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This Is How I Got My Students To Think Outside The Box

The satsuma secret

Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash

About 18 months ago I set myself a challenge to try and shake up my teaching. I live in fear of becoming stale and lazy. I’ve been taught by such individuals and never wish to emulate that ‘style’.

I began this professional development quest by reading about approaches to teaching that encouraged students to engage in metacognition, or thinking about thinking.

I soon found the work of Ron Ritchhart and Mark Church. Their book, ‘The Power of Making Thinking Visible’ became my guide as it presented clear and practical strategies to teach thinking skills to young people.

Cultures of Thinking

Ritchhart and Church’s innovative book unravels the mysteries of thinking and its connection to understanding and engagement. It then takes readers inside diverse learning environments to show how thinking can be made visible at any grade level and across all subject areas through the use of effective questioning, listening, documentation, and facilitative structures called “Thinking routines”.

Photo by Laurenz Kleinheider on Unsplash

These routines, designed by researchers at Project Zero at Harvard, scaffold and support one’s thinking. By applying these processes, thinking becomes visible as learners’ ideas are expressed, discussed, and reflected upon.

Putting Theory Into Practice

There are myriad Thinking Routines, but I chose to try the ‘Peeling the Fruit’ strategy with my Advanced Higher Russian History.

As my students entered the room they were greeted with a satsuma on their desks — it would have been an orange but I needed an easy peeler.

I didn’t explain until we had completed a warm-up exercise, a brain game, if you like, to get them into the learning zone at 9 am on a Monday morning.

They were presented with the board below and 5 minutes in which to complete the task. They had to select one box of words and write a sentence showing the connections or relationships between them:

I then said that one way to think about the reasons for Bolshevik success in October 1917 is to think of the event as a piece of fruit: a satsuma.

Image by Hannah Young

While the Harvard strategy does not encourage actual fruit use and instead an image of a piece of fruit, I decided I might get more buy in with a more sensory experience.

We started examining the skin of the satsuma — I said that this represents what we see and notice immediately. This is perhaps our prior knowledge or what we think that we already know about the revolution: our assumptions.

Photo by Madalina Batlan on Unsplash

I gave them 3–5 minutes to note 6 ideas to explain Bolshevik success in October 1917. They were encouraged to share their ideas, which they did willingly.

We then discussed the idea that some of these factors could be categorised as structuralist while others were intentionalist.

I explained that we had to get under the surface of this issue (the October Revolution), so we all began peeling so that we could uncover the puzzles and questions underneath.

Photo by okeykat on Unsplash

Wondering, but not aimlessly

We could all now see a white membrane. This, I explained represented the questions that we must ask ourselves as historians.

As a Thinking Routine, this could be described as ‘Wondering’.

I said that time spent wondering is never wasted.

It was an excellent use of their time, and we were going to find out why.

Asking Essential Questions

At this point I turned to one of my favourite strategies from McTighe and Wiggins — Essential Questions.

I handed each student the following text on a crib sheet to help them with their wondering:

What is a good question?

A good question….

  1. Is open-ended.
  2. Is thought-provoking & intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion & debate.
  3. Calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.
  4. Points toward important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.
  5. Raises additional questions & sparks further inquiry.
  6. Requires support and justification, not just an answer.
  7. Recurs over time; that is, the question can & should be revisited again & again.

Question starters:

  • Why….?
  • How would it be different if….?
  • What are the reasons….?
  • Suppose that….?
  • What if….?
  • What if we knew….?
  • What is the purpose of….?
  • What would change if….?
  • Had…..would…..have occurred?
  • How influential was……in……?
  • How does…..relate to…..?
  • How might……help us to understand…..?
  • What does…..reveal about…..?
  • Could……have happened without…..?
  • Does…..matter when trying to understand the reasons for….?

Mt students were then encouraged to construct a minimum of three essential questions that they believed were important to consider at this point.

The questions that they came up with (while following the guidelines above) were excellent. No one had opted for a recall-based question.

They were all wondering about the factors that they had initially noted:

  1. Could the Revolution have happened without Lenin?
  2. Does the Ancien regimeness of the Provisional Government matter?
  3. Who determines which factor is most significant?

As each student offered their questions I challenged them with another question in Socratic style.

I asked them to make predictions based on their hypothetical questions. This is a fantastic way to develop metacognitive skills and take low stakes risks with their thinking. I found that this helped to practise feeling confident. No one could give a definitive ‘correct’ answer to these questions and so no one felt that their response could be incorrect. All answers had to be justified but all had the capacity to be valid.

The sense of psychological safety in the classroom was patent.

Making Connections

I then said that now we have considered the membrane and had done our ‘wondering’(if such a pursuit could ever be said to be finished), we were ready to peel this back to reveal the substance of the fruit. We could see that there were multiple segments that were encased in the membrane. They are all connected, but all slightly different in shape and size.

Photo by Kaitlyn Chow on Unsplash

In the same sense, I explained, historical interpretations are all connected when dealing with the same event — in this case, the October Revolution.

They all offer different viewpoints but they are all centred around the same core or stalk in the middle. They are all ‘looking’ at the middle from a different perspective, from a slightly different angle. We then linked this to the Soviet/Liberal/Libertarian/Revisionist historical interpretations of the Revolution.

They had notes on the historiographical debate and were then encouraged to make their own notes finding similarities and contradictions between the viewpoints.

They were allowed to eat the satsuma at this point, which they all did.

I said that they now had to consider the core, the conclusion, the heart of the matter.

Which interpretation did they find the most convincing, and why?

Why were the other interpretations not so compelling to them?

My Reflections On This Strategy

I found this new strategy of teaching thinking by making it visible really enjoyable.

The main advantages of this strategy for me were that:

  • I was able to fade my presence so that I was not dominating the room with my voice and knowledge.
  • Students were active in their learning and enjoyed participating in the lesson.
  • There were opportunities for all students regardless of their knowledge or ability to participate.

As the authors, Ritchhart and Church state,

In capturing the essence of any work or topic we want to students to come to their own understanding….we are building understanding and this can help students write an analytic essay following their class exploration…’

I really felt that in this lesson something was being created, built and understood.

This Thinking Routine will become a regular routine for my students, not necessarily always with actual fruit….but it probably will.

Photo by Junior REIS on Unsplash

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Hannah Young

Hannah Young

I write about education, well-being, digital content creation & marketing

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