Hold that thought!

Meena Sriram

Everything that comes to mind, that “goes through our heads”, is called thought. – John Dewey

Thinking could therefore mean involving or being deeply engaged with one thought or interconnecting a few thoughts that are passing through our heads.

Thinking is a natural skill that every child is endowed with. Is it right to believe that geniuses were born or made over night? Will it be appropriate to state that Einstein or Newton achieved what they did without thinking and learning from thoughts? All our minds are equally involved in the priceless process of thinking and we just need to channelize those thoughts to reach our goals. Being teachers, we are privileged as we can influence young minds to think.

Often, adults in the child’s environment do the thinking for the child thereby curbing the child from thinking about something in a different perspective. For instance, when a child is repeatedly told that dark is dangerous, he/she will hesitate to enter a dark room or if he/she does, it will be with a lot of apprehension. All of us have such beliefs in our heads which we have accumulated over time and have rarely challenged these framed beliefs.

think A teacher can surely change the way a child thinks. Teaching history in middle school, I began my year interviewing the fresh batch of students about what they liked or disliked in history and civics. In fact, the exact task was to jot down all thoughts that came to their mind when I mentioned the words ‘history’ and ‘civics’. Some were excited by history but there were many who thought it boring, uninteresting, too many dates and details to recall, lot of unrelated information and so on. Civics was definitely not liked by even a single student in class. Such an exercise equips the teacher with the preconditioned notions in the heads of her students and these she can challenge by using her magic methodology of teaching and learning. These notions that children develop are handed down by the people they have interacted with in the past – teachers, parents, friends, and media too. However, a powerful thought from a teacher can change the direction of the thought in the child’s mind.

Some questions that come to mind as we think about thinking are:

  • What are thinking skills?
  • Don’t we think all the time?
  • Does one need special skills to think?
  • If so, can those skills be learnt?
  • Can they be taught?

It is essential for all of us to pause and think about these questions and perhaps jot down answers to be reviewed later. Each one of us could do an exercise by ourselves or with a colleague or students.

Another exercise that we may want to do with ourselves could be to elicit in greater detail the thinking patterns. We could use the outcomes for discussions with teaching partners or colleagues and that exercise could lead to many more ideas and possibilities of divergent thinking. A sample for such a tool is here and the same can be modified according to the topic or direction.

What I know, don’t know, and would like to know
You may write in each of the boxes, perhaps on your own or use it as a framework for discussion with a colleague.

About thinking About teaching thinking About changing thinking for learning
What I know
What I don’t know
What I would like to know

Some processes that characterize thinking are:

  • Think about thinking – this is called metacognition. Where an individual deeply thinks about the process of his own thinking.
  • Draw on a range of intelligences. As teachers we all are familiar with the different learning styles and that every individual has his/her own characteristic learning style. This will guide the process of thinking in a certain direction or pathway. Each individual will use a certain pathway to connect information but will eventually reach the goal.
  • Think divergently. This clearly means that thinking is not focusing on what is immediately obvious. Thinking is happening in several other ways which are not visible uniformly to everybody. In other words this could be categorized as ‘out of the box’ thinking.
  • Develop problem solving strategies. Thinking invariably is for solving problems, again some solutions are immediately visible while others need to be probed deeply and so thinking for problem solving will take another pathway.
  • Weigh different possible decisions. When different people have provided different ways of working or different opinions about the same issue, it is thinking which enables the individual to start weighing the different solutions and comparing them to see which could be more feasible or suitable.
  • Brainstorm questions. When a group of people think aloud, it leads to many more thoughts which are unexpected and many a time absurd answers also evolve.
  • Organize information. This kind of thinking enables the individual to put information in order or sequence to be easy to follow or to be retrieved easily at a future time. However a good amount of thinking is required to sequence, group, or categorize information.

So now, as a teacher or as a speaker to a large audience, how many times have we stopped to wonder what is going on in the heads of the students in our class or the members of the audience? One word which may mean a particular idea to the speaker/teacher with which she may be drawing connections from prior learning and hoping to lead to new learning, may actually trigger a new wave of thoughts in the minds of several students/listeners and they may be getting carried away in their own way thus losing contact with the words and connections drawn by the teacher/speaker. So it is indeed difficult for the speaker to gauge what is going on in the minds of the listeners. Thus, it is essential that the speaker be alert throughout his/her session and keeps questioning his/her listeners. Use of appropriate questioning techniques is one way a speaker can track both thinking and learning. With time and consistent effort a speaker can manage to weave the questions in such a way to suggest modification of his/her plan during a session. Answers provided to the right questions will serve as guide posts for the speaker to reconstruct the plan for either the class or a group of children or for just a particular child. Having practiced this exercise over many sessions, the speaker can predict a direction for his/her listeners and thus mould the lesson or learning to go that way.

Some reflection on the following lines will again help a teacher to trigger thinking in classrooms. This routine has been tried by many educators across the globe and we could perhaps use the same
MYST routine
Me: how do I make my thinking visible?
You: how do I make students thinking visible?
Space: how is the classroom environment organized to motivate thinking?
Time: how can I give more time in my classroom for thinking and how does thinking change with time?

mother-&-child An exercise that could help is ‘See think wonder’, where the teacher could give a certain picture like the ones below or any other from your context and dictate a task as follows:
Describe what you see, think about what you see, and wonder about what you have seen.

Here the student is not only forced to remain focused on the job but also has to describe his/her thinking to the teacher or partner and that will indicate the pattern of thoughts that cross the students’ heads, thus making thinking visible.

With such suggestions from children themselves, it becomes easier for an alert teacher to enable her students to draw the appropriate connections and thereby achieve her learning outcome.

A circle of viewpoints is possible when each one looks at the picture. Your point of view, students’ point of view, observers’ point of view, teachers’ point of view.

Thirty thinking questions for a thinking classroom is a good resource to kindle thinking in a classroom situation.

Why? What? When? Where? How? Is it better than…? What do you think…? Imagine that…? What if…? Do you need some thinking time…? Why not? Is it worse than…? What are the facts? How do you feel? What are the problems? What are the good things? When do you want to think about this? How do you want to learn this? Can you do it a different way? Do you see it? Do you understand? Can you teach it to someone else? Can you use your idea somewhere else? Can you split the problem? Can you dance it, sing it, draw it, write it, paint it, make it? How can we think this out?Are you ready to learn? Are you ready to think?How do you want to learn? How do you want to think. http://www.teachers-uk.co.uk/Uploads/medialibrary/30questions_thinking_skills.pdf

Teachers could create their own ways of generating thinking in their sessions thus engaging learners creatively and empowering them with one special skill unique to homo sapiens – thinking.

….see what you can use to make your students better challenged.

Make worksheets on what students think about thinking like this one

My Best Thinking

I do my best thinking… Often Sometimes Never
early morning
late at night
during the night on waking
in the bath or shower
with background music
alone with my thoughts
talking my thinking out loud
with others around me
teaching others
mapping or diagramming
while running or exercising
acting out

Give students time to think and ask them what it means to think. David Perkins has suggested some questions.

When you are doing your best thinking, in order to understand something, what different kinds of thinking do you do? Make a web or mind map that shows your ideas.

Many times a skilled teacher can enable students to think deeper and be more analytical.

David Perkins says ………………….I used to think……………………….but now I think.


The author is a teacher at Abacus Montessori School, Chennai, working with children in the middle school. She teaches history and hindi. She can be reached at meenasriram@gmail.com.

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