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Thinking Skills

1. Learning to Think

Iron rusts from disuse; stagnant water loses its purity and in cold weather becomes frozen; even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind.
—Leonardo da Vinci

Humans are born with the capacity and inclination to think. Nobody has to “teach us how to think” just as no one teaches us how to move or walk. Moving with precision and style, however, takes much time and coaching. The distinction between awkwardness and grace is obvious to even an undisciplined observer. A superb ballerina, tai chi master, or gymnast needs years of practice, concentration, reflection, and guidance to perform intricate maneuvers on command with seemingly effortless agility.
Like strenuous movement, skilful thinking is hard work. And as with athletics, students need practice, reflection, and coaching to think well. With proper instruction, human thought processes can become more broadly applied, more spontaneously generated, more precisely focused, more complex, and more insightfully divergent.

2. Thinking to Learn

Learning is an engagement of the mind that changes the mind.—Martin Heidegger

Meaning making is not a spectator sport. Knowledge is a constructive process; to really understand something, each learner must create a model or metaphor derived from that learner’s personal world. Humans don’t get ideas; they make ideas.
Content learning, therefore, should not be viewed as the only aim of instruction. Rather, teachers should select relevant, generative, wondrous content to serve as a vehicle for the joyride of learning. We can equip that vehicle by

  • Posing challenging, content-embedded questions and problems that tax the imagination and stimulate inquiry.
  • Inviting students to assess their own learning.
  • Urging students to question their own and others’ assumptions.
  • Valuing students’ viewpoints by maintaining a safe, nonjudgmental classroom atmosphere.

3. Thinking Together

Friendship is one mind in two bodies.—Mencius

Meaning making is not just an individual operation. Learning is a reciprocal process; the individual influences the group’s thinking, and the group influences the individual’s thinking (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001; Vygotsky, 1978). Instructional techniques that encourage group activities help students construct both their own and shared knowledge.
When learners fail to see the interconnections and coherence of divergent views, collaborative thinking falters. If each student fixates on his or her own certainties, each perceives the solution to a problem solely from his or her own viewpoint. Such an egocentric view hinders serious reflection and honest inquiry.

4. Thinking About Our Own Thinking

I thank the Lord for the brain he put in my head. Occasionally, I love to just stand to one side and watch how it works.
—Richard Bolles

Learning to think begins with recognising how we are thinking—by listening to ourselves and our own reactions and realising how our thoughts may encapsulate us. Much of the kind of thinking people practice happens simply by virtue of their embedded habits, not because they closely examine their assumptions, their limited history, or their mental models.

5. Thinking Big

I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes. —Maxine Hong Kingston

Building a thought-filled curriculum serves the larger agenda of building a more thought-filled world—an interdependent learning community where people continually search for ways to care for one another, learn together, and grow toward greater intelligence. We must deepen student thinking to hasten the arrival of a world community that

  • Generates more thoughtful, peaceful approaches to solving problems, rather than resorting to violence to resolve differences.
  • Values the diversity of other cultures, races, religions, language systems, time perspectives, and political and economic views.
  • Shows greater consciousness of how humans affect Earth’s limited resources and how we must live in harmony with our delicate environment.
  • Engages in clear and respectful dialogue to resolve misunderstandings.