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How Important are Student-Teacher Interactions? Simon Brooks

Posted by Colin Klupiec on August 4, 2016 at 8:01 PM

Cultures_of_thinking.pngCultures 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 Educator, Simon Brooks, on The Learning Capacity Podcast 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 Brooks, who spent years implementing cultures of thinking into his classrooms, now helps teachers introduce the framework in their schools. 

This is Part 7 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
  2. Growth Mindset

People & organisations mentioned

  1. Harvard University's Project Zero
  2. Dr Ron Ritchhart
  3. Larry King
  4. Rita Pierson
  5. Professor John Hattie
  6. Simon Paterson
  7. Elon Musk
  8. SpaceX

Resources/books/articles mentioned

  1. ABC TV's Revolutions School
  2. "Intellectual Character" by Ron Ritchhart
  3. "Red Tree" by Shaun Tan

Previous podcast episodes on SoundCloud

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

 Episode 76 of The Learning Capacity Podcast

How important are student-teacher interactions for learning? Simon Brooks.

Colin Klupiec: Interactions, the dynamic phenomenon that emerges when two or more objects have an effect on one another. In a culture of thinking, a teacher's interactions with students show a respect for and an interest in students' thinking while nurturing their development as valued.Competent individuals able to contribute effectively to the group.

Simon, isn't this what teachers have always been doing? It doesn't really sound that radical to me. Do we need a culture of thinking to make this happen? 

Simon Brooks: Yeah, thanks for the question, Colin. Agreed, I think it's what great teachers have always been doing. Great teachers are warm, caring, positive, genuine people. They often have a great sense of humor and they push students to think for themselves.

We can probably all think of teachers that we have like this when we were children And we can probably think about just people in the world that we know, not necessarily linked to the world of education who demonstrate those type of qualities. Do we need a culture of thinking to make this work, is your question? To nurture this idea of meaningful students to teacher interactions, which promote a place where thinking is at the foremost?
Well, this is an important part of thinking about interactions. I think it's important not just to assume that these types of characteristics are... to do with the personality of a teacher. Something that they have, an innate part of who they are. Because if it's that, then the implication is that teachers can never get better. It's just a part of their personality, they've got it or they haven't.

But what we talk about with cultures of thinking pedagogies, can we isolate parts of aspects of meaningful teachers to student interactions? And then after isolating them, what can we do to help teachers bump those up and get even better at those things?
Colin: Yeah, you'd have to be able to look at it that way, I think. Because if you were to walk into a new school, into a new environment, where you didn't have that already established personality, understanding with the students, you'd have to be able to isolate it so that you could start working on it again from ground zero if you like.

Growth Mindset

Simon: Yeah. And it links back, Colin, to the idea of growth mindset. If we think that developing meaningful interactions with children is just the province of teachers who already have that type of personality, then we're suggesting that nobody can ever get better. And that's not what we talk about.

If cultures are thinking pedagogy and practice is anything, it's a really practical framework and we want to look to provide ways of helping teachers bump up in these areas.
Colin: Yeah. Larry King, actually in his book that he wrote some years ago now talks about that kind of thing, where interactions with people is something that you really can work on. I mean, some people do it naturally better than others. But he suggests that if you isolate those characteristics like you were just talking about, you can actually improve them significantly.
Simon: Yes.
Colin: There is a Ted Talk referred to in the chapter on page 201, given by Rita Pierson, who recounts comments made by a colleague of hers who said, "They don't pay me to like the kids, they pay me to teach a lesson. The kids should learn it, I should teach it. They should learn it, case closed." Is this a hangover from the industrial days?
Simon: Well, first thing to say is I personally, I've never come across a teacher who said anything quite that extreme. So I think that's very unusual and it's really important to acknowledge that, and important to acknowledge that we're in an amazing profession. The vast majority of teachers have the best interest of children in mind.

I think in that case, if I heard a teacher say something like that, then I'd try to adopt to the perspective of being curious, rather than annoyed. And I'd probably ask the question, what's going on for that person, that's led them into having such an extreme reaction? So in that case it may not be a hangover from the industrial days, it just might be more about something bad that's happened in their lives and it's spilling over into their professional life.
Colin: It's interesting, isn't it? That the quote says, "They pay me to teach a lesson," rather than, "They pay me to teach the children."
Simon: Yeah. Which again indicates a distancing from the people and a preoccupation with the experience.

The importance of language

Colin: It's interesting, isn't it? How our language has more often changed, so that we don't often think about teaching children. We talked about this in the previous discussion, the importance of language, that we suddenly think, "I'm there to teach a lesson." It's separated from the people who are actually in the lesson, or without whom the lesson would not exist.
Simon: Yes.
Colin: Ritchhart makes reference to the fact that the importance of relationships is not new. Well, I would agree with him on that, I think most people would. He sights authors as far back as Dewey in 1916 and a few others. And in fact, I would suggest that you could probably sight just about anything going back to the beginning of time, because I don't think there would be a human on this earth that didn't think that relationships were important, I should say.
There is a quote referring to this in terms of quality learning communities, that reads, "Such communities are largely democratic in nature, stressing mutuality, support, connection and shared decision-making." Now, that sounds great. Okay, so this is me talking now. That sounds great but I reckon there would be a lot of teachers who would also say, "Well, nice. But that's not my experience." What do you think?
Simon: Yeah. I mean, those responses are very possible, but perhaps that there are times in life when we need to be idealistic, and being idealistic is the best way forward for us. There is another great quote in the book, and I've also got it in front of me as well here. I'm on page 203, and I've got a reference here to a high school student who was interviewed by a researcher called Kathryn Cushman.

And the comment that comes from this student, I think, is identifying what type of teacher-student interactions work best. And this is what the student says, "Remind us often you expect our best. Encourage our efforts, even if we're having trouble. Give helpful feedback and expect us to review. Don't compare us to other students and stick with us."

Empathize with students, to see their perspective, to communicate it back 

That's what the student it seems want from us, as teachers. And I think there is something really interesting about, "don't compare us to other students." They don't want that, each child wants an individual and a personalized experience. And I'm building on that type of feedback from students. Ron, in the book, goes on to cite John Hattie and talks about how there is a 0.72 effect size for a positive teacher-student relationships.

I also, when I read that, turned to Hattie and dug into that a little bit more. And what Hattie is talking about with that 0.72 effect size, which is a significant effect size, is he's talking about the necessity to care for the learning of each student as a person, and also to empathize with students, to see their perspective, to communicate it back to them.

These are ideas that as you mentioned, are supported by so many other educational theories over the years: Dewey, Vygotsky, Bruner. That transformative learning happens in the context of meaningful and rich students to teacher relationships. I think all great teachers know this.

ABC TV's Revolution School
Colin: It's interesting you mentioned John Hattie, because there is a documentary on the ABC, on the Australian Broadcasting Commission at the moment, called Revolution School, which no doubt, you're familiar with. Where John Hattie is interviewed in segments throughout the documentary. He also makes reference to the quality of interactions, not only with teachers and students, but also particularly at home.

Suggesting that households that have very good quality interactions around school, are the ones where there are strong correlations with student success. Interesting though, I'd like to use this as a segue if I may.
Simon: Yes.
Colin: He talks about the fact, this is John Hattie, talks about the fact that households that talk not so much about school, but about learning are the ones where the results tend to be good. So if we were to start turning this around and not be thinking about being paid to teach a lesson, and the kid should learn, case closed. If we want to turn this thing around and be positive about it, do we start with the language? 
Simon: I think language is a big part of the answer. I mean, it's through language that we manage much, although not all I think of our interactions and relationships. But it's interesting that you refer to that documentary and talk about what happens with parents at home. That correlates with a lot of thinking that comes in the Project Zero team.

When I talk to parents about how to support the creation of a culture of thinking at home, one of the things I talk about is, how can parents bring lively debate and discussion into the core of what happens in a home environment? I know perhaps some parents are a bit frightened by that.
Colin: Yeah. Well, I've noticed that just watching the documentary and reading through this chapter again, has actually influenced the way I talk to my son. So at the end of the day, I have actually noticed now that I will say to him, "So how was school today?" And he'll say, "Oh, it was good." And I thought, "Well, hang on a second, I could change that around, just a very slight change in my language can make a very big difference." And so I say to him things like, "What did you learn about today?"
So we're talking about the learning and I've tried that just yesterday and he said, "Well, we learned about India." And I was able to then start another interaction, which then said, "Oh, that's interesting, tell me something about it." And then he said, "Well, you don't drink the water out of the taps necessarily because the water is not safe," etc.

Then he talked about a few other cultural issues as well. I thought, isn't that interesting?Just with a very small change of language you can actually turn things around pretty quickly.
Simon: And Ron writes about the next bump up even after "What did you learn today?" Is to ask, "What great questions did you ask today?" And kids very quickly receive the message. Okay, I better make sure I ask some good questions at school. And then that can lead to the transference of those rich discussions at home as well.

If we can build a culture as parents at home, where children are involved in lively debate, where they have to justify their ideas, where there is an expectation almost that they become passionate about thinking. Well, that has a huge impact on the type of learner that they become.

Question, Response, Evaluate or QRE

Colin: Interactions in the classroom can often be quite dull, and there is a classroom pattern that's mentioned in the chapter called question, response, evaluate or QRE. I suspect that this kind of interaction, which has been happening for a long, long time and probably quite regularly, needs to take some responsibility. Can you talk us through that?
Simon: Yes. QRE, the "Q" stands for a question from the teacher. The "R" stands for a response from the student, and then the "E" stands for some sort of evaluation, that again comes from the teacher. In it's most simplistic form, that could be something like, "Okay class. What year was the spinning jenny invented?" And then a voice pipes up, "1764." And the teachers says, "That's right."
Colin: Excellent, great work.
Simon: No, that would be a one form of the QRE. It wouldn't necessarily have to be quite that simplistic, and another version of that might be, "Why was the spinning jenny invented?" And the voice pipes up, "To speed up cotton production." Then the teacher might respond with something like, "Yes, you're on the way to understanding that, and it was a response to the fact that cotton production could not keep up with the demands of the textile industry." So there, it's perhaps a little bit more developed.
But what's happening there I think in this QRE structure, is that it's just fundamentally teacher-centered. It's about an exchange between a teacher and a student. It can become what we've talked about in previous conversations, which is a game of guess what's inside a teacher's head. There is a wonderful teacher called Cameron Paterson, who's actually mentioned in Ron's book here, and I believe you've interviewed Colin in a previous conversation.
Colin: And he's been a colleague of mine, a former colleague of mine.

Simon: There we are. And Cameron talks about this type of interaction as something called "pop-corning." The metaphor was interesting. It's the idea, in the same way that when we... And I'm going to think about pop corn in the microwave now. That when we pop it in there, individual kernels of corn start popping.

But that popping is happening in isolation. Each pop is disconnected from another pop. Whereas an alternative metaphor that Cameron has come up with, and I think works with the students on this metaphor, that they understand this metaphor, is the notion of ice cream coning. Now I personally prefer ice cream than pop corn anyway, so it works well for me on many levels, Colin.
Colin: Works for me, too. 
Simon: But it's this idea that when we have an ice cream on a cone, we'll have a scoop of ice cream first, then another scoop of ice cream on top of that one, which builds on the first scoop. And then if we're having a particularly lovely day, another scoop of ice cream on top of that one. And the difference here, rather than pop corning ideas, bouncing around in isolation, ice cream coning is when ideas build on one another.

When in the context of a class discussion, one student connects with another student, connects with another student. And so the nature of the discourse moves the whole of that interactional experience away from just being a teacher with one student, but to becoming rich, meaningful, whole group discussions where ideas jump like sparks from child to child. If we can facilitate that type of an interactional experience, that's a big way to create a rich culture of thinking in our classrooms.
Colin: Ron Ritchhart suggests three other and I'll quote, "fundamental actions for teachers interested in developing a culture of thinking while promoting a high academic achievement, independence and pro-social development." There's a lot in that.
Simon: Yes.     

Non-directive actions
Colin: The three fundamental actions he talks about are being non-directive, pressing for thinking and supporting student autonomy. Let's take a brief look at each one of those. We'll start with being non-directive. Confession here, I've actually been pulled up in school before about being very direct and task-orientated or task-focused. Is that what being non-directive is alluding to?
Simon: I think non-directivity, it's not so much about lacking in direction and purpose because that's what being non-directive might sound like, not having a direction. But rather what non-directivity is about is the notion that the teacher isn't the one in control all of the time, but it's the students' ideas and contributions that are guiding the learning experience.

Non-directivity happens when students know that their ideas and their contributions are the basis for how the whole lesson is developing. There's actually a really powerful model, thinking routine, that Ron writes about. But not in this text that we're exploring today. 

The Leaderless Discussion
I'm thinking back now to an earlier book of Ron's, which was called "Intellectual Character," written in 2002. And he introduces a model there which is really powerful and as a teacher I've used a lot. It's called The Leaderless Discussion. I've used The Leaderless Discussion myself, but rather than talk about occasions when I've done that, I want to talk about an occasion when I saw a year six teacher using The Leaderless Discussion.

I just remember it so clearly, because it was just such a wonderful example, Colin, of what you're talking about here in terms of being non-directive. The class was studying a picture book, which I really recommend that your listeners have a look at, it's called the "Red Tree" by Shaun Tan
It's a pretty powerful book, particularly for some year six children to look at. It's a picture book about sadness, it's about, I guess, about being lost in life. But ultimately it's a text about finding hope. So that's the message that comes at the end of it. So you're not feeling deeply depressed by the end of the experience. But it's a really, really rich read that speaks to important parts of the human condition.
I remember the teacher of this year six class, was using The Leaderless Discussion framework. and the way that that worked is that she just posed a big question to her class and I think the question... and I'm paraphrasing here from memory, but I think it was something along the lines of, "What does it feel like to be sad?" That was the question.
Colin: I guess everyone would have a response for that, I'm sure.
Simon: Absolutely, and she new that, but the question directly channels the big ideas that are being explored in the text. And so what she did is instead of having a traditional whole-class discussion about this, she had what's called a Leaderless Discussion. As Leaderless suggests, she, as the teacher, was just one of the individuals participating in this discussion. So the idea is that everybody sits in a circle, one child might throw out an idea or a response to that question.

Or it might just be another question that they've asked, and other children in the circle raise their hands if they want to respond. The first child after they finish speaking, they call on a fellow student to respond. So they will pick somebody to respond. That person will speak, then that person will call on the next responder. If nobody calls on the teacher to be a part of this discussion, then the teacher won't be a part of the discussion.
It's driven by the learners involved in this experience. Oh, and there's another nice, little strategy that sometimes I've seen teacher use. And that's when, if a student raises their hand to be a part of the discussion, they have to hold up as many fingers as necessary, to indicate how many times they've already contributed to the discussion. So that's...
Colin: Assuming that they can keep count.
Simon: Exactly. And the idea of that is that it tries to promote participation and ensure equity, to make sure there are no one voice dominates. The Leaderless Discussion described in that book, "Intellectual Character," I think is one really powerful and practical tool that teachers can use in order to build a greater sense of non-directivity into their classrooms.
Colin: Pressing for thinking. How do we go about that?
Simon: Yeah. This one means pushing, prodding, probing, getting children to think deeply and to think hard I guess in all of our interactions with them. 
Colin: Is this just another form of, "Can you please elaborate on that answer?" that you just gave me?
Simon: Yeah. I think that that could definitely be a part of it. And here's the interesting thing, I mean there are many different possible ways in terms of pressing for thinking. I think back to a conversation I had as an English teacher with a year eight student who was trying to come up with an idea and then plan a short story that she was writing.

And I remember the conversation really well, because at the end of it, the student said to me how much she'd valued it. And the beauty of it was I actually hadn't told her anything, I've not given her any ideas which is always the temptation when teachers are working with children, trying to come up with stories. 
So I was asking questions like, "Okay, what are the big ideas that you want to explore in this story? What will your main character look like? What type of person are they going to be? What's going to matter to that character? Oh, and here's a great one, how might your character be different by the end of the story compared to what they were like at the beginning? How does the story connect to the big idea that you're exploring?"
All these types of questions, Colin, are questions that in our interactions with young people, show that we're pressing for thinking and make them do the thinking, not us.

Supporting students autonomy
Colin: Supporting students autonomy is one of those ones, where I think the concept of two truths held intention kicks in. Certainly it does for me because, yes we do want students to be autonomous, we want them to be independent. One of the popular terms is self-directed. But on the other hand, when students come to school we like there to be order and some form of control.

And we don't want them to be entirely autonomous. In other words, don't just wander around, doing whatever you feel like you want to do. How do we bring those two together? How do we support student autonomy, whilst still maintaining some sort of regularity and order within our schools?
Simon: Yeah, and there's lots of ideas bouncing around in that question. It's whether we're talking about control in terms of intellectual control or behavioral control. Obviously there still need to be those behavioral routines in place in schools because children are children and not yet adults. And even a lot of adults and the behavioral routines being placed, I think, as well.

 But if we focus here on intellectual autonomy, I don't think that that means the same as Laissez-faire. I don't think it means the same as just abandoning children and saying, "Off you go. Think and learn on your own." But we still need to provide the scaffolding, to help them develop a sense of personal autonomy in terms of their thinking.

The Microlabs routine

There's a routine for that as well, there's a routine for pretty much everything in life, I think. There's a really effective one called Microlabs, that a number of teachers around the world use a lot. And Microlabs is essentially a routine for structuring meaningful student-led discussion, where they do actually discuss the issue at hand and do so in a way that respects each other's thinking.

It involves a little try-out, students sitting in groups of three. Each student in turn having an allocated amount of time to speak, and others in the group not being allowed to talk over them during that time. 
What this process does so powerfully is that it really does support student autonomy. It helps them to develop their own thinking, their own learning, but within the context of a scaffold. And so hopefully what that does, Colin, is it finds that balance that you were talking about there in your question, between giving them some support, but allowing them to develop independence and autonomy.

Intellectual autonomy
Colin: Intellectual autonomy is a phrase that I like the sound of very much. It's a little bit like allowing someone to go down a rabbit hole, so to speak, in terms of whatever subject they're doing. Let's say they're doing physics for example, and they might have to get through the curriculum and they might have to study the things that they need in order to successfully pass the exam.

I know that sounds very olden days, but it's still a reality. But then if that student were to say, "Hey, listen. I really like what Elon Musk is doing over there at SpaceX, I want to study rocket science," the teacher would give them the freedom and the autonomy to say, "All right, go and find out what you can about rocket science and then let's talk about it. And maybe we can do a little excursion in class, like just an intellectual excursion and we can talk about it for a while."
Simon: Yeah, absolutely. In there, it's about creating opportunities for autonomy, but then also in all of the interactions we have with young people to helping them build that autonomy for themselves.
Colin: I think that relates to the way the chapter finishes off unsurprisingly. It finishes with a section called "Creating New Patterns of Discourse," and I just like that subtitle. I think it sounds great, I think that subtitle in itself is full of opportunity. And there's a quote there by Oakeshott that reads, "Conversation is an unrehearsed, intellectual adventure." And I've also heard it said that, "Digression is the essence of conversation." So how do we create this adventure for our students?
Simon: There is a metaphor that I've thought about often in the past, that I think connects to this question. And it's the metaphor of when we have interactions or meaningful interactions with young people, it's a bit like going fishing. I'm not a fisherman. 
Colin: No, I'm a terrible fisherman. The fish are safe with me.
Simon: Well, that's good, that good news. Although I'm hoping that my metaphor holds up for any listeners who may well know a lot more about fishing than I do. But when I think about fishing, it's the idea that we can arrive, we can prepare, we can have our fishing rod ready, we can have different types of bait, we can cast a line and we can drop that line in. But we don't know whether we're going to catch a fish or not.
And I think that's important. That's really at the heart of meaningful teacher-student interactions. If when we ask questions, we know what the children are going to say in advance, and we're almost hoping for them to say what we're already thinking they might say, how meaningful is that going to be in terms of the learning experience for them? But when we create opportunities for interactions, when we don't know what our interactions are going to result in, well those type of interactions are more meaningful.
And so a practical example of what I think that looks like in a culture of thinking classroom, is the question, "What else?" And I use that question myself when I'm working with teachers. You're throwing a question out to a bunch of learners, a number of responses have emerged and you don't know whether there's any more responses. But you go fishing. And as a teacher you say, "What else?" And something tends to come up. "What else?" And something else comes up.
And those type of interactions, so powerful. There's a big difference between the question, "What else?" and "Anything else?" "Anything else," implying that there might not be anything else, but "What else," suggesting that there should be and actually fishing for it. Those are the type of really rich and meaningful interactions, I think, that build cultures of thinking.
Colin: I think that's why the word "adventure" is so appropriate in this context because an adventure, well it implies a little bit of the unknown and the unpredictable. And I suppose maybe that's why it's difficult for teachers to take that on, because that implies also an element of risk. What do you think?
Simon: Yeah. We can't script really meaningful interactions, and there are a number of scripted products out there. Direct instruction, for instance, not as a synonym for explicit instruction, but there's a direct instruction program which involves a very scripted program for learning.

That may well suit the needs of some learners. But for the majority of learners, if our interactions with them are scripted. Then we're not treating them as real people, and we're not bringing the learning to them. We're not making the learning about them, we're making it about us. Meaningful interactions make sure that the learning is about the learners.
Colin: Indeed. Simon, it's been great to speak with you. Thanks so much for your time.
Simon: Thanks, Colin.

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Teacher Cameron Paterson: Using Cultures of Thinking in the Classroom

Creating Cultures of Thinking: Dr Ron Ritchhart, Harvard University

Educator Simon Brooks; Implementing Cultures of Thinking in the Classroom


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