Simon Brooks spent many years implementing Cultures of Thinking in his classrooms.
Whilst change can be a challenge for many, Simon’s passion to see children truly learn enables him to effectively share the long term benefits of Cultures of Thinking.
I caught up with Simon on the Learning Capacity Podcast to find out how he starts the conversation with schools and their teachers.
Listen to the podcast.
People & organisations mentioned
- Dr Ron Ritchhart
- Harvard University's Project Zero
- Stephen Covey
- Peter Cole
- Professor Helen Timperley
- Simon Brooks Education
- Creating Cultures of Thinking: the 8 forces we must master to truly transform our schools
- Hamlet: "To Be or Not To Be"
- The Thinking for Learning Course
- Making Thinking Visible
Previous podcast episodes on SoundCloud
If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:
Episode 59 of The Learning Capacity Podcast
Simon Brooks on implementing Cultures of Thinking in schools and classrooms
Colin Klupiec: Simon, thanks for joining us.
Simon Brooks: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Colin: You've spent a lot of time in the cultures of thinking space over the years. And it's an educational framework that many people know about across the world, but may don't. Why cultures of thinking and not some other framework? What about cultures of thinking resonates with you?
Simon: A wonderful ex-colleague of mine once told me that you need to have an elevator pitch. And the concept behind that is in the space between one floor and another on an elevator in the journey. You need to try to be able to capture the essence of what's important about something. So I've been thinking about that a lot recently.
And if I try to get to the essence of what it is about cultures of thinking that I really value, I think it would be something like this. So in the culture of thinking, we're looking to build a space where children truly come alive in their learning. They're thrilled by the learning experience. They develop deep, lasting understanding, and perhaps most powerfully of all, they become critical and creative thinkers.
Colin: And that's resonated with you. So this is about something else, but you're talking about the fact that children becoming something that enlivens you.
Critical & creative thinking
Simon: Absolutely. The notion about becoming critical and creative thinkers to capture your questions, I think, is that part that excites me the most. And if you'll allow me to be a bit self-indulgent...
Colin: Please do.
Simon: I could tell you a little story that sort of brings that notion of becoming critical and creative thinkers alive. So several months ago...I have two young daughters. They're in years seven and nine. And the one in year nine came to me, and she said, "Dad, you've ruined me." Now, that's not what any father wants to hear.
Simon: So I said, "Oh, I don't want to ruin you. Tell me more. In what way have I ruined you?" And she looked at me and she said, "Well, look. It used to be that I could come home after a long day at school, sit down on the sofa, put the television on, and just relax." And I said, "Darling, I'm not telling you you can't do that anymore. It's perfectly fine to do that."
And she said, "But here's the thing, dad. Because in the old days I could home, I could switch the television on, I could relax, the advertisements would come on between the show I was watching, but that was fine." And she said, "But now as I watch television, I just can't stop myself analysing how I'm being manipulated to purchase a product or service by the commercials that I'm watching."
Now, here's the interesting thing that strikes me about that. I can't take responsibility for having done this to her.
She goes to a wonderful school. There's a ton of other cultural factors. But the interesting thing is this. When she goes to school and she goes to maths and she goes to science, she'll be doing analysing. But when she's coming home and she's sitting on the sofa and she's watching the television and those commercials come on, she's being analytical.
Simon: It's almost happening without her even planning for it to happen or intending for it to happen. It's become a part of who she is, a part of her disposition. So in cultures of thinking work, that's what we're interested in. There are tons of other programs out there that provide pathways to making critical and creative thinking happen.
But in a culture of thinking, what we're concerned with is how can we actually get children to be critical and creative thinkers, to be curious, to be skeptical, to be analytical. That's the shift we're looking for.
Colin: So effectively what you've created is a marketing battle. You've created the marketer's nightmare, because the television commercials that she's reacting against have been carefully analysed for maximum input on her, and now she's reversing it and saying, "Well, I'm going to reanalyse you."
Book about cultures of thinking
Let's think about the book that was written by Ron Ritchhart about cultures of thinking. Let's have a look at some of the words that I used earlier on in that description of the framework, things like new and transformation and forces that shape culture. I mean, these are very powerful suggestions.
And then the book also uses words like nebulous and mysterious. Now, to people who've been working in the same context for a long time, some people, it can be measured in decades, this could sound rather scary. Suddenly, someone like you comes in and says, "Well, let's start talking about the cultural forces of change." How do you first approach people when you start to talk to them about this?
Simon: Yeah, interesting. I think a wise place often to begin with would be with Stephen Covey, who I know that Ron references in that book "Creating Cultures of Thinking." And one of those Covey seven habits is seek first to understand, then to be understood.
Thinking routines........compass points
So I try in my work with schools and educators to bear that mantra in mind and begin with the space of where's everybody at at the moment about these ideas. So along those lines, one actual strategy I use when I'm working with schools and educators is I use one of the thinking routines, which is compass points.
So I'll put out there some sort of aspirational statement like that elevator pitch I spoke about before, a culture of thinking. We want children to love their learning, develop deep, lasting, understanding, become critical and creative thinkers. And then let's have a look at compass points here. What excites you folks about that proposition? What worries you about that proposition? What do you need to know about it to move forward with it? And what suggestions might you have in order to bring that to fruition?
And as soon as we get that routine on the table, then it sends a message to the teachers I'm working with that this is a collaborative space. This is a space where I want to surface their worries, and it's also a space where I'm not going to tread over the top of their worries. One thing I've learned over the years is when folks have worries about change or about innovation, the one thing that definitely doesn't stop them worrying is telling them that they don't need to be worried.
Colin: Yes, whatever you do, don't worry.
Simon: That's it. They don't go away then. So what compass points does is it surfaces those concerns. And then what I try to do, I guess, as a colleague, as a critical friend working with folks, is just to try to help bring those ideas to the surface as the day goes on. One of the big concerns, coming back to your original question, the educators sometimes have is this. What they're thinking is, "Okay, so you're here to tell me that everything I've been doing as an educator up to this point is wrong."
Colin: Yeah, I imagine that would be a common response.
Simon: "And you're here, you're telling me, that I've got to replace that stuff that's wrong with this new thing. How arrogant of you." How do you know it would be really arrogant of me? Because I've not been into the classrooms of those teachers I'm working with, and many of whom will be exceptional educators.
Colin: So do you find that on the compass points thing that the worry section or the time when you talk about worry, I presume you get them to write it down on a piece of paper, is the worry page filled with much more writing than the other pages?
Simon: Well, the way I do it is with compass points I'll put a piece of butcher's paper up for excites and a piece of butcher's paper for worries. And then I'll get them to put one post-it note per excitement or worry up on the piece of butcher's paper. And actually both the excites and the worries tend to be pretty filled with post-it notes. I guess the interesting thing is that too, that these ideas excite educators.
A lot of educators immediately feel a connection to them. They sort of feel, "Yeah, well, look, I've been doing something a bit like this in my whole career, and this is now just putting words on values that I have." But for other educators, there are those very, very real concerns such as, "What are you doing? You're telling me that everything I'm doing is wrong." And other concerns.
Colin: Oh, yeah, but it could never work for my subjects.
Simon: Not for mathematics.
Colin: Well, never for maths.
Simon: And then over the years, other maths teachers I've worked with have said, "Actually, that's a deeply offensive implication. There's no thinking in mathematics?"
Colin: Oh, right. Well, of course.
Simon: And then other people will say, "Yeah, I can see how it worked for kindergarten, but not for year 12." Or, "I can see how it would work for year 12, but not for kindergarten."
Colin: No, kindergarten people never think.
Dealing with change
Simon: No, that's right. Exactly. So what I don't want to do is come across as belittling these views. So it's really important to surface those before we can move on. So that's the first part, the answer to your question, how do we deal with change. Well, first of all, we've got to surface people's existing thinking. And when we make that thinking visible, then we're in a position that perhaps we might be able to do something about it.
Colin: So cultures of thinking is all about improving learning. And I guess any educator would like to think that they're talking about learning, but there seems to be quite a lot of debate about shifting the narrative from task completion and getting through the curriculum to learning. Some might think that that's so obvious that it's a bit of a moot point, but the debate seems to have quite a bit of life left in it. Is it possible that the narrative, do you think, will ever permanently shift to talking just about learning?
Simon: To answer that question, I think back to...I'm an English teacher by trade, and to a class that I taught many years ago, or actually a couple of years ago, and I was teaching the "To Be or Not To Be" speech from Hamlet.
Colin: That is the question.
Simon: Absolutely. There's no greater question. And as I taught this speech, I found myself falling into a very easy, well-rehearsed model, which is essentially me standing at the front telling them what I thought about this speech. And I was doing so, I hope, in a way that was engaging, that was persuasive, that was interesting, I was trying to coerce them into learning through the force of my personality, essentially, making it fun, putting on voices, sharing ideas.
I took a bunch of essays in soon after that lesson and marked them and was disappointed to see that the depth of understanding around that "To Be or Not To Be" speech was minimal. In other words, I think I've done a fairly good job of persuading myself by the end of the lesson of teaching myself about this speech. I understood the speech a lot better by the end than I had done at the beginning, but that's because I'd been doing all the thinking moves. The kids themselves had not been thinking.
Colin: Effectively, you just swept yourself off your feet.
Simon: Very much so, and I was very proud of the way I'd done it.
Thinking routines........colour symbol image
Simon: So I thought, "Well, this won't do." So then I thought about trying another thinking routine. So there's one called colour symbol image. And in this routine, what the routine asks is it asks learners to find, well, what are the three big ideas that stand out to you the most about this learning experience? Can you represent one of those with a colour and explain why that colour symbolizes that idea? The second with a symbol. Why does that symbol capture the essence of that second idea?
And the third with a bigger image, with something more complex than a symbol alone. How does that image capture the essence of that third idea? So I got the children to do that. Here's the interesting thing. I didn't give them any more input at all about the "To Be or Not To Be" speech, but they did that. Another bunch of essays later, the difference was astonishing.
Shifting from a work-based scenario to a learning based scenario
The next bunch of essays showed a depth of understanding and an engagement with those ideas in the "To Be or Not To Be" speech, which was so different to the first, the first of a lot of essays. What had changed? I hadn't done anything different. The children had. The children had engaged in developing their understanding. So how does this link to your original question? How can we shift from a work-based scenario to a learning based scenario?
Well, I sometimes wonder, "Do we really have any option?" Without that learning-based situation, without providing opportunities for children to reflect and to think about what they've learned, if we just become work-orientated, I don't believe that there's going to be a depth of understanding developed from that simple work-orientated context.
Cultutal force ....... language
Colin: I suspect that the first cultural force talked about in the book, language, not that they need to be read in order, but it just so happens to be that language is the first one, that might be a good place to start to generate some dialogue with students, children, people, they are still people, let's not forget that, about why it's actually valuable to think about learning and why it's valuable to think about the speech in different ways.
So perhaps language could be something that we could talk quite a lot about, and I think we'll come back to that later in this discussion. Let's talk a little bit about what it means for teachers to take this on. There's quite a bit or work that's gone into understanding why certain frameworks, like cultures of thinking, never seem to take hold. I mean, it's just another framework. It's the next thing. It's the thing that my school wants to talk about this year.
And I know there have been extensive writings about the fact that one-off-type PD has minimal effect or that the effect isn't long-lasting. Now, how you want to define that is largely dependent on your own experience. Now, people effectively turn up, they participate, they have a nice free lunch, and they claim some expenses, and then they go back to what they were doing, and it isn't always a good thing.
Simon: Lunch is always a good thing.
Colin: Lunch is a very important thing. And then they might use a little bit about what they've learned, and then it sort of fades away into the distance. How do we shift now to a view of longer-term engagement? How do we do that?
The funnel of professional learning transference
Simon: Yeah, I mean, I want to reinforce what you're saying first because I agree completely with that idea. There's a researcher by the name of Peter Cole, and he did a piece of research back in 2012. Your listeners could probably Google this phrase I'm about to say if they're interested. He came up with a concept that I like. It's called the funnel of professional learning transference.
Colin: Wow, that sounds like something Kevin Rudd would say.
Simon: Yeah. Well, maybe he did. Maybe Peter Cole took it from him. Who knows.
Colin: What does that mean?
Simon: And the funnel of professional learning transference is this. He actually represents it as an inverted triangle, so with the big side at the top and the little point at the bottom. And he describes this idea that when we, as teachers or professionals, we go on these one-off professional learning days, we're often exposed to really interesting ideas, things that we really connect with.
We think, "Yeah, that's great. That could really do something powerful in the classroom in my school." But then after that day, we go back to work, and there are reports to write, and there are parents to meet, there's work to mark, there's lessons to be planned, and there's all the busyness of the school day.
Colin: The routine kicks in.
Simon: Absolutely. And as time passes, our inclination to adopt these ideas, to share these ideas with others, to evaluate them, to integrate them firmly into our own practice diminishes. So as we travel down the funnel of doom, that's not quite how Cole calls it, but I'm interpreting it, the funnel of professional learning transference, we go further and further and further down this funnel to the point that, sadly, often it renders any learning that we might have gained from that one-off professional learning day pretty irrelevant, and nothing every happens about it.
Colin: I can just imagine a whole bunch of teachers now thinking, "I'm going to go to work on Monday into the funnel of doom."
Simon: That's right. I don't want to encourage that. That sounds like a dastardly and dark place to be.
Colin: Let's not go there.
Simon: So with that concept in mind then, so what's the alternative? How do we actually do this? And there's a number of other thinkers who've done a lot of work around this, I think Helen Timperley is one, that's looked at what happens when professional learning works. What are those things that make it work.
And one of those things is that it's got to be founded on support from the executive of an institution, from a school. One of those things is it's got to be collaborative. People have got to be working on these ideas together.
The Thinking for Learning Course
But one of the other things, and for me this is perhaps the most important, is that it needs to take place over an extended period of time, not just the one-hit-wonder experience. So one of the things that I do is I run courses. I run a course called Thinking for Learning, and that course takes place over two days. So there's an initial day with exposure to some ideas, some pedagogy.
Colin: And a really good lunch.
Simon: Exactly, you've got to have that. Morning tea, too.
Colin: Because that brings them back for the next day.
Simon: Brownies, particularly, I would suggest. So we have day one. Then there's a space of about three, four, five weeks. And in that space, I actually ask teachers to go and do some homework. And that homework involves, "Try a few of these things that we've been exploring together, and think about what's the one standout moment. What's that one moment that really was singing for you, that really came alive, that real success story? Can you come back in four or five weeks time and share that success story with others?"
And I also ask them to go and do a little bit of reflection on what students think about them. "What are your students' perceptions of you as a teacher? And come back a second time around and reflect on that, too." So what happens is rather than a one-off day they actually go away, and they're sort of coerced, compelled, hopefully in a good way.
Colin: Yeah, you're stretching it right out, aren't you?
Simon: That's right. Into trying some of these ideas so that there is a greater chance, I believe, that those ideas are going to be adopted and then embedded into practice in a meaningful and in a powerful way.
Colin: What sort of feedback are you getting on that?
Simon: Yeah, I'm getting some really positive feedback. I actually got some feedback just the other day on it, and I got a lot of teachers saying that this has been one of the most transformational professional learning experiences of their lives, which is a wonderful thing to hear. And I'm sure they would have had many others. Perhaps they say that to all the professional learners, the experiences they have. Who knows?
Colin: I wonder whether that's maybe because they're getting a bit more freedom to come back and say, "Well, look. I tried something, and look. I'm getting validation from you because you think that might have been a good idea, or you get a chance to bounce it off the person who delivered the course, in this case you." Perhaps this is an unknown liberation that teachers might be experiencing, and it's fascinating.
There's a strong teamwork or collaborative theme, as you just mentioned, collaboration, running through the cultures of thinking framework, yet something that still seems quite pervasive is, if I can use some air quotes here, the silo problem.
In fact, I was talking to John Heady a couple of weeks ago, and he looked at me and said, "If I went into your staff room would I see lots of people working on their own?" And I said, "Yeah. Yeah, you would," to which he sort of nodded. And effectively what you see is people in a room together working, but they're not working together.
So what you've got here is you've got the silo factor, people working together or not working together. Then you've got the idea of changing that and developing collaboration. And then you've got this long-term idea of adopting new frameworks. So you've got three big things. It sounds colossal. Let's talk about the cultural force of language, which I mentioned just a moment ago. Can that help us out there?
Simon: I think so. I think the cultural force of language and other cultural forces all operating together can help us out there. If I can sort of just take a step back, I'll come to language, but a step back from that as well. I think if we return to this silo effect, I think that does happen in schools.
I think often teachers are working on their own, or often within their own department, but they're not cross departments. Often, you'll find, and this is sad, often you'll find in K to 12 schools that there'll be a division between the primary teachers and the secondary teachers. I've heard people over the years say things that I really don't agree with, such as primary school teachers are teachers of children, secondary teachers are teachers of subjects.
Colin: Oh, dear.
Simon: Those worry me. We're all teachers of children.
Colin: Yeah, there's been an evolution.
Breaking down the 'silo effect" in teaching
Simon: And also there is something there underpinning that, which is quite offensive, which is to imply that primary school teachers aren't teachers of subjects, and that's also a concern. So I think that's all part of this silo effect that you're taking about. How do we break that down? Well, perhaps like anything in life, if we want to break down the silo effect, we've got to give teachers experiences of why there is something better out there.
Colin: A compelling reason.
Simon: That's right. They've got to feel that there is a reason for something else to happen other than the silo effect. And for me, a lot of the work that I do in schools is around building internal study group meetings, focus group meetings, where colleagues get together from across faculty areas, if it's a K to 12 school across primary and secondary, and truly learn from one another. And that won't just be show and tell. That'll also be bringing puzzles of practice to the meeting for discussion.
Colin: So primary and secondary teachers working together.
Simon: Absolutely. Yeah, really, really powerful.
Colin: Stop the clock.
Simon: I remember one example, which is this. And I was working with a school, and there was a music teacher, and this was a high school music teacher. The music teacher had this puzzle of practice, and her puzzle was this. She said, "What's happening is that when children are coming to my class, they're arriving at lesson time and they're desperate to pick up the guitars, to play on the piano, to hit the drums, to enjoy the practical experience of my subject.
But when it comes to go beyond the practical to the theoretical, well, they're just not so engaged by that. They're not loving the theoretical side of it. It's a real challenge for me to get them to connect with it." So she said, "My puzzle is this. How do I help the children that I work with understand that appreciating the theoretical can just bump up the practical, can make the practical even richer? How do I do that?"
She brought that puzzle of practice to a study group meeting, which contained primary school teachers, high school math teachers, year 12 science teachers, English teachers. And we used a particular protocol that I teach around that one, which is called descriptive consultancy, and that's a structure, a guide to facilitating a conversation in such a rich way that she'll get some suggestions from those other teachers about how she might move forward with this puzzle.
She got some really powerful suggestions, really powerful, that she applied and helped her find a pathway through that puzzle. There's no silver bullet to that puzzle...
Colin: No, of course not.
Simon: So what happened there? Well, partly through the opportunity created and the protocols used, but partly through...and to come back to your question, the language that was used by the other participants around her in that study group meeting, and here I'm talking about conditional rather than absolute language. Well, there was an opportunity for her to feel that being in a professional learning context like that was powerful.
So the silo mentality, that can be brushed aside once people feel that there's a better way.
Cultures of thinking - less like a program and more like a process
Colin: So coming back to the idea of ongoing PD and longer-term engagement, cultures of thinking is less like a program for implementation and more like a process. And I guess if we think about it in terms of a process that might help to start to bridge the gap between silo and developing collaboration and adopting new frameworks.
I'm just going to take a quote form the book, and I'm just going to read this. "One may well begin with thinking routines, but it doesn't end there." Thinking about the one-off PD event, and that's just a program that we're going to implement rather than the process, we start here, but it doesn't have to finish there. How do we avoid the program of implementation-style thinking? What can we do to stop that from happening?
Simon: Yeah, there's an interesting dynamic there, and it's the difference between are we doing a culture of thinking or are we becoming a culture of thinking? Now, if we do a culture of thinking, well, then it can just become a fad. It can become one of those many other things that fly around in education all the time that get adopted for a while, get done for a while, and then they disappear.
But in my experience, unless we help teachers confront at a fundamental level who they are as teachers and what they believe that teaching and learning is about, then we can try to apply any other strategy. Thinking routines might be one, but if that doesn't fundamentally correlate with who they are as teachers, then it'll be another fad and it'll go the same way as all the other fads might.
So at the core of that question is, "How do we get teachers to think about being a culture of thinking, about becoming one rather than doing it?" There's a way into that that I'd recommend. A lot of schools, when they're playing with cultures of thinking ideas, the first way into it is they get teachers to experiment with routines. Now, perhaps that's good. Those routines are really, really powerful.
But long term, I think, one potential powerful pathway might be is to think less about routines and more about the thinking moves that underpin those routines.
So those routines are underpinned by moves, which are in something called the understanding map. The map comes out of research by Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison in their book "Making Thinking Visible,," the previous Ritchhart work. And that understanding map, well, it presents eight thinking moves that the author suggests are...it's not an exhaustive list of thinking moves, but it's eight moves that if we can get them happening in our lessons, that's going to go a long way towards building a culture of thinking.
And they're moves like having children wonder at the world around them, slow down, look closely, describe what's there, make connections between new thinking and old, capture the essence of ideas.
So if we can help our teachers, once they get past the initial phase of, "Okay, here's a few really interesting routines I can use," but if we can help our teachers try to take those thinking moves into the core of what happens in their lessons, well, they might accomplish those thinking moves through using routines, or they might through other opportunities that they create. And then it moves away from this faddy idea. Then it just becomes about the core of what makes effective practice.
Colin: The theme I'm hearing here is long-term and heavy investment as well, so something that you have to think about often. You can't just have this thing pop into your head, go do a thing, have a nice lunch, and that's it. It is a long-term investment, isn't it?
Simon: Absolutely. And a culture of thinking, here's the thing. A culture of thinking isn't just about what we do with the students, but it's about what we do as teachers. So as a bunch of teachers, a bunch of colleagues, are we a culture of thinking? Are we constantly thinking about our practice and how we might bump up what's happening in our classrooms? That's as much a culture of thinking as about defining it by what teachers do with students.
8 cultural forces..... one is "time"
Colin: There are eight cultural forces listed in the book, and we've only sort of touched on language. One I'd like to finish with is time because it's a favorite of mine. I suspect it's also a fairly major sticking point for people. Because in my experience, whenever you say to someone, "Oh, we're going to do this, or let's try that, or we're going to implement this," the first thing that you might hear someone say is, "I don't have the time."
And the book describes people as being victims of time or teachers becoming victims of time. I asked Ron Ritchhart this question, and there was a pause, and then there was a chuckle, because I said, "I suspect you've met many victims." Let me ask you, how do we stop being victims?
Not enough time, too much content?
Simon: Well, the first thing I'll say is confirm what you're saying, and this is a real problem for a lot of folks. Over the years, I've had a lot of people come to me and say something like this. They'll say, "Simon, these ideas, they all sound excellent. I can see their value. The problem is I've got so much content to get through. I've got to get through all of these documents.
Colin: Ah, the content. Yes.
Simon: The perennial problem. How can I do this thing you're telling me about in addition to getting through the content?
Colin: Yeah, there's always the perception that it's on top of, isn't it?
Simon: It's the either or mentality. And so that's one thing that would be a valuable direction to take here. How can we break down that either or mentality? How can we work with colleagues to help them truly understand that it is through the critical and creative thinking that the content is delivered in a meaningful and a lasting way, that they're not by the rules?
One thing that a teacher once said to me, this is a direct quote, is, "Simon, these ideas are all very well. I just haven't got time. Maybe there will time for a bit of thinking on Friday afternoon." I'm not saying that to mock that colleague. That's why that colleague remains nameless. But what I am saying is it's a real concern that teachers have. I believe that all teachers that I've ever worked with, they really want the best for the students that they work with.
Colin: Yeah, without a doubt.
Simon: They all want that. We're in a wonderful profession and a wonderful caring profession where educators want the best for their children. So when educators say, "I haven't got time," that's coming from a place of real concern. "I want my children to do well. I want them to do well in this high-stakes examination, whatever it might be, and I'm feeling that what you're saying will be a hindrance to them doing well."
Now, that's a tough problem, Colin, in how we help teachers break that one down. I have some thoughts around it, but there's no, again, there's no silver bullet.
Colin: Yeah, again it's a long-term proposition. Simon, it's been great to speak with you. Thanks so much for your time.
Simon: Thank you. Thanks for having me.