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Thinking Routines in the Classroom. Not Just an Activity? Simon Brooks

Posted by Colin Klupiec on July 21, 2016 at 7:55 PM

Cultures_of_thinking.pngI have been having an ongoing 8 episode discussion with educational consultant, Simon Brooks about Cultures of Thinking. This is an educational framework that emerged from the work of Ron Ritchhart and the Project Zero team at Harvard University.

In each of the discussions we delve into the 8 cultural forces that, according to Ron Ritchhart, we must master in order to truly transform our schools.

In this episode, part 6, I discuss the cultural force of 'routines' with Simon, who spent years implementing cultures of thinking into his classrooms. I asked Simon if routines are more than just another classroom activity. 

This is Part 6 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. Management routines
  3. Instructional routines
  4. Thinking routines

People & organisations mentioned

  1. Harvard University
  2. Dr Ron Ritchhart
  3. Clive James
  4. Cameron Paterson

Resources/books/articles mentioned

  1. Japanese Maple by Clive James

Previous podcast episodes on SoundCloud

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

 Episode 73 of The Learning Capacity Podcast

Thinking routines in the classroom. More than just an activity? Simon Brooks. 

Colin Klupiec: Routines, a sequence of actions designed to achieve a specific outcome in an efficient and productive manner. 

Simon, is that word efficient again? Efficient maybe, but perhaps not effective, but we will talk about that in a moment. And for the teacher as a culture shaper, routines represent a set of shared practices that constitute a group's way of doing things.

Now, routines are often seen as activities, but Ritchhart describes routines as much more than an activity. But the thing is that when I found myself in a thinking routine, when I've seen a thinking routine demonstrated, it feels like an activity. So how do we generate the vibe of routines being more than just activities?
Simon Brooks: A number of the schools that I have worked with, I have begun with routines. And Ron writes about that in this book, too, that routines actually can be a really powerful place to begin because they have immediate practical relevance in the classroom.

And teachers like that about professional learning. There is something that they can pick up and take away and use straight away. It's not all theory but it is practice.  

After a while, there's a potential downside of that. And it's something that I would like to call the "see think wonder groan." And the groan can happen. In many ways, the groan is actually a really encouraging sign.

Because when whole schools jump on board with these ideas and teachers go away and start using routines, children can experience "see think wonder" in lots of different classrooms often within the same week.
Colin: In different contexts.
Simon: That's right. And therefore, if a teacher begins a lesson by saying, "Okay students, today, we're going to do 'see think wonder.'" Then sometimes, in that context, the effect could be...Because they're a bit "see think wondered" out. So it's encouraging in that it means the teachers are actually exploring these ideas.

But it speaks to your question as well about the difference between routines and the concept of maybe a routine being an activity. I think how we break that down is this.
After schools and teachers have gone through that initial implementation phase, when they're just playing with and applying these routines, there is actually a more powerful question for teachers to ask themselves. And that question is, what kind of thinking to do my students need to do right now?

That's actually the most effective start point. So if we begin with that, whatever is that we are learning, whoever students are that are learning it, what's the thinking that they need to do in service of developing understanding. Then can we find a routine that is in service of that thinking. That is the most effective way to use routines. 
Colin: So there is reflection before we think about an activity? 
Simon: I think so.
Colin: Reflection and analysis, really.
Because if we start by saying we are doing "see think wonder," then it's the activity that's taking over. But we start by thinking about what is the thinking we want to do.
Colin: I guess then, a teacher also has to think about whether or not thinking is important to them. As in, is thinking in this context important or is it about knowing? And I guess this comes back to the initial idea about the entire cultures of thinking framework, thinking versus knowing.

So if you have to take yourself right back to the beginning every single time, well, there is obviously got to be some value in that as well because it means you yourself are reevaluating all the time. So in terms of avoiding that activity-based vibe in the classroom, is there something that we can kind of sneak in there with the students before we do the routine so they don't just think that it's yet another activity?
Simon: I think we sneak it in, rather than before, the routine. I think the routine is what we sneak in. So when I see "see think wonder" being delivered most effectively, it's not badged as being "see think wonder."

So it's more on the lines that a teacher is sharing some sort of interesting visual stimulus. And they will say to the students, "Okay, today, what we're going to be doing is we're going to be really digging deeply into this visual stimulus and try to unpack what's going on it. So the first thing I want you to do, students, is just take moment or so. 

Can you just jot down what you notice in this picture? Can you do that first?" And then they do that, they jot that down.  And after that, "So what are your theories now about what is going on in this image based on what've you seen? Have you got any theories?

Can we share those and those surface?" And ideas spark around and jump around. And after all of that happen, right, we've had a lot of theories about this image. But, "What are you left thinking or asking? What questions have you got?" And then those are surfaced and they spark off further inquiry. The students have just done "see think wonder," but they don't even know it.
Colin: Yes, it's clandestine.
Simon: Yes.
Colin: It is under the radar, by stealth. No, I like that because effectively, what you're saying is we can do all of these routines and we could probably do them more often than not. The only thing that we need to do is just not label them.
Simon: And sometimes, labeling is okay, but then when the "see think wonder groan" happens, it's time to think about a different way.

Management routines, instructional routines & thinking routines

Colin: Let's talk about a couple of other types of routines. There's often been some confusion between management and instructional routines, management and instruction as one type or one category of routines, and then thinking routines. So those are the two categories. So on one side, you've got management and instructional and then thinking routines.

And it's also been suggested that the management or instructional routines are often used by new teachers. That's not surprising, or teachers who might be struggling to manage a particular class, again, that's not surprising.

However, the problem with that is that it leads to an emphasis on teacher direction, teacher delivery and student control, rather than on the promotion of thinking and learning. How do these two approaches differ in the way that they work? I mean, why is one better than the other?
Simon: Well, I am going to group them a little differently actually and see what happens. I am going to put management routines in one spot and then I am going to put instructional and thinking routines in the other spot and see how that plays out. Let's first talk about management routines.

First thing to acknowledge about this is that these are really important. And there are lots of different management routines. I have seen primary school teachers do, "One, two, three, eyes on me."
Colin: Yeah, that is management, too.
Simon: And that is a management routine. If I try to use that as a high school teacher, I am not sure that will go down very well.
Colin: I don't think that's going to fly.
Simon: So sometimes...but it's very powerful in many primary classrooms. So sometimes, management routines can be context specific. I have seen other teachers. In fact, I have seen some folks from Harvard use one with older learners, which is when you want everybody to be quiet.

You just raise your hand in silence and then you wait. And slowly but surely, everybody else sees that your hand is up and they raise their hand in silence and then everybody goes quiet together without a word being said.
I had one of the management routines that I always found was really powerful as a teacher is that when I had invited students into my classroom, I wouldn't begin the lesson until they had all stood in silence behind their chairs.

And when they're in silence and I invited them to sit down. Then we would begin. And then the reverse, at the end of the lesson, I would ask them to stand behind their chairs in silence so that I could also ask or so I could say farewell and ask them to leave.
Colin: Just jumping there, do you think some people might see that as being a bit old school, a bit old-fashioned.
Simon: I think so. Absolutely, it could be. And I think it depends on context. It depends on the teacher. It depends on so many factors. For me, I always found it worked. It was like a bookend at the start and the end of the lesson, a place where order existed so that intellectual disorder could happen in the middle but still felt like it was nurtured and supported.
Colin: I guess that refers back to something else that we were talking about in our discussion on time. Because you're realizing that your time with your students is incredibly valuable.

You want to make the most of that time so you are sitting bookends that separate your time from the busyness of everything else that's going on in the day. So you're saying, "I just want to be here now with you, guys and girls, let's just carve out the next 40 minutes." 

Simon: Agreed, there are other management routines, but maybe being a bit controversial here because I'll be...I don't often like to say there is a right and a wrong way of doing things.
Colin: You can be controversial here. It's a safe place to be controversial.
Simon: Thanks, Colin. That makes me feel good.
Colin: There's only thousands of people listening.
Simon: Look, I don't often like to say there's rights and wrongs, but there are a couple of management routines that I have occasionally seen or heard about over the years, I don't think are in service of lasting learning. I think one of those is writing children's names up on the board who have been misbehaving. That is a management routine.
Colin: It is. I've seen that one used.
Simon: I would rather, when children's names go up the board, it's in celebration of the learning they have been doing.
Colin: That's an interesting flip around of that idea, isn't it?
Simon: That it is a good thing to be up on the board, not a bad thing. Another one I have sometimes seen is the classroom lockout. This one is often used with, sometimes used with senior school students. If they're late for class, then the door is locked and then they are not coming in. And the principle there is that then they'll learn not to be late next time.
Colin: Learning by exclusion.
Simon: That's right. Well, will they? I'm not sure.
Colin: And a note to our listeners, don't use the lockout management routine when there is a lock-down in procedure.
Simon: That could be bad news. I think those type of management routines can suck a lot of the energy out of the learning space. It can run contrary to the ideas that we talked about on learning and culture thinking.

So there are routines that I think are ineffective and there are others, and I think it's important to acknowledge, that I think are really, really important to be in place. But they are all different to instructional routines.
So when we talk about instructional routines, well, I think that those are practices and procedures which we use to facilitate effective learning. Ron makes brief mention of the U.K. actually in the book here.

And in the U.K., there is a big focus on coming out of that context. I know about it, that we have an instructional routine of a starter and a plenary at the beginning and end of lessons, a starter activity to get them connecting with whatever the learning is in that lesson and the plenary to get them evaluating what is that they have learned in that lesson. 

Those are instructional routines and can be really, really powerful ways of facilitating effective learning.
Colin: I guess they are also good for developing habits of process in terms of, you know, I teach in a technology-based environment and if you don't have routines or process in a workshop-based environment, you will end up with the tools all over the place. And that doesn't facilitate any kind of good learning at all.
Simon: And that's the difference to management routines helping the classes to run smoothly and probably, safely, and instructional routines facilitating effective learning. And a particular type of instructional routine...this is where I see thinking routines nesting into instructional routines.

Well, thinking routines are instructional, but with the press for a specific form of thinking. So if we take a routine like claim-support-question, which is a really powerful routine, while it's instructional, it's there to facilitate effective learning, but it's pressing for hypothesising, for justification, and for wondering.

Those are the thinking moves it's pressing for. That is why that is a thinking routine which is an example of an instructional routine.
Colin: Ritchhart suggests as well that thinking routines should be largely evaluated by the students. So how would that work?
Simon: I think a simple conversation at the end of the lesson would be really, really powerful. You know, students today, we use "connect to extend challenge" to deepen our understanding of the problem we are exploring. What worked for you when you used that routine, what felt tricky for you when we did it, and how might we get better at it next time?
Colin: Again, that comes back to the whole, "I'm not comfortable with being evaluated by my students in real time." So it might be one thing to get them to write something down on a piece of paper and you just read it later when no one else is around.

But there, you are actually asking them in real time, "What did you think of that?" That could be confronting.
Simon: Could be confronting, but is inevitably empowering. And not only is it valuable as a piece of formative assessment for the teacher on how things are going, but it sends a message to the learners that, I, as a teacher am focused constantly on wanting to be the best teacher I can be. Their teacher is learning, too.
Colin: And that stage might be hard to get to. Think about the other routines that we are just talking about in terms of management and instruction.

Because schools are such ridiculously busy places, and again, this comes back to our other conversation on time, we might just not get past management and instructional routines because by the time we have got through all of that, there is only five minutes left to go in the lesson. "The bell is gone. Evaluation, sorry, we will do that tomorrow."

And when you think about the fact that that could easily accumulate very, very regularly, you can see how management and instructional routines start to take over. How do we stop that from happening?
Simon: When we think about a culture of thinking, the thing that we're prioritizing is thinking opportunities. Many of those thinking opportunities take the form of thinking routines. It's a big rock for us in a culture of thinking.

We know that management routines are important too, but they are not the most important thing. And then the culture thinking, part of our central value systems as teachers is the thinking opportunities, and the most important thing and I will make sure that the biggest portion of time of my class is set aside for that.
Colin: Leaving "see think wonder" aside for a moment, labeled or unlabeled, we will just park it for a moment. You've used routines extensively, give us a top three.
Simon: "Connect to extend challenge," "color symbol image," and "parts purposes and complexities."
Colin: And all of those have three major points to them. I just noticed.
Simon: Yes, they do. I didn't even notice that, but they do.
Colin: So let's go with the first one.

Thinking Routine: “Connect to extend challenge”
Simon: Okay, "connect to extend challenge." So one of these comes out of the context of a class that I have taught and the other two are classes that I have seen happening. So the first one, "connect to extend challenge."

Well, I saw this one in the context of a Year 7 science class, where students in that class were identifying complexity in the world around them in terms of changing states of matter. And that is how the teacher framed it up, "Today students, we're going to be exploring the complexity of changing states of matter and we'll do that for using a thinking which I call 'connect to extend challenge.'"
Colin: So it was labeled upfront?
Simon: It was mentioned, but notice the flip there. It was the complexity, what the thinking would be, that was identified first and the routine was in service of that.

So I'm not a science teacher myself, but my recollection from that lesson is that there are three forms of changing states of matter that young people are already pretty familiar with and those are melting, freezing, and boiling. So they taught a little bit about what those things were.
Colin: I think teachers could probably experience in all of those states in any normal day, melting, freezing, and boiling.
Simon: Yes, in an emotional way. So there was some talk around what those things look like. But then what the teacher did is that they did this really effective move. They played a short-time YouTube video. It was only two or three minutes long.

And in it, in that video, many other different forms of changing states of matter were seen, were visually apparent, but there was no explanation as to what was happening.

Now, I knew, from my limited knowledge of science, that what the students were looking at is they were looking at different forms of changing states of matter, specifically condensation, sublimation, and deposition. But the students didn't know that language. They just saw it happening.
Colin: I am not surprised. They are big words.
Simon: Very big words. And obviously, that was the part of the teacher’s goal, to communicate in that language and unpacking what those things mean.

But instead of going straight to that language, after the kids had seen the video, the teacher said, “Okay, when you watched this video, what connections in terms of what you just saw here can you make to what we already talked about in terms of melting, freezing, and boiling? How does watching the video extend your understanding of those three general states of matter? And finally, what is challenging here for you? What questions have you got?"
The discussion emerged from that was so powerful. The children didn't have the language in condensation, sublimation, and deposition, but they could see it happening in the video and started to have a whole conversation about, "How's that happening? Why is that happening?" So that by the time you got to the end of the lesson and the teacher dropped that language on them, they had a will to receive that language.
Colin: Yeah, okay. That reminds me a little bit about...of an English context when we tried to define irony. The best definition I have ever heard is, "I don't know how to define irony, but I know it when I see it."
Simon: I like that. It's self-referential.
Colin: And your second thinking routine?

Thinking Routine: “color symbol image"
This is the class I taught. I was teaching a Year 11 class. And my goal for the lesson was to help children find layers of meaning in a poem called "Japanese Maple" by Clive James,, a famous Australian now living in the U.K. Hugely moving poem of a couple of years ago.

Clive James has cancer and he knows that it's terminal and wrote this poem, "Japanese Maple," thinking that he would be passing away very soon after. So the poem, and if your listeners want to look at it, is just so, so moving. A key idea in the poem is that surprisingly to Clive James, in what he thought were his final days of life, his experience of the world around him was just intensifying, not diminishing.
Colin: Isn't that interesting?
Simon: So for that reason, it's a really interesting poem. We explored the poem as a class. And then in order to find the layers of meaning in the poem, I asked the children to engage in routine which is called "color symbol image."

Find three big ideas in the poem. Represent one of them with the color that captures it, another with the symbol that captures it, another with an image that captures it, but it can't be a color or symbol or an image from the poem.

So you can't just pick a Japanese maple tree which is mentioned. How a gardener writes that in the development of understanding, it is advantageous to develop multiple diverse representations of the same entity, and it's that theory which underpins "color symbol image." By representing these big ideas symbolically, it enriches the children's understanding of them.
Colin: Has an enormous amount of depth in this routine.
Simon: Huge.
You wouldn't think that just by thinking "color symbol image."
Simon: Yeah. And so I remember the end of that lesson, getting a really powerful sense that those children have made sense of the depth of this poem and the big ideas in it through the routine that they'd used to do it.
Colin: And your third routine?

Thinking Routine: "parts purposes and complexities"
Simon: My third routine is I think the best lesson that I've ever observed taking place, and it was in the class of Year 12, technology teacher.
Colin: Oh, hurray. Yeah, but it wasn't me.
Simon: Well, I've not been to see one of your lessons. So there's hope for the future.
Colin: There's always hope.
Simon: I don't know why and how it fitted into what the teacher was doing, but the purpose of this whole lesson was to explore the creativity of doorknob design.
Colin: Well, that's a challenge.
Simon: That's what these students were doing. And so the teacher used the routine. And I had actually worked with the teacher before the lesson in preparation for it. But then I watched and I thought, "Wow, the teacher really made this lesson sink." "Parts purposes and complexities," the teacher just gave the students in groups of three a bunch of doorknobs and a big piece of butcher's paper.

He said, "On the butcher's paper, can you identify all of the parts of the doorknob, what are the purposes of all of the parts, and then what are the complexities of the doorknobs? In terms of these parts, which ones are particularly complex, ingenious in terms of the relationship between the part and the purpose?"

But then the lesson really took off when the teacher handed out a bunch of screwdrivers.
Colin: Okay, now you can pull them apart.
Simon: Children pulled them apart.
Colin: Which, in the industry, we call a tear-down.
Simon: Well, I did not know that, so thank you for adding it in. I could not believe how many parts that are inside a doorknob, tiny little springs, little screws, pieces of metal shaped in ways that I didn't understand. And then the children identified all of those parts, speculated about the purpose of all of those parts, and then obviously, a lot more complexity emerged from it.

It was at the point where they were holding tiny little springs that you could hardly even see, but speculating at length about the purpose of those. They left that lesson understanding that in something that seems so simple like a doorknob, there is immense creativity embedded.

They were appreciating how the world around them is a cleverly constructed place, and that's what that Year 12 technology teacher wanted to emerge from that lesson. 

Colin: The question is, did they manage to put them back together?
Simon: Well, I do not know the answer. I think it...judging from what I saw, I think that would have been tricky.
Colin: Well, coming back to something we were talking about earlier again, it is nice to see how all these things relate. This is actually a fairly low-cost thing to do. It might sound like high-cost thing to do, but for around about $10 in your local hardware store, you can buy a doorknob that has an enormous amount of complexity.

So if they don't put it back together again, well, it's only $10. Okay, so let's think about a teacher who's been exposed to the cultures of thinking frameworks. They have been working with it in their school and it's been done. And they are thinking, "I am routined out. I can't take it anymore." What is your advice to them was?
Simon: Stop using them.
Colin: "Doctor, it hurts when I do this." "Then stop doing that."

Why cultures of thinking is not just another education fad
Simon: Yes, I think so. Stop using it. If it doesn't feel like it's working, if it's not in service of anything, then it's best to stop and turn back to actually what's the thinking behind the routines. Over the years, some people have said to me, "Why is cultures of thinking pedagogy not just another fad like all of the other fads in education?"
Colin: I have asked that question.
Simon: It's a good question. Did you ask it to me?
Colin: No, I asked it to Ron.
Simon: Oh, there you are. And what did Ron say?
Colin: He said it is not a fad. I actually asked him and Paterson as well. That's in podcast episode 46, and his response to me was, "Colin, thinking is not new."
Simon: And he's stolen my thunder, because I was going to say the same thing. If a culture of thinking is about thinking routines, then it might become a fad. If it's just about using routines and people not understanding why they are using them, it could be the next flavor of the month.

So if you got your teacher and they're feeling a bit routined out, then let's not think about the routines. Let's go to the thinking behind the routines. Because as Cameron said, as Ron said, that thinking is never going to grow old.

The real question here is how do we create rich thinking opportunities for our learners in service of bringing learning alive and developing deep learning understanding? Routines can do that, routines are a powerful way of doing that, but they're not the only way.
Colin: Simon, it's been great to speak with you. Thanks so much for you time.
Simon: Thanks, Colin.

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Creating Cultures of Thinking: Dr Ron Ritchhart, Harvard University

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

Simon Brooks: Implementing Cultures of Thinking in Schools

Educator Simon Brooks: Student or Teacher Centred Learning?


Topics: Learning Capacity, Podcasts, Cultures of Thinking

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