Eight ways teachers can spur curiosity, nudge visible thinking among learners

Grade Four Pupils at Bidii Primary school in Nairobi in their classroom on January 04, 2020, after learners resumed in-class learning countrywide after a nine-month disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

We all have, for one reason or another, complained about some ‘common sense’ matter that seemed to have escaped a leader, or a decision-maker, or even an entire boardroom. Or some basic or obvious thing a contractor or designer missed. How their poor decision proved costly in one way or another. Such poor decisions project the kind of thinking individuals bring to a role or position of responsibility. And the said thinking is informed by the kind and quality of education one received. Suffice it to say, for the most part, thinking is curated and/or nurtured in school. Our mental orientation, mind frame, thought processes, worldview/outlook are some of the habits of mind that (often predictably) lead to success or failure in the performance of roles and responsibilities. In fact, it is not in the standards or assessments, but rather in these personalised cognitive habits (and abilities) where success or failure - in academic and related terms - actually begin.

Educators at all levels of learning need to focus on developing proper thinking habits that learners will take long into adulthood. Learners need to be trained to make connections, reason with evidence, elaborate their thinking, synthesise situations and provide solutions, be curious, etc. Instructors ought to fully equip/train the learners on all the habits of mind, with tips, strategies and resources to make their thinking standout. In a 21st century learning environment - one inundated with information, stimulation and connectivity - there is a newfound context for the application of such key skills and an unprecedented urgency for their integration.

So what, exactly, can our educators do in a class setting in order to build on this?

Listening (actively) with understanding and empathy. As an educator, identify the most common “listening set-asides” in conversation so that students can begin to recognise common “errors” that occur in everyday communication. These errors might include errors in comparing, judging, placating or giving advice instead of really listening and understanding a message. Thinking flexibly is one of the key strategies to enhance the visibility of thinking. The use of RAFT assignments (Role, Audience, Format, Topic) where students must consider a situation, letter, speech or poem from a perspective other than their own, or that of the original speakers has proven to be immensely effective. Make learners think about their thinking (Metacognition). Ask students to map out their own thinking process. This can be done simply at first, e.g. diagramming the relationship between a want and a need, a gesture and a need to gesture. Then make it increasingly complex - mapping out how characters from books or thinkers in history might have arrived at certain starting or stopping points in thought.

An educator aiming to develop the student’s mind habits and create a complex way of thinking should demand and strive for accuracy and precision from the learners. For instance, a teacher can use “three before me,” a strategy that insists on any important assignment being checked by at least three other students before being handed in. this can encourage precision and diligence in the classroom, enhance collaboration and so some extent, peer teaching. Apply prior knowledge to new situations. Use question stems like “What do you remember about . . .?”, “When have you ever seen anything like this?” or “Tell me what you know about . . . “Whether you consider this activating schema, prior knowledge, or simply getting students more comfortable and in tune with what they already know, it can be a huge boost to the learning process. Creating, Imagining and Innovating are also key strategies in achieving an effective objective analysis and evaluation of an issue and form a candid judgement. Offer persistent sources of inspiring thought, design, art or multimedia through writing prompts, discussion points or simply as a daily class closure. This models and augments not only creativity, but also expertise.

Instructors ought to be taking responsible risks through creating an environment where failure is analysed, and not punished. Point out humour where it is not immediately apparent, especially in stories and examples from your own life. This can help establish the “relativity” of “things,” which supports more accurate analysis. Humour makes everything better.

Encourage interdependent thinking. Encourage students to debate, write creatively, critic works on their own and even share them on educative platforms. The more thinking is orally expressed, written and shared, the more opportunity there will be for cognitive interdependence. Place premium on continuous learning. Intermittently revisit old ideas, writing and projects to identify areas for development, improvement or revision. This is especially natural in digital domains, where content is more fluid - updated, shared, hyperlinked, curated, reformatted into more or less visual terms, and then shared again.

Think and communicate with clarity and precision. Remind students to avoid the vagueness and abstraction - and imprecision - of terms like always, never, all, everybody, teachers, celebrities, technology, they, we, should and must. Post these kinds of words or phrases where students can be reminded of them -- and know to avoid them. And hopefully, know why they should avoid them.

Teachers need to go from basic to sophisticated. They should be sure that students have mastered basic concepts before proceeding to more sophisticated concepts. If students have not mastered basic concepts, they may attempt to memorise rather than understand. This can lead to difficulty in content areas such as math and physics. A tenuous grasp of basic concepts can be the reason for misunderstanding and the inability to apply knowledge flexibly. Expand discussions at home. Parents may include discussions based on concepts in everyday life at home. The subject matter need not relate directly to what she is studying at school. Ideas from reading or issues in local or national news can provide conceptual material (for example, “Do you think a certain dress code in school is a good idea?”).

Educators should lead students through the process of connecting one concept to another, and also putting concepts into a hierarchy from small to large, simple to complex. For example, if the concept is “Thanksgiving,” a larger concept to which Thanksgiving belongs may be “Holidays,” and an even larger (more inclusive) concept could be “Celebrations.” By doing this level of thinking, students learn to see how many connections are possible, to connect to what they already know, and to create a web of concepts that helps them gain more clarity and understanding. Compare the new to the already known. Students should be asked to stop and compare and connect new information to things they already know. For example, if they are about to read a chapter on electricity, they might think about what they already know about electricity. They will then be in a better position to absorb new information on electricity.

Lastly, methods matter. To develop problem-solving strategies, teachers should give credit to students for using a step-wise method of accomplishing a task in addition to arriving at the correct answer. Teachers should also teach students different methods for solving a problem and encourage students to consider alternative problem-solving methods if a particular strategy proves unrewarding. It is helpful for teachers and parents to model different problem-solving methods for everyday problems that arise from time to time. Explicitly teach students how to infer or make inferences. Encourage questioning and posing problems to encourage critical thinking.