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Teacher Cameron Paterson: Using Cultures of Thinking in the Classroom

Posted by Colin Klupiec on April 2, 2016 at 2:58 PM

cameron_paterson.jpgCameron Paterson is a teacher at a private school in Sydney, Australia. He first came across Harvard University's Project Zero a little over 10 years ago.

The ideas resonated with Cameron. He was attracted by the progressive nature of the thinking in the Project Zero team. Since then he’s studied learning and teaching at Harvard University and has completed a Masters degree. 

He’s worked extensively with Dr Ron Ritchhart and Mark Church in Creating Cultures of Thinking within his own school.

For Cameron, creating cultures of thinking is not just a passing idea or educational fad. It's backed by research and case studies from around the world.

The Learning Capacity Podcast spoke with Cameron who shared his experience using thinking routines in the classroom, and how he’s made it real and successful.

Listen to this Learning Capacity podcast episode:


Topics covered

  1. Cultures of Thinking
  2. Harvard University's Project Zero

People mentioned

  1. Dr Ron Ritchhart
  2. Mark Church - consultant to Project Zero
  3. Professor David Perkins

Resources/books/articles mentioned

1.Creating Cultures of Thinking: the 8 forces we must master to truly transform our schools

Other Links

  1. Harvard Graduate School of Education
  2. A.B. Paterson College
  3. 8 Cultural Forces
  4. The Reggio Emilia Approach

Previous podcast episodes on SoundCloud

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

 Episode 46 of The Learning Capacity Podcast

Teacher Cameron Paterson on Using Cultures of Thinking in the Classroom

Colin Klupiec: Cameron, thanks for joining us.

Cameron Paterson: It's a pleasure, Colin. Nice to be here. Thank you for having me.

Colin: Now, I should disclose to our listeners that you and I have actually worked together before, years ago.

Cameron: You have to tell me how long ago. It seems like it was a long time ago but yes, we have worked together before.

Colin: I think I left or moved onto other things probably around about 2003. So it's probably going on, oh, gee, how long is that now? Thirteen years or something.

Cameron: Thirteen years, it is a long time, isn't it?

Project Zero Conferences in Sydney & Melbourne

Colin: That's crazy. But look, I'd like to come to your experience with Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools and particularly how you've been referenced in the book written by Ron Ritchhart but recently you were actually involved in the Project Zero Conference, which was held in Sydney, and Ron Ritchhart's book has come out of the work from Project Zero.

Can you, for those of us who weren't at the conference, can you just give us the main themes or takeaways for teachers?

Cameron: Sure. Well, we actually hosted the Project Zero Conference here two or three weeks ago. There were two conferences in Australia, a two-day conference in Melbourne, and then six days later, a two-day conference in Sydney. So they organized it so that it would be back to back, different plenaries at each of them.

I attended the Melbourne conference and presented down there. I didn't present the Sydney one because I was basically the host of the Sydney one.

So what went on? Well, we had nine Harvard researchers, who spent that time in Australia and at our school, and a series of plenaries. And then what was interesting was that lots of local people in Sydney and, in fact, people from around the region, from China, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand, every state in Australia came to the Sydney Conference and just the same to Melbourne. But many people were presenting what were called Interactive Courses 

So I like the way they didn't call them workshops, they were called interactive courses and they're in for two hours and there was an expectation, a very clear expectation with those interactive courses. They modeled Project Zero ideas and, as the title sounds, were very interactive in terms of the nature of the way those courses were put together.

Given the way Project Zero works, it was just an extremely professional conference to be a part of.

Colin: Now, in your own experience with Cultures of Thinking, you've been a teacher for a long time now, why did you align yourself to Cultures of Thinking? And how long have you actively been working in that space, in the teaching space?

Cameron: Well, I suppose the answer to that goes back a long way. I first came across the Project Zero crew probably about the time that I was working with you, when I attended a conference with a few other teachers from our school up in Queensland. A.B. Paterson College was instituting the teaching for understanding framework.

And at the conference there, I heard Mark Church, Ron Ritchhart, and David Perkins speak and I was quite blown away in terms of everything that they were saying about education and teaching and learning resonated with my own views. So that put me down a path of doing a couple of online courses with Project Zero.

I ended up attending the Project Zero Classroom in 2007, which is a one-week course. You can't really use the term "conference" because it's more than a conference, in Boston. And as a result of that, three years later, I took a one-year sabbatical and spent a year at Harvard, where I studied learning and teaching and did a master's degree and taught in the teacher ed program there.

And when I came back from there, I became closely involved in a number of research projects, the Project Zero Run, one of them to do with Cultures of Thinking/Visible Thinking Work, and Ron Ritchhart and Mark Church have been involved with working with staff at our school now for three or four years very, very intensely.

What attracted me to it was probably the progressive nature of the thinking involved in their attitudes towards teaching and learning. It's quite unlike the very conservative nature of Harvard University itself. It's sort of a breakaway group and Project Zero is aligned to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, but not really closely connected to it.

And it's this little world on its own where people have amazingly progressive ideas. To watch them develop over the last 10 or 15 years and the different roots that they are sprouting and hitting in different directions, it's just a wonderful group of people and wonderful group of ideas.

I'm very pleased to be involved with them, and I now head back there every year in July and I'm a faculty member at the Project Zero Classroom, so pretty heavily involved in all of this work.

Colin: Yeah, that struck me as very interesting that you say that Harvard being traditionally seen as conservative and that this is a breakaway group. I should say a lot of the promotional stuff that I've heard with regards to Cultures of Thinking often uses the Harvard name.

I don't know whether they do that just to get a bit of attention, and that's fair enough. But our listeners might not be aware of the fact that there is that difference, and you see that as quite a progressive way of thinking. Is that what I'm hearing?

Harvard Graduate School of Education & Project Zero

Cameron: Look, it's a very subtle difference, but Harvard Graduate School of Education, given the way that public education in the United States has been going for quite some time, there's very much a focus on school leadership, a focus on results that's driving through the management side of things at Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Project Zero would certainly distance itself from those sorts of conversations but recognizes that good institutions have all sorts of different viewpoints that are brought to the table and different perspectives.

So Project Zero is certainly part of Harvard Graduate School of Education but not beholden to it. The dean is not responsible for Project Zero. Project Zero operates as a separate entity and they're very successful and very proud of that.

The 8 Cultural Forces

Colin: Let's get straight into some of the 8 Cultural Forces actually in the philosophy of Cultures of Thinking, as written down in the book. I noticed that you come up in the chapter on interactions. Now, you've told me that the whole concept of Cultures of Thinking resonated very strongly. But did interactions in particular resonate strongly with you?

Cameron: That's a good question. Look, I think I've naturally over the years been heading towards evolving the way that I develop my questioning in my own teaching in my classroom. But there wasn't one cultural force that particularly attracted me. I think it's a wonderful framework in terms of defining our classrooms and defining our approach.

But it was interesting that it was almost Ron that pigeonholed me - Ron Ritchhart, the author who pigeonholed me in interactions and relationships.I wasn't quite sure what he was coming to look for in a class, or where I would end up, or even if I would end up in his writing.

So it was very interesting to see that he decided that the obvious place for me to be put in the book was in terms of interactions, and to me, it was more around questioning than anything else. Really, coming to the conclusion in my teaching that questions are more important than answers in my own classroom.

Trying to get right from the beginning of the year, the students to understand that it's okay for anybody in the class to ask questions that we might not know the answers to, and just for the disposition of curiosity and acknowledging that different people bring different questions to the table.

And if we can set that up early in the school year in terms of establishing it as a cultural force that questions how we learn and we might now have answers immediately. Sometimes we might not ever answer those questions. But if we can learn to ask really good questions, we're all going to help ensure that collaboratively we've got a really strong learning culture in the classroom.

Colin: Well, it's interesting that Ron saw that in you. When I read the book, something that resonated particularly strongly with me were two forces, and one was language and the other one was time. And when I was talking to Ron in a previous podcast, I said to him, "Look, you describe time in terms of people becoming victims of time," and I suggested to him that perhaps he'd met a lot of victims, which...I got a chuckle from Ron as well.

But I think, given the fact that there are 8 Cultural Forces, there's a lot of scope there for people to identify individually with each one or more than one or all of them I suppose. I guess that it begs the question, are they all relevant?

I mean, you were talking just a second ago about how things get set up in the school at the beginning of the year. Is this a broad-scale deployment of this idea in your school?

Cultures of Thinking in Cameron's School

Cameron: In our school at the moment, how do I answer that question? We're very conscious of avoiding any sort of top-down imposed, "This is how you're all going to do it." So, we've been gradually working over the years with different groups of volunteers and enthusiasts and gradually spreading.

So we've got to the stage, by the end of this year, about half of our staff will have worked very closely through the program and be spreading those ideas in their own teaching, in their own subject departments. The two cultural forces you identified were particularly interesting in the sense that teachers are all going to be victims of time all the time.

But what we do with the time we're allocated and the priorities that we give in terms of the time that we're allocated is what makes the difference.

I had a young internee student teacher observing in my class today and I was fascinated to hear that she recognized and used the term "think time," because when I grew up, we were taught to use the term "wait time." And she is very consciously, in her university studies, we're now being taught to use the term "think time," that we're providing time for students to think.

And I think that it's a very small and subtle language difference but it's an important one as well. And you also spoke about language, and I think one of the key things that the culture of thinking work can actually do is provide us with a common language, a common vocabulary.

Too often, teachers seem to talk across each other in terms of thinking. We understand what the other person is saying about teaching and learning and we don't have that common vocabulary or common understanding. So, a very simple language to put around that, which comes from this work, can really assist all of us.

Colin: I think the press surrounding the issue of language and literacy across Australia at the moment also provides us with plenty of impetus to really be focusing in on that and say, "Look, actually, language is important." I like to make jokes with my students and say, "Well, I like to speak the Queen's English. Thank you very much." Because I think it's important to not only use the right words and the structure in the communication but also to model good use of oral language.

It's important for phonemic awareness and language developing in young children. Coming now to the structure of routines and thinking routines, something that I'm finding people ask who are new to this - they wonder how it's going to go if they suddenly imposed a structured routine on their class.

So my question to you is, when you use a thinking routine -- and there are plenty of them, for example, See-Think-Wonder is one of them -- do you actually name the routine to your students when you use it, or do you just work with it and kind of blend it in a bit incognito-like?

All classroms have routines - management routines & thinking routines

Cameron: Look, I don't have a set path, sometimes I will, sometimes I won't. It depends on the class. It depends on the time of year. It depends on much experience I think they've had with this before. So dependent on a whole range of things.

But I think it's important to understand upfront that all classrooms have routines, they always have. It's just a fact that for many, many years, it seems that teachers have, from the first lesson of the school year, focused more on behavior management routines than on thinking routines.

And I think a big error that's sometimes made in terms of thinking routines is that they're seen as something that needs to be done. And once you do a thinking routine, you've done it, and the students are thinking. But the idea of using the word "routine" is that we're trying to make it routine within the class.

So, in an ideal sense, if students, for instance, come to my class, a history classroom from a visual arts classroom and from an English classroom that they've been in earlier in the day and they've already been exposed to a See-Think-Wonder routine, by the time they get to me, even if it's a few weeks later, if it's routine, I don't need to explain it to them.

We just do it. And that's where the language in the routine becomes particularly useful because it's drawing out particular aspects of thinking at particular times in the classroom discourse.

Colin: So you never get the reaction from the students, "Here we go again, another routine?"

Cameron: Certainly I had that at times. Yes, particularly with See-Think-Wonder. I think that's an obvious place for teachers to start and it can drive students insane if literally all they get is another See-Think-Wonder routine. But at the same time, that's recognized what that's actually telling us. That is telling us that this form of thinking is becoming routinized in our students and I think that's something that we should be aiming for.

Colin: Yeah, I guess it's a healthier routine than thinking about a discipline routine.

Cameron: Definitely.

Measuring success with thinking routines

Colin: So, looking back now, how do you measure the success of working with this? Do you think it's made a difference?

Cameron: Definitely think it's made a difference. I know it's made a difference. But how do we measure success is an interesting question in education because we tend to measure quantitatively what can be measured easily. And the whole point of a lot of this work is that it's far more qualitative measurements.

The idea of making thinking visible is that we're providing opportunities for student and, in fact, teacher thinking to be made visible in classrooms and around schools.So that it's thinking that we can go back to and we can recognize how far we've come in our thinking and different directions and paths that we have taken.

So in terms of measuring success, there's a whole different range of ways you can answer that. One would be evidence of thinking in classrooms and around schools, another would be evidence of the language of thinking being evident within the teaching staff and within students, and there's absolutely no question. Of course, of years of working with this, we're getting better and better at it and it's becoming inculcated within our school in a big way.

What hasn't worked

Colin: I was going to ask you about the journey and you've just indicated you're getting better and better as time passes. I would assume that, along the way, you've adapted and altered your ideas and strategies to suit the times when you've learned about things that haven't worked. Can you give us some idea of some things that haven't worked with this concept?

Cameron: Now, I struggle with that question because, like most teachers, I suppose, I just naturally tend to blot out things that don't work and it's a really good question and we should be better at answering it than we are. Teachers need to document our own work as well, so we can work out what did work and what didn't work and go back to it and reflect on it.

And over the years, unfortunately I tend to focus on what has worked, and when something doesn't work, I sort of wipe it and start again. And so I don't the ability to go back and reflect on that question as much as I would like to be able to do. But when I think about routines, I know that one thing that was difficult early on is, as I was becoming used to it, it was a case of just doing a routine in the class and me not quite understanding what I was trying to achieve through the routine.

I think this was a real problem when the making thinking visible work really became prominent in Australia quite some time ago is that people just started doing routines. And that's where I think Ron's latest work on creating Cultures of Thinking is useful because it provides the rationale. It provides the philosophy. It provides the reason in terms of why we are trying to use routines and what we're trying to achieve with the routines.

And you don't need to use thinking routines to establish a culture of thinking in a classroom or in a school. There are all sorts of ways of doing that. But the routines have been designed so that they encourage us towards particular language, particular modeling, particular interactions so they can be useful, but doing routines on their own is not particularly useful.

So that's probably what hasn't worked. It was taking a long time to work out the philosophy and the rationale behind what I was trying to achieve because the cultural forces are quite multidimensional and you can dig into them for years and still find more and more room to move and room to expand.

I think starting with the routine can sometimes be the wrong way to start. I think perhaps it's more effective to actually start with a philosophical digging into and understanding of what the 8 Cultural Forces actually are through a significant discussion about one or more of those cultural forces than thinking about how that might affect...playing with that cultural force might affect the teaching and learning going on in a particular classroom at a particular time.

The one-minute essay or exit ticket

Colin: You do indicate though in the book or the book tells a story about how you used some strategy at the end of your lesson to collect some feedback or some data on what it is that you do, and I particularly liked this part, which is why I want to ask you about it.

You used the one-minute essay, or it's also named "the exit ticket," and that essentially asks students to write a little essay about how the structure of the class contributed to their learning. Can you talk just a bit more about that?

Cameron: There's all sorts of exit tickets you can have. You can ask students any question you like as an exit ticket, and it's a good way of getting some sort of formative assessment from the students to the teacher. I actually think the best feedback that works in a school is student-to-teacher feedback, rather than teacher-to-student feedback.

But the 60-second essay or the one-minute essay is an idea I picked up years ago. Just hand out a post-it note or a little card, a dictation type card and ask the students, they've got 60 seconds, "What's the key point that you learned in the class today and what's one question?" And usually, I would only do that after we spent quite some time in the lead-up weeks, talking about what a good question looks like.

So there's a number of different classroom activities that I'll use around good questioning. So I'm asking them one key point that they learned and one good question. I'll flick through it all. I'll look for common themes. I'll see if there's anything that I need to readdress. But more importantly, at the beginning of the next lesson, I usually find two or three of their really good questions to read out at the start of the class.

And it just helps remind us where we're all coming from in terms of asking those powerful questions but also recognizing that different people or different learners are seeing things in different ways in the class.

Colin: I guess it takes quite a bit of courage to do that. I would imagine that some people would be rather wary of saying, "What did you think of that? Can you tell me what you learned?" Because I mean if you get a whole lot of empty post-it notes back, you think, "Oh, dude, they didn't learn anything.

Or maybe they're just too cranky and they don't want to tell me." Have you come across some post-it notes that you really wish you didn't have to read?

Cameron: None that I can think of off the top of my head. I supposed this has worked in a cultural transformation at the school here where we've spent years and years working on these sorts of concepts now. So, it began with student surveys a long time ago and then we got feedback from the students suggesting, in fact, that, "It's nice that you survey us but we'd much rather have a conversation with you."

So we spent more time in actually listening to students. We've set up a student voice group. Actually, the students have set up a student voice group in the school. Now we have students that attend our head of department meetings. They come to our staff payday days.

They're very actively involved in discussions about teaching and learning about pedagogy. Departments invite them in to give feedback on assessment tasks.

So, it's a cultural aspect to the school which I think has come from this work, a central element of this work and so much of the Cultures of Thinking work ties into the Reggio Emilia Approach. And Reggio Emilia is a small town in Northern Italy, which is the basis of early childhood approach around the world now. And one of their key approaches is advocating that listening must be the basis of the learning relationship that teachers seek to form with students.

So in terms of responding to your question, I would say that probably the most important thing that a teacher can be doing is listening, observing, paying attention to the way students are learning, and adjusting teaching as a result. Because in my point of view, learning is a form of meaning-making, and I can't assume that 20-25 students in a classroom in front of me are all making meaning the same way.

It's my job to work out what sense they're making of the content or the knowledge that I'm providing for them and what sort of understanding they're making as a result of that. Trusting their minds, trusting that in fact the content is interesting and they're going to engage with it, and that thinking is a social endeavor, the idea that it's a very collaborative endeavor in the class.

But documenting their thinking and listening very carefully to the conversations, the questions, and trying to make that visible so that we're all aware of the way that each other is thinking in the room, the teacher as well as the students. So my response to your question would be that listening to our students, is in terms of the Cultures of Thinking work is one of the most important steps we can take.

Students attending department meetings - the student voice program

Colin: A very significant thing that I've just picked up in what you said is that you actually have students attend your heads of department meetings. Now I want to just say that slowly because that, to me, sounds amazing. I've never heard of that before and I'm saying that slowly because I've never heard of that before. Whose idea was that?

Cameron: I saw a tweet from a school in Finland, which suggested they have two students, two different students attend all of their departmental meetings. And I thought, "That's simple, I can do that."

So I invited two students to our heads of department meeting, one of the ones that chair, so actually when the head master was on sabbatical, so the deputy head was in charge. I think the head master would've been more open to it than the deputy head actually was because I hadn't asked anybody about it and I certainly got some funny looks.

So some very concerned heads of department and I'm not sure the deputy at the time was particularly thrilled. But I'll never forget the moment, I'll never forget the moment in that meeting because the meetings were all learning meetings. So we've had a rating to do on feedback and then we were using a thinking routine as a group, a group of adults to discuss the rating on feedback, and we were having a discussion, and then one of the boys spoke up.

And he spoke up a bit, I've mentioned it to you a minute ago, about the fact how, "You give us all these student surveys and it's really nice to be asked. But what we see is you hand out surveys and collect them back in and nothing much actually changes in your teaching. We'd really rather have a discussion with you."

And you should've heard the silence in the room. No one spoke for about 10 seconds, as if all the adults in the room stopped and actually took that in, and we've never looked back. We now have a thriving student voice program here, and the students organize it all themselves.

They meet weekly in the library, a very large group of them. I meet with them once a term and give them pizza, but effectively their focus is on learning and teaching and helping teachers have conversations about learning and teaching. They are very good at avoiding discussions about things that might get a bit contentious.

I've actually found that when you have students present in the room and teachers are having an argument about some aspect of education, it's all from the students that have the sense to pave the way forward and smooth the way forward. We speak to each other much more civilly when there are students present, and I suspect part of that is because it helps remind us of why we're here in the first place.

Colin: Isn't that interesting? The teachers talk more civilly towards one another when there are students around. I find that, well, maybe that shouldn't be so amazing. 

Cameron: No question.

Colin: That's incredible, isn't it? So, there's been quite a bit of research backing up Cultures of Thinking. It's been around for a while. It's come out of a reputable organization. For people who are new to this, and look, this is always going to happen, and I just want to come back to your comment on the fact that in your school, if I understood this correctly, you avoid a top-down method of introducing new things.

In some places though, it's not like that. It is a top-down thing. So they'll come out with the latest idea and they'll say, "Right, this is what we're doing this year." And you get a bit of resentment. How difficult is it to treat this differently from a passing fad?

Effective change management in schools

Cameron: Well, I think there's two aspects to your question and the first is that I've never seen really effective change management in a school that's been imposed from the top. I think anything that's been long-lasting that's lasted beyond the personal small group of people at the top of the hierarchy that have tried to impose it.

Anything that's been long-lasting has been as a result of passionate people who are enthusiastic, who have bubbled up in terms of their own ideas and thought, "Hey, this is good. I want to start making sense of this and utilizing some of this and I want to discuss it with my colleagues." 

And that's really what we're after more than anything else is changing the structure in terms of how we introduce ideas and what we do with them once they're here. It can't be my idea or it can't be the head master's idea. Iit has to belong to the teaching staff. And to some extent, the students as well to be honest. How do we make it not a passing fad? Well, I don't think thinking is a passing fad.

If we want to improve the nature of thinking in our classrooms, and David Perkins is quick to say that learning is a consequence of thinking. So think about that statement for a moment, "Learning is a consequence of thinking."

If we want to improve the nature of learning, of thinking in our classrooms, then I have not found a better way to do it than to commence with Creating Cultures of Thinking work.

And I've certainly been involved with critical thinking organizations, conferences in the US, at Berkeley University, and I know that Ron Ritchhart has drawn on some of that in his work here. I don't know of a better basis for where we are now and what we need in terms of teaching and learning and improving thinking in schools and classes than this book.

Colin: Well, I was actually going to ask you about the book. It was recommended to me December 2015 as you might like to do this over the holidays, and I thought, "Yeah, you bet. I love to read." My question to you is, is it worth it or if I'm a teacher and I'm new to this, can I just try a few thinking routines and see how I go?

How much value is there? Sounds like a silly question, but how much value is there in actually really immersing yourself in the content of the book? Would that make a difference to people?

Cameron: Well, as I've said to you a little bit earlier, I think the mistake a lot of people make is they think that if they do a thinking routine, then they're improving their students' thinking. You need to understand the rationale and the philosophy behind the routines and what it is you're trying to achieve.

An easy way to start, I think, because the book's broken into the 8 Cultural Forces, is choosing one cultural force that you're really interested in; perhaps photocopying that chapter or starting with that chapter.

But you could easily spend a year if not two, just focusing on one cultural force. But more than anything else, I think, is that you need to have somebody to discuss it with and to work on it with and to push you in terms of coaching and mentoring and assisting each other and peer observations and conversations.

So the best advice I think I could give to anybody is to try and establish some small reflective group of passionate educators. Maybe it's the person that sits beside you in the staff room or somebody that sits in a classroom opposite you but somebody that you work with that you would like to start discussing these ideas with.

But start small, one cultural force is an easy place to start.

Colin: Cameron, it's been an inspiration. Thanks so much for your time.

Cameron: Thank you, Colin. It was an absolute pleasure. Thanks for the invitation.

Related Posts

Creating Cultures of Thinking: Dr Ron Ritchhart - Harvard University

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

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