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Cultures of Thinking: Simon Brooks on using the Force of Time

Posted by Colin Klupiec on June 19, 2016 at 2:55 PM

Cultures_of_thinking.pngTicking away, the moments that make up a dull day. Is that your school day?

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 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 episode of The Learning Capacity Podcast we discuss the cultural force of time.

This is Part 3 of the 8 part series with Simon Brooks about implementing cultures of thinking in our schools. 

Listen to the podcast.

Topics covered

  1. Cultures of thinking in schools
  2. The cultural force of time

People & organisations mentioned

  1. Project Zero at Harvard University
  2. Dr Ron Ritchhart
  3. Dr David Perkins
  4. Stephen Covey
  5. Peter Skrzynecki
  6. Pink Floyd
  7. Board of Studies
  8. Mike Shmoker

Resources/books/articles mentioned

  1. “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 68 of The Learning Capacity Podcast

How do you value time in school? Simon Brooks on the cultural force of ‘time’.

 Colin Klupiec: Time, ticking away the moments that make up a dull day, fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way. Well, at least that's how Pink Floyd saw it.

But Simon, I have to tell you that sometimes when I walk through a schoolyard, I wonder whether the students might be experiencing the Pink Floyd experience. Have you ever seen that going on?   

Simon Brooks: Absolutely. I think, students and adults alike can all be dragged into that world all too easily when we find ourselves investing a lot of time and energy in things that probably don't really align with our core purposes and goals. 
Colin: Well, we are talking about the book Cultures of Thinking written by Ron Ritchhart here, and we're currently looking at the cultural force of time. The chapter opens with an interesting subtitle, "Learning to be its master, rather than its victim." Now, I asked Ron Ritchhart about that, and I suggested that in his travels he might have met a lot of victims. He gave a slight chuckle to that. I suspect you may have met quite a few as well. Have you?
Simon: Well, I chuckled myself, and my chuckle derived from the fact that I suspect I'm one of those victims. 
Colin: I think we're all a victim of time, from time to time.

Master of time, not a victim of time

Simon: Absolutely. It's a tough thing to find ways around, and that's the first thing to acknowledge in all of this. I think that's really important to acknowledge, is it's a real concern. When we hear teachers saying things like, "I don't have the time to build a culture of thinking because I've got to get through all of this content, or I've got reports to mark or parents to meet," all sorts of things that have to be done, let's first off acknowledge, yeah, that's a real and pressing concern, and challenging.
I don't have particularly a silver bullet to forever defeat that vampire. But maybe during our conversation today we can talk about some strategies and some changes that people might be able to implement, so they might become a little bit more of a master of time and less of a victim. 
Colin: Well, let me continue on with another word that seems to be floating around a lot. I seem to get a lot of emails from colleagues saying that I must be very busy. Now, do you think that it might be better if I got emails suggesting that I might be very engaged or focused, something like that? I mean, what do you think busy actually means?
Simon: Well, it would be wonderful if I received emails suggesting that you are thoroughly engaged. And I'm sure you are thoroughly engaged, not just busy. I suspect that those two words aren't synonyms, to start with. I think there's something about the word "busy" which implies that, again, we're a victim, that we're getting carried away with work. Whereas the word "engaged" or "focused," I think within that word suggests that it's learning, which is at the core of what's happening. 
So, busy: work. Engaged: learning. And the problem is, when we're just connected and engaged in busy work, if it's busy work we're doing, then I suspect that what we're doing won't always be directly informed by our core values. And that's something that's really important to think about when we talk about this cultural force of time.
Colin: Yeah, we're going to get to that in a moment, but I just want to stick with the busy thing here for a minute. And this will relate to something that we're also going to talk about a little bit later in the conversation. But if I'm always really, really busy, I would suspect that I'm gonna be pretty exhausted often as well, and perhaps even most of the time. What do you think about that?
Simon: Absolutely. And if we're exhausted, and if we as teachers are exhausted, then I think that that is ultimately counterproductive, and utterly opposed in fact, to building a culture of thinking. Because a culture of thinking is by definition a lively place where there's a tremendous amount of different thinking moves being performed by the learners. But if we're exhausted, then that's going to achieve the opposite effect of wanting to build a culture of thinking. 
Colin: Let's get into some practical stuff then. Ron Ritchhart talks about what he calls five key approaches and perspectives on time. Let's talk about a few of those. Recognising time as a statement of your values - you've already flagged to that - Ritchhart asks the question: "If someone were to follow you throughout the day, what would your allocation of time say about your priorities and values?"

Now, just thinking that through, if someone was to do that to me, or to you, or to anyone, this sounds like a very confronting question, how do you think we should address that?
Simon: It's hugely confronting, because as soon as we say that time is a statement of our values, then it communicates a message that time isn't just something that happens to us, but rather, time is something that we're in charge of and we're making allocations.

So, those teachers out there who feel that they're a victim of time, that they've got to meet all of these requirements that are externally imposed, to suggest to them that they're actually choosing to become stressed, that they're choosing to get caught up in all the detail, that could be really confronting for them to hear. 
And I think it is because I have made that suggestion to teachers in the past and I know their reactions. It comes back again to a lot of the work that Stephen Covey has done. Covey talks about the necessity to make our own weather.
Colin: Rather than talk about it?
Simon: Well, exactly. You know, when we look outside and it's a rainy day, says Covey, it's really easy to feel rainy inside. 
Colin: Yes, that's very interesting. I like that. 
Simon: But then Covey argues, when we feel rainy inside, and this is the confronting part, that's a choice we're making. We're choosing to feel rainy inside, we're being manipulated by the environment around us into that. So, we can blame, if we wish, the environment around us, but ultimately, Covey argues, it's still a choice that we make. And we can equally choose not to feel rainy inside but actually to make our own weather and to feel sunny inside.

Once we start understanding that, that between every stimulus there is a space, and inside that space we're free to choose our response, then I think that starting point is the beginning of how we might move away from just being a victim of time and feeling that we can do nothing about it. 
Colin: Yeah, I think people might have become a little bit separated from the concept of choice. Because as you say, we get into this situation where we are busy all the time or people say, "I'm very busy." But well, we can choose to not be busy, can't we?
Simon: If our core pedagogical value system is essentially that teaching is about presenting information, and learning is the memorising of that information, then I think that's what we'll choose to make time for. And it's really easy to blame things like the Board of Studies and the amount of material we've got to get through because, yes, that does make it harder. It's very easy to be drawn into that rainy world where that teaching is about presenting information. 
But if we make a different choice, if we choose to believe that teaching is about inspiring others to learn and facilitating that learning by providing a multiplicity of rich thinking opportunities, and if that becomes the core of who we are, then even in the face of rainy weather outside, we can choose to make the time for that type of learning.
Colin: I can just imagine a staff room situation where there's a lot of hustle and bustle and someone comes up to you with a hurried request, and you say to that teacher, "I'm sorry, I can't help you with that right now because I'm choosing not to be busy." 
Simon: That's right. I'm not sure how that will go down Colin.
Colin: Well, it's worth a try, I think. So, learning to prioritise and always prioritising learning. I like that little switch around there of the words. This suggests that it's easy to lose focus on the learning because of time constraints. What are some of the things that we can think about giving up in order to continue prioritizing learning and just create a bit more space? 
Simon: Okay. I think, in this particular cultural force talking about time, I really see Ron Ritchhart channeling a lot of Stephen Covey's thinking. It's really interesting to see because those seven habits of highly effective people, and in this case particularly the habit of put first things first, wasn't specifically designed by Covey to help make sense of the world of education. It was designed to help make sense of living an effective life in general, but it's so readily transferable into the educational world. 
So, to answer your question, what can we give up or say no to in order to reprioritise learning, I think the most powerful thing we can talk about here is the concept of big rocks. And your listeners could very easily look that one up on the internet if they choose to do so. If you type in "big rocks," there's a really fantastic demonstration that you can find on the internet of Covey actually working with somebody around this. 
It's a bit of a game, and the game goes like this. He's running a workshop. He calls one of the participants up to the stage, and on the stage there's a big glass jar. And then next to it, five or six big rocks, literally, big rocks, and then a tub full of small pebbles, small stones.
Colin: Yeah.
Simon: And Covey explains to the participant, "Your goal is to get all of those small stones and the big rocks into this glass jar so that none of it spills out over the top." The first thing that the participant does is tips in all the pebbles into the glass jar first. So that fills it significantly up. And then tries to jam in the big rocks on top of the pebbles. 
Colin: Without breaking the glass.
Simon: That's right. You certainly don't want that. And obviously it doesn't work because the big rocks stick out over the top. 
Colin: Yeah.
Simon: So, then what Covey does is he facilitates another go at this. Why not put the big rocks in first? If we put the big rocks in first and place them at the bottom, then we pour the little pebbles in, what happens is, the little pebbles just fill in all the space between the big rocks really nicely so that everything fits into the jar.

This is how the metaphor is effectively working. It's so easy for us to be dominated by the pebbles, by the little things, by the emails, the short conversations that happen when we're in corridors, the little things that we have to do on a daily basis, if we let those things be put into the day-to-day first, we're never gonna get to the big rocks. 
But if we put the big rocks in first, then all of the little stuff just fills in around those big rocks. And so, then the question to ask is, well, what are our big rocks? What are these things that we're putting in first? 
Colin: What are the pebbles?
Simon: And what are the pebbles? Well, I think the pebbles are just those little things that happen in the world of education that take our time up so that we feel we haven't got time. But perhaps a big rock would be just the core notion from David Perkins, "learning is the product of thinking." Perhaps that's a big rock. And how does that manifest itself? Well, we know that, as teachers, we must provide rich thinking opportunities in our lessons if children are to develop understanding.

That's a big rock. What we need to make sure is that we put those opportunities in first, we plan for them so that they definitely happen, they never spill out over the top of the jar.
Colin: I'll tell you one of the things that I'd like to give up, or in fact, that I have given up. I haven't used this regularly for many, many years now: the photocopier. 
Simon: And why are you resisting this?
Colin: The photocopier just seems to be that thing that seems to be working the hardest all day long in any school. I know while that's controversial and some people might think "Well, I have to get my photocopying done." Well, if you do, that's great. But I would suggest that giving the photocopier a rest is probably a good idea.
Simon: Yeah, completely.
Colin: In terms of prioritising learning, I've heard that you like to use timers, like the ones that you might have on your fridge. This might seem a bit mechanical to some. What do you think? Is it a little bit old fashioned, or does it work well? 
Simon: I think it works well. I think there can be this real tendency as teachers for us to [inaudible 00:12:54] a really great thinking opportunity. So, perhaps we're using a routine like connect a challenge. So, we taught them something, we show the student a connected resource, and then we say, "What connections do you make with this resource and your learning? When you look at this resource, how does it extend your thinking?

And when you look at this resource, what do you find challenging about it? Okay, guys, can you think about that and then give me some feedback? Okay, what do you think?"
And you know, that's the pressures of time, that make teachers feel that that sometimes needs to happen. Obviously, it's so important to allow thinking time. If we don't allow thinking time for children to engage in thinking, then it would be easy for them to receive the message that actually thinking isn't something we value in the classroom, even if we say it is. And that's where the timer can come in because we can say to them, "I'm gonna give you three minutes to think about it." 
Actually, in my experience, children quite like it when you're strangely specific. So, "Okay, guys, I'm gonna give you 3 minutes and 12 seconds to think about this," and then we actually time that. Then they know that we're really valuing the thinking. 
Colin: I guess you could also use that in the context of response time. In other words, you can't respond to me at least for three minutes. So we're going to have some silence now. I'm going to present you with something, either a question or an idea, or something that I would like you to respond to. But no one's allowed to say anything for three minutes, or four minutes, or something like that. 
Simon: Yeah, great idea. And what that does is that just fosters an environment where considered responses are what's valued.  

Investing time to make time

Colin: I think, given the fast pace, and coming back to that other word, busyness of schools, is probably a really good reason to think about using timers perhaps a little bit more frequently. I mean, that might help to create little punctuations of silent time in an otherwise perpetually busy and noisy day. I quite like that. 
Now, that might also relate to one of the other key approaches, which is investing in time to make time. In other words, I have to work at something to create time. Now, that might seem a little bit unusual because you can't really make time. There are only 24 hours in a day. Something I keep saying to my students when they're wishing that it was the weekend, is I say, "Look, don't worry about it. The clock never ticks backwards."
Simon: Let's hope not. It would be a terrifying world if it does. 
Colin: Well, it sounds a little bit Matrix-like, doesn't it? But investing time in time to make time, I think what many people then do, is they think, "Oh, great. I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll multitask. I'll do lots of things at the same time." How effective do you think that is? Is it really good for learning?
Simon: Let me just first address some of what you said there that was really interesting. We can't make time, agreed. But what we talk about in cultures of thinking is that we can choose to re-designate time. And that's where we come back to what I was saying before about big rocks and making the best choices about how to use our time in alignment with our core values.

But to return to your question about multitasking, I believe in the book, and I think Ron cites it in the book, this is creating cultures of thinking, there's a lot of evidences out there that suggests that when it comes to complex mental functioning, if children engaged in multitasking, then it just doesn't work. It creates the development of a much more shallow understanding and also understanding that's not so readily applied to new contexts. 
With that in mind, teachers everywhere perhaps would be shouting "Hurray," Colin, because what we're saying is, well, allowing children access to social media whilst they're learning, and then the divided attention that that creates is in fact likely to damage the learning process. 
Colin: Oh my goodness.

Get students to slow down

Simon: Teachers are excited, I'm sure. What it is that we're after actually opposed to the concept of multitasking. I mean, it seems on one level, multitasking, that would be effective, that would get more done. But actually, I think in cultures of thinking pedagogy, what we're interested in is going in the exact reverse direction. Rather than speeding up, actually we're interested in slowing down. And there's a lot of wonderful work by some fantastic educators and minds out on Project Zero
So much of their careers are focused in this concept of, in a culture of thinking, we create opportunities for children to slow down and look closely, the reverse of divided attention. Let's just be truly present in the moment of looking closely at this thing. Let's notice it in its full array of complexity before we then go on and do more thinking about it. 
Colin: Yes, something I've often found myself asking students when I sense that there's just too much going on, is I look at them and I say, "I can see that your body is here, but are you here?" I'm just wondering is half of them still out in the yard, is half of them in here, or is a third of them over there, and a quarter of them talking to that person over there. And then of course you've got that thing ringing in your pocket. 
So, being present in the moment, well, it certainly resonates with me. In terms of efficiency, Ritchhart suggested that the better thing to maybe be thinking about is how effective we are. So there's the efficiency effective thing. And I think Covey talks about this as well.

Can you give us an example of how teachers might identify a situation where their efficiency? In other words "I'm getting all this stuff done in a really good amount of time," where their efficiency may not be all that effective?
Simon: Well, Colin, if you know, I'm an English teacher. So, let's take a risk here, let's go Mathematics. 
Colin: Whoa! Okay.
Simon: Let's just do it. One of the best lessons I've ever seen was when a math teacher took the time to slow down, as we've just been talking about, and just focused on one question for a whole lesson. And the question was, and I'll try to recall it as accurately as I can, "Why does X to the power of A, multiplied by X to the power of B always equal X to the power of A plus B?" That was the question, a whole lesson focused on that. 
But it's the first couple of words of the question that are really interesting, "Why? Why does?" So that's one of those rules around indices that math teachers need to share with their students. But when I spoke to this particular math teacher afterwards and I said "What was your goal in focusing a whole lesson on why is that the case?"

He said this, "I've told the children in my class many, many times that X to the power of A times X to the power of B is always equal to X to power of A plus B. But yet, they still get that wrong. Even if I've told them over and over again, it doesn't stick."
And his theory was, it's because it seems to be counterintuitive. Why would X to the power A times X to the power of B equal X to the power of A plus B? It's a times going to a plus. It doesn't actually make sense, so they forget it. So what he did is, he created a whole lesson where they actually tried to work out why that formula is true. 
And pretty simply, well, if we've got two squared, that means two times two. And if we times it by two cubed, that's two times two times two. So what we've actually got is two times two, times two, times two, times two, which is two to the power five. But he created a lesson whereby they word that out for themselves.

I spoke with him a little while afterwards and he said, "they're not forgetting it now." This was awhile ago. I hope that that's remained a sticky understanding and it's still in place for his students. I guess what I'm saying is, probably some people might consider it to be more efficient just to tell them the formula. 
Colin: Yeah.
Simon: But if they don't understand why the formula works, then maybe that's efficient but ineffective.
Colin: Yeah, suppose...
Simon: Maybe the long term we need to slow down so that we know that they really understand these ideas before we can move on. 
Colin: I suppose another way to think about that would be to say it would be very efficient if I spent the first five to 10 minutes of every lesson running them through formula memorisation drills. I could do that very efficiently. In other words, it would happen every math lesson, it would happen for the first 10 minutes every math lesson. I could use a timer, and that way I would actually know that I had spent exactly 10 minutes and I could be extremely efficient.

And then at the end of the week or at the end of the term, or the end of whatever, I could say, "All right, can you tell me the formulas?" and they could probably repeat them. But would it really be that effective in terms of their understanding of the underlying Mathematics? 
Simon: You know what, if I was a student in that class, the other question I'd be asking is just why? It sounds so dreadfully boring, doesn't it? Why is this relevant to me? And that's the other thing we've always got to remember. How does this connect to the world around them? How is it life worthy? 
Colin: You're not suggesting that you would be asking why because you're an English teacher?
Well, I'll ask why just because I'm Simon Brooks, I think. That's the problem there.
Colin: So, it's just that little bit of English/Math tussle going on there?
Simon: Well, maybe somewhere in there.
Colin: Let's talk about stress. Ritchhart talks about managing energy rather than time, and that thinking about managing your energy might be a better way to manage your stress rather than thinking about all the time that you don't have. He also suggested that the presence of stress indicates the absence of a culture of thinking. Now, I always try to remember that telling someone not to be stressed or calm down is probably the least effective thing that you could say to someone who is stressed.

So, the suggestion is, it's probably a better idea to manage energy. Can you talk us through that a little bit? How do we manage the energy of our day?
Simon: I remember a lesson a few years ago that I taught. I was teaching to a year 12 class the poetry of Peter Skrzynecki, who is a Polish-Australian poet. And we'd learn about this particular poem which we had spent a few lessons on it already. But I decided to set aside a whole lesson...this is with year 12 students, by the way.

And if any of your listeners are outside Australia and trying to make sense of that, this is high-pressured, high stakes examinations very soon on the way. Just looming. 
Colin: Yeah, it's the end game, isn't it?
Simon: That's it. So I decided to take a whole lesson. And in that lesson, I said, "Guys, we're gonna take a whole hour. I'm gonna give you all a piece of paper and some colors. I want you to create a visual representation of the poem. That's it. That's all I want you to do."
And to start with, I got some concerned looks on their faces, as if to say, "Well, is that the best use of time? Surely, in this time you could be telling us lots of stuff that might be helpful for us in the examination." But I went ahead and did it anyway, because since when do we always listen to students' concerns on everything like that.

And something really interesting happened. I put some music on and I felt like they just started...like the language you were using before, Colin, they felt like they were really present in the classroom. 
Colin: Yeah.
Simon: There was this lovely feeling. The music was playing. It sounds a bit new age, but they were connecting with the paper and with the colors, and constructing these beautifully individualized visual reflections of the core ideas that they believed this poem was exploring. At the end of the lesson, I noticed that one of the students - it was a young lady - was crying. So, obviously I was very concerned. 
I went over to speak to her and asked her why this was happening. And at this point most of the students had gone, and she said to me, "It's just this, sir. Our days at school are so hectic, so busy, moving from place to place with competing priorities and expectations.

The fact that you built this space where there wasn't lots of busyness happening but there was some really rich thinking and slowing down thinking happening was almost too much for me to bear, and that's why I cried." 
Colin: Isn't that amazing? It's like you've let off a pressure relief valve. 
Simon: That's right. But in that classroom, even though she was tearful, it was good tearful, there was a powerful energy. I felt it. It's probably what we would call flow. 
Colin: Yes.
Simon: They were present in this moment and they were thinking on this symbolic plane. It was helping them develop their understanding of the true and central meaning of this poem. So, in that context, it was all about energy and not just about time. And it was so much more valuable than just getting carried away by the demands of time. 
Colin: Let me finish with this quote then, and then I'll ask you to comment on it. By the way, I love the name of the person who said this quote, or who argues this point. It's by Mike Shmoker. He argues that "Poor performance of students is due to the fact that schools are dominated by time-consuming activities that only masquerade as instruction."

Now, if we were to take this idea to our school leaders, is this a tough conversation topic that's the hot potato that's just too hot to touch? 
Simon: Tough, but essential, I think. And a great school leader would be horrified if they concluded that it was time-consuming activities that were at the core of what happens in their school and that those were masquerading as instruction. I think it's a great school leader is something that they'd really want to address. So I don't think it's too hot, I think it's necessarily hot. 
Colin: Okay, we'll go with the necessarily hot potato. Simon, it's been great to speak with you. Thanks so much for your time. 
Simon: Thanks, Colin.

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