I got the impression that in that chapter the teacher was trying to get the students to generate not only the summary but the content as well.
So I'm thinking about a textbook where you might get to the summary part and it's just a blank page and then there's a comment there that says oh, that's your part. But even then, you're still reading prepackaged pages in a textbook.
So how do you generate other opportunities for students to generate content? I mean, I can imagine that wilding the tame is making a few people nervous here. Don't we want tame students?
Simon: Well, tame sounds a bit dry, doesn't it? I think we want students who behave respectfully because they choose to behave respectfully. But what we want in our classrooms is intellectual wildness.
If we're talking about end of chapter summaries, one thing that might be interesting to talk about is that at the end of each chapter in Ron Ritchart's book, Creating Cultures of Thinking, that we're talking about right now, each chapter has an end of chapter summary.
But there's something interesting is when you look closely at those end of chapter summaries, they're not in essence designed to summarize what's come before, they're designed to push and press and probe.
They're designed to have teachers move away and find ways to make sense of these ideas in their own practice and suggestions around that. Perhaps that's a more powerful way of thinking about chapter summaries.
Colin: And perhaps that's the reason why thinking like this is so difficult. Because we've been using textbooks with chapter summaries for so long now, if you said to someone here, I'd like you to try and help these students come up with the main ideas of this chapter, but don't use the summary in the end of the textbook and don't use a list of questions, well you might get a bit of a blank stare for a while.
I mean, if I had to do that I'd probably give myself a blank stare for a while, I think, because that's quite challenging.
Teach less, learn more - Singapore Ministry of Education
Colin: But it is an interesting opportunity. Let's talk about something that the Singapore Ministry of Education tried, which is an initiative called Teach Less, Learn More. Now that sounds kind of weird.
But let me just read to you this quote. "It was aimed at reducing the amount of teacher talk and delivery of information so that students had more opportunities to actually engage with content and to learn rather than prepare for tests."
Now the comment made is, and I'll continue the quote, "It's unclear how successful the initiative has been mostly because the test pressures and demands on students haven't changed. But one has to applaud the recognition that teaching as telling and education as test prep are both weak imitations of the real thing.
Have we been masquerading as teachers, not doing the real thing for a long, long time?
Simon: That is a great question, I think this concept of teach less, learn more is something I'd really advocate. And I laud the Singaporean educational team for proposing it. For me, I'd rather the wording, rather than teach less, learn more, and it might not be as catchy, but I'd think I prefer teacher talk less, students learn more.
I sort of want to rescue the phrase teach a little bit in that phrase. Teach less learn more implies that teaching is the act of a teacher talking.
Colin: Okay, sorry, I've gotta think about that one for a second.
Teaching is the process of enabling students to learn
Simon: But I don't define teaching as that. I define teaching as the process of enabling students to learn. So if that's the definition then the self-becomes, the phrase becomes self-defeating. Teach less, learn more.
Well, if we teach less then we're stopping children from learning less and so they can't learn more. But I'm splitting hairs here because I know what they mean by teach. They're actually talking about talking.
Colin: Yeah. But I know what you also mean about trying to rescue the term teaching here. Because there was, a little while back, I came across this notion that's become quite popular in schools that said, I'm less of a teacher and more of a facilitator.
And I think, well, hang on a minute. That can't be right either. We can't just completely throw away the fact that we are educators and not just facilitators. That means I could just pull anyone off the street and say here, facilitate this. So that doesn't really work either.
Simon: And there are two parts two that, and we've used this language in a previous podcast. I think about teaching as both being an ideas purveyor and a learning facilitator. So the ideas purveying part is that's the part where we can talk.
I mean, coming back to this phrase, teach less, learn more, I know there are some teachers out there who've set a stopwatch for themselves. And they limit themselves to 10 minutes worth of teacher talk every lesson. And when the stopwatch goes off they think that that's enough of that, and now it's time for the children to do something with it.
Colin: Yes. It's goodnight from me, and over to you.
Simon: That's right. So that the theory behind this is really, really powerful. Too much teacher talk means we're rescuing children, means we're doing the thinking for them. Some teacher talk, really, really, really powerfully. We inspire children when we're ideas purveyors.
So let's not feel guilty about that. Let's carry on making sure that we can inspire children with interesting ideas. But after that, well, we've got to allow the space for the children themselves to process and think about what we've shared.
Talking less to make space for learning opportuities
Colin: And therein lies the opportunity, right? So if I actually have less words coming out of my mouth, or if I only talk for 10 minutes, then suddenly I've got a whole space of time where other opportunities can present themselves.
And I guess it's also a situation where if I'm continuously talking then other opportunities just don't have the opportunity, if I can put it that way, to present themselves.
Simon: Yeah, there's space for them
Colin: Yeah, like you'll never come up with it. But it's interesting, just coming back to the quote, it says, "One has to laud," sorry, "Applaud the recognition that teaching as telling and education as test prep are both weak imitations about the real thing."
But if the pressure for test preparation is still there, is it worth even trying this?
Simon: Well the assumption that lies behind that question is that the best way to prepare children for tests is to tell them what they need to do to pass the tests.
But there's a lot of research, and I know that Ron references it one point in the text, that shows actually that the best way to prepare children for tests that require recall of information is to give them thinking opportunities where they can go away and process the information, not just by blindly memorizing it.
Opportunities exist within a context
Colin: You know, okay. So let's have a look at something else he suggests. And this is a little bit complex, so we're going to have to explain this well for our listeners because you need to have a mental diagram in front of you. Richart suggests that we think about opportunities as existing not in isolation, and I'm quoting here again, 'But within an embedded or nested context."
And then he talks about a pyramid. Now, educators and people who write books, particularly strategy and business type books and education type books, they love drawing pyramids and diagrams and things.
So if you can imagine a pyramid, it's made up of events, projects, tasks, and moments. Now we're talking about opportunities existing within a context of those things. Can you walk us through that?
Simon: Yes and I'm sure Ron likes pyramids as well because Ron was a maths teacher before becoming a Harvard researcher. So I'm sure there's something about the mathematical dimensions of that shape is appealing to him.
Colin: Maths always comes out as being very important, doesn't it?
Simon: It really does. And just as a brief aside, it's actually fantastic that Ron's a Maths teacher, because it helps over the years, and I've mentioned this before, the odd occasional maths teacher has said to me things like I can see how these ideas apply to the humanities subjects.But I'm not sure that they do to maths.
Colin: Yeah, nothing ever applies to maths.
Simon: Oh, of course. No, because there's no thinking in mathematics. And that, and I think we've mentioned it in a previous podcast, I've said that to other maths teachers who have found that to be really offensive, that implication that there's no thinking in mathematics.
So I urge the listeners to read the chapters on opportunities and routines in the Cultures of Thinking book where Ron actually delves extensively into stories from maths classrooms where thinking is coming alive through the use of opportunities and routines. But to return to your question.
Colin: Well, let's have a look at it.
Simon: So here's the triangle. At the uppermost end of the triangle, where it reaches it's pointy top, we have events. And the definition that Ron explores, and by the way for listeners, this is on page 160 of the book, Creating Cultures of Thinking, Ron defines events as longer term learning opportunities.
So this might be something taking place over a whole school term or even a semester or even a whole year. So a long-term opportunity but within those events, nested inside them, we have projects. So those are opportunities which might take several class periods to complete, but those projects collectively make up the event as a whole.
Within those projects, so as part of getting those projects done, and people familiar with project management from industry, this will make sense to them, within projects there are a number of different tasks. And those indeed, in themselves, are thinking opportunities. Collectively, they constitute completion of the project.
So they're the different parts that make up the project. And then within those tasks at the bottom of the pyramid are moments. So those are all of those little instructional instructions between teachers and learners, and with learners themselves, that actually make up the tasks, which make up the projects, which make up the event.
And so I actually have a specific example which might help us flesh this out even more.
Colin: Sure, yeah, absolutely.
Simon: If I may share that.
Colin: No, that's helpful.
Simon: So a school that I used to work at, a wonderful school that really explores these ideas of building a culture of thinking is Masada College, which is a private Jewish school on the north shore of Sydney.
Colin: Hello to our friends at Masada.
Living Historians program as Masada College
Simon: Hello Masada, a wonderful school. And they have a wonderful thinking opportunity program there which is called Living Historians. So Living Historians is an amazing opportunity for the year 10 students of that school to work closely with holocaust survivors.
Colin: Wow. That would be powerful.
Simon: And these are sometimes, and in previous years, and now with the passing of time there are fewer actual holocaust survivors remaining. There are still some. And so it can be with holocaust survivors and sometimes it's with the children of holocaust survivors.
And the purpose of that opportunity is for them to spend an extended period of time--so this is an event. This is what Ron Richart would call an event.
Working closely with them, interviewing them, hearing their stories, doing research around those stories to sort of place them contextually, culminating in an evening when they've run a whole presentation night where the students share the survivors' stories with an assembled audience, including the survivor.
Colin: Yeah that would certainly add a lot of value, and I guess relevance to the whole thing.
Simon: It feels really real, and it feels really significant, and it feels to the students essential that they get it right.
Colin: Yeah, absolutely, because you want to be true to the real story.
Simon: You really don't want to be getting that wrong. You don't want to be inadvertently causing offense. Your want to honour the experiences of these people.
Colin: Yeah, it's almost a case where you wouldn't say is this is right or wrong, you would say, I'm sorry but wrong is not an option here.
Simon: Well that's it. And this Living Historians thinking opportunity is a big event. This takes place over a semester. It's comprised of projects, so a series of smaller but extended thinking opportunities that exist within it.
So one of the projects that they'd have to engage in is preparing for the interview. That takes a lot of thinking. How do I get myself ready to interview this survivor?
Colin: What kind of questions do I ask to avoid the yes/no answer?
Simon: That's it. Something that, a project that you yourself, Colin, are consistently engaged in, I'm sure, as host of this podcast.
Colin: It takes a lot of work sometimes.
Simon: It does, you know. But that work, that's a really powerful thinking opportunity. So they are engaging in that same thinking opportunity as a project. Another part of it would be the conducting of the associated research that links along with these holocaust survivor stories.
And then within those projects then there are tasks. So one of the tasks is conducting the interview. You know, I've prepared for it. That was a part of the project was preparing for it. But then I've actually got to conduct the interview.
That's a thinking and learning opportunity. And then, of course, writing the presentation is another task that's a thinking opportunity. And then right at the bottom of this pyramid, moments. Well, they're all of those instructional moments along the way, and each one is a rich thinking opportunity as part of this Living Historian program.
And if we think about moments, I'm just thinking about those moments when these year 10 students are sitting down in front of holocaust survivors talking to them.
Colin: Yeah, because then they really are in the moment.
Simon: Yeah, and think about the power of the opportunities that they have there to learn from the stories of these people and connect with them both cerebrally and emotionally.
Colin: So I guess what this is trying to do is it's trying to get us think about an opportunity as not something that happens ad hoc, or it might happen today or it might happen tomorrow. But it really is happening in a broader time scale.
Or we can think about them as happening in a broader time scale. And I guess that also reduces some of the pressure because when you think I don't have to race into my classroom today and look for an opportunity. I could think about something over a longer period of time or I could make a longer task and think what are the opportunities within that time frame.
Colin: That's fascinating. I wanted to ask you a little bit more about perceived worth because sometimes it's hard to actually be able to identify and recognize where opportunities are in the classroom. I mean, you think about it, from a professional development perspective here's a couple of guys talking about opportunities.
Ron Ritchhart wrote about opportunities. You guys need to now go out and, sorry, teachers now need to go out and look for those opportunities. How do I do that? Well, let's start with this one and maybe this is the only one we'd really need to think about just to get the ball rolling here.
Perceived worth, because we often hear about students talking about the value or lack of value of what they do. It's like why am I learning this? What do I have to do this for? A comment by Ritchhart says, and I'll quote here, "The teacher worth does not necessarily equate to student worth."
Whoa. Okay. "Instead, it's the ability of the teacher to place the activity within the context of a larger goal or enterprise that mattered." Now here's my question. Is a student's perception of worth perhaps the biggest untapped opportunity?
Colin: After having said all that stuff about avoiding yes no answers to questions, you've given me a yes. Okay, how then do we go into tapping into students perception of worth?
Simon: Yeah, so I think back here to an opportunity that I created for some of my students in a lesson I did that I taught in the past. I'll talk about that then I'm going to come back to Living Historians that we talked about before and asked this question.
So I think back to some year 11 students, and I was teaching them about poetry which chronicles the migrant experience. So we'd studied lots of poems which were exploring the migrant experience. And they developed a lot of rich understandings that emerged from that study.
But the culmination of that, the culminating thinking opportunity, was that I asked them to pick a poem that they most connected with and to create a short film as a representation of that poem. It wasn't simply just a retell the narrative of that poem.
The short film was symbolically to capture the essence of the big and powerful ideas of that poem explored in relation to the migrant experience.
So in other words, they had to produce something. Ron also talks in the book here about the necessity of novel application. The ideas that children explore, the best thing through that they can do with a thinking opportunity is to create something new emerging from thinking about those ideas.
So this is an example of that. They have to create a short film capturing key ideas of that poem symbolically.
In terms of perceived worth, well this was an opportunity that for many of those students really had quite immense worth to them. It was a creative experience. Ken Robinson talks a lot about how there is no greater sense of perceived worth than that than being the opportunity to be creative.
And so in terms of your question about perceived worth, I think there was a significant level of perceived worth within that thinking opportunity of creating a representational film.
However, when we think back to Living Historians, perhaps that was an even higher level of perceived worth because that was about reality. It was about people, it was about not wanting to misrepresent these stories.
And it was about wanting to come along to a big presentation evening with a lot of people there and present something that honored those people. If children can see how the thinking opportunity and learning opportunities in which they are engaged connect to something that matters, then I think that unlocks the power of a potential learning experience in a way that probably nothing else does.
Colin: Let's finish with an insight from one of my favorite sounding authors, Mike Schmoker. And I'll take a quote from Ritchhart again. Schmoker, talks about, let me put it to you this way.
He sees the replacement of low-level tasks with purposeful opportunities that engage students in thinking as one of the single most productive and low-cost things that schools can do to improve performance.
This means reducing reliance on worksheets, prepackaged curricula, study guides, and scripted teaching, none of which are actually targeted at the collection of individual students you teach.
Simon: Ouch. I can hear shrieking.
Colin: That's not in the book. That's me. Given that we're talking about cultural force of opportunities, what's your response to that?
Simon: We're tapping in here to some thinking that John Hattie who has been one of your previous guests would probably explore as well, that education is sometimes full of distractions.
And when we're talking about low-cost interventions often the low-cost interventions are the ones that potentially yield the greatest effect. But a lot of schools can become overly concerned perhaps with high-cost interventions, such as redesigning learning spaces perhaps, that probably won't yield as much benefit in terms of the learning outcomes.
Colin: Or learning management systems. Sorry to interrupt you, but I just thought when you talked about learning spaces, I mean the learning management systems, the virtual space.
The Tuning Protocol
Simon: And that could be part of it too. And that's not to say that those two things can't be important. But when we look at opportunities and how to use Mark Church's language. He's one of the Harvard thinkers.
How can we bump up those learning opportunities as best possible? That's probably the most powerful thing that we can do. So I concur with Schmoker, and I'd like to add something into the mix there which is just a practical way of making that happen.
There's a really powerful protocol that can be run called the Tuning Protocol, that emerges from the work of the national school reform faculty in the United States and connects with a lot of Harvard thinking.
Basically, the Tuning Protocol enables a teacher to bring along to a meeting anything that they want to be fine tuned, to be developed, to be enriched. I propose that a teacher could bring along an opportunity to a staff meeting, or to a meeting with their colleagues.
The Tuning Protocol could be used in conjunction with Ritchhart's research here about all of the characteristics that make for really effective learning and thinking opportunities.
And in the company of their peers could just fine tune that opportunity, bump it up, make it richer. There is so much value in that for the learners, for the collaborative feel that a school creates. Maybe that's something that's really worth investing time and energy in.
Colin: Yeah, Hattie's talked a lot about that actually. We talked about that in that episode that you're referring to. He talks about one of the most important things being the power of collaborative expertise.
In other words, instead of outsourcing, instead of getting stuff in from the outside like prepackaged curricula and study guides, why don't we work together more often? Why don't we see what's working in our local contexts, in our individual contexts, and go with that? Surely that has some value, right?
Simon: If teachers can work together to create thinking opportunities, such as the Living Historians example that we've talked about today, imagine how much more power that has than children in the class sitting down and completing a few worksheets.
Colin: Simon, it's been great to speak with you. Thank you so much for your time.
Simon: Thanks, Colin.