Wednesday / May 22

You Can Lead the Students to Class, but Can You Make Them Think?

Several weeks ago, a colleague and friend of mine emailed me the following observations about his students:

The students don’t want to think anymore.

Nowadays students are just looking for the correct answer.

When I ask them to think critically, all I get are superficial responses.

Students don’t ask good questions anymore.

Collectively, these gloomy observations about a group of high school science and mathematics students provoke several observations of my own. First, my colleague phrased his observations as if something has changed in recent years regarding the thinking and questioning of students in his classroom. Words like anymore and nowadays suggest a thread of teaching nostalgia, the longing for the days when his students thought more critically, strived for more than just the correct answer, and engaged in inquiry about the content. Second, my colleague’s observations seem to suggest an absence of cognitive engagement on the part of the students. From this perspective, words like think critically, good questions, and superficial responses suggest a lack of deep, meaningful cognitive engagement in the academic content. Put differently, my colleague appears to have a class full of snorkelers (surface-level thinkers) but is longing for scuba divers (deep-level thinkers).

My guess is that these observations and frustrations are not isolated just to my colleague’s classroom and school. Most of you reading this have, at one time or another, experienced a similar situation and subsequent frustration, right? So what is going on here and what can we do about it? Put another way, the essential questions here are:

  1. Are students less likely today to cognitively engage in academic content at a deep, meaningful level than they were, say, ten or fifteen years ago?
  2. As the title of this article suggests, can we, as classroom teachers, foster, nurture, and sustain deep cognitive engagement with academic content in our students?

The answers to these two questions are no to the first question and an emphatic yes to the second question. Now let’s unpack the responses to these two questions so that by the end of this article we will have several ideas and strategies, ready to go, for your next class.

Are students less likely today to cognitively engage in academic content at a deep level than they were, say, ten or fifteen years ago?

Up to this point in time, the research surrounding this question has been quite clear that students can and do cognitively engage in academic content at a deep level (e.g., Wang, Bergin, & Bergin, 2014; Fredericks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004; Darr, 2012). Historically, the argument has been that the tsunami of technological devices and means by which we stay connected through social media and Google has limited our quest for knowledge, transforming it into mere consumption of knowledge (Carr, 2010; Birkerts, 1994). Specifically, why should I commit anything to long-term memory when I can simply Google it? Thus, students have evolved into surface-level consumers of knowledge with decreasing attention spans and motivation to think critically, ask questions, or look for more than the correct answer. This hypothesis, too, is not supported by the most recent research on teaching, learning, and thinking (Bennett, Malton, & Kervin, 2008; Mayer, 2003).

However, what may be at play here is something completely different: not that they can’t deeply engage, they just won’t. If the research surrounding this first question strongly suggests that students can and do cognitively engage in academic content at a deep level, why do we not always see this in our own classrooms?

Our brains selectively engage in experiences or situations that are novel, relevant, and facilitate the closing of a knowledge gap (Litman, Hutchins, & Russon, 2005; Loewenstein, 1994). Put differently, students selectively engage in eye-catching, authentic experiences that fill-in their perceived gaps in their learning. Thus, what may be happening in our classrooms is that students are not sold (i.e., lack of novelty) on the relevancy or outcomes of the learning experiences offered in the classroom (Almarode & Miller, 2013).

So what can we do about our students’ strongly held perception that what is happening in our classroom is neither relevant nor going to close a knowledge gap for them?

  1. Present a clear and concise learning intention at the start of each class or lesson. This creates the perception of the knowledge gap.
  2. Provide a list of success criteria so that students are very clear about what they must know, understand, and be able to do by the end of the class or lesson. These provide a clear pathway for closing the perceived knowledge gap.
  3. Make students first exposure to the content a novel, concrete, and authentic experience that makes them go ‘hmm’. It is this experience that helps the student understand why behind the content.
  4. Offer multiple perspectives to the content so that students have many ways of accessing the content. These multiple perspectives are practice for applying the content to different perspectives; a precursor to deep thinking.

How would you monitor your own progress in putting these ideas or strategies into action? With regard to learning intentions and success criteria, if an outsider walked into your classroom and asked a randomly selected student what he or she was doing, could the student answer the question? What if the outsider also asked the student how he or she would know they were successful, could the student articulate the success criteria? Does your lesson provide opportunities for students to practice applying the content to different contexts? If you can answer each of the above questions with a definite yes, you have set the stage of deeper cognitive engagement in your classroom. Each of these ideas or strategies, when implemented into your classroom specific to your content, creates opportunities for your students to engage in novel, relevant learning experiences that closes a perceived knowledge gap (Almarode & Miller, 2013).

However, we are not done yet. Setting the stage is only the first step. How do we transition to thinking critically, asking good questions, and looking for more than just the correct answer?

Can we, as classroom teachers, foster, nurture, and sustain deep cognitive engagement with academic content in our students?

To get your students to think critically and ask good questions, they have to have information about which to think critically and ask good questions. That’s right, without high quality information (i.e., background knowledge and content knowledge), effective strategies for acquiring that high quality information, and practice applying that content to other contexts, students will not be able to engage in academic content at a deep level even if you masterfully implement all four of the previously mentioned strategies: clear learning intentions, obtainable success criteria, novel experiences, and practice across different contexts.

Let’s use an analogy to unpack the response to our second essential question. Consider the act of juggling four bowling pins, rubber balls, flaming torches or some other set of objects, based on your own imagination. Juggling is a physically and mentally challenging task, at least in the beginning. Physically, the act of juggling requires the incredible delicate coordination of fine and gross motor skills, acquired and automated only after extended periods of deliberate practice. Mentally, juggling requires cognitive focus and concentration aimed at blocking out distractions as well as continuous monitoring of the location and movement of the four objects to make fine-tuning adjustments to the physical task of juggling. For the purposes of our discussion, the act of juggling represents the deep cognitive engagement so desperately sought after by teachers everywhere and the objects, whether bowling pins, rubber balls, of flaming torches, represent the content.

For students to think critically, ask deep questions, and move beyond superficial responses, they must have content with which to work (Abrami et al., 2015; McPeck, 1981; Markman, 2012; Leslie, 2014). To return to the juggling analogy, the act of juggling would be a waste of time if you did not have any objects with which to juggle. Similarly, asking students to think critically, ask deep questions, and move beyond superficial responses is a waste of time if these students to do not have the background knowledge or content knowledge with which to deeply engage.

Once your students do have the background knowledge or content knowledge in place, the act of deep cognitive engagement is not the next logical step. Returning to the juggler, to achieve even moderate levels of success tossing around bowling pins, rubber balls, or flaming torches, he or she must participate in deliberate practice. This is even truer if the juggler wanted to add a unicycle or a tight rope to the act, but I digress. The students in your classroom must participate in the deliberate practice of deep cognitive engagement over an extended period of time and across multiple contexts (Abrami et al., 2015; Markman, 2012; Leslie, 2014). And, guess what? This deliberate practice can be and should masterfully orchestrated by you through the use of intentional and purposeful strategies. From the specific nature of your questioning to the tasks and assignments you initiate in your classroom, you provide experiences that either foster, nurture, and sustain deep cognitive engagement or not.

So, what are these intentional and purposeful strategies? Although the listing of specific strategies for the content areas and grade levels of each reader is not possible within the limits of this article, there are a few guidelines that are applicable to all classrooms. Your deep cognitively engaging task is to reflect on how your questions, tasks, and assignments reflect these guidelines. To promote deep cognitive engagement of content, questions, tasks, and assignments should:

  1. Align with the verb associated with the learning standard, learning intention, or success criteria. For example, if the content standard asks students to compare and contrast, does your question, task, or assignment ask them to engage at that same level or does it ask them to simply name or identify (Almarode & Miller, 2013).
  2. Require students to discuss and explain concepts to their peers. No single strategy provides a better opportunity to deeply engage in content than having to teach content to another person so that they understand it (Medina, 2014).
  3. Ask students to reason with evidence. Do you ask students to support their responses by explicitly asking, “what makes you say that?”
  4. Offer multiple opportunities for students to make explicit connections. Using writing prompts, discussion circles, and/or graphic organizers, have students explicitly unpack how “this” relates to “that”.
  5. Never tell the students the whole story. Instead, provide them with opportunities to explore the data and, on their own, extract the big ideas and form conclusions. Of course, once they identify the big idea or form a conclusion, always ask “what makes you say that?”
  6. Ensure that instructional experiences provide multiple exposures, through different lenses, and from different perspectives (Ritchhart, Church, & Morrison, 2011).

As you reflect on your own questioning approach, tasks, and assignments, does each instructional exercise incorporate at least one of the above six guidelines. Remember, with deep cognitive engagement, as in juggling, practice is required.

So here is the final thought: not only can you lead students to class, but you can also make them think. The challenge resides in the fact that we must create engaging environments that provide relevant learning experiences, aimed at closing their perceived knowledge gaps, while at the same time orchestrating practice sessions that facilitate the development of critical thinking, good questioning, and the avoidance of superficial answers. Making them think, transitioning them from snorkelers to scuba divers is, in the end, up to us. After all, it is all about the teacher.



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Written by

John Almarode conducts staff development workshops, keynote addresses, and conference presentations on a variety of topics including student engagement, evidence-based practices, creating enriched environments that promote learning, and designing classrooms with the brain in mind. John’s action-packed workshops offer participants ready-to-use strategies and the brain rules that make them work. John is the author of Captivate, Activate, and Invigorate the Student Brain in Science and Math, Grades 6-12.

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