As a public school superintendent, I believe the best way to prepare students for college and careers is to focus on providing instructional programs and opportunities that help them become good thinkers. To do this teachers, and virtually everyone else in a community, should assume the mantle of becoming a "cognitive coach" to students. Whether you are a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, older sibling, or a community member at large, we all have an important role to play in the developing good thinkers among our youth. |
The best way for you to become a cognitive coach is to seek out and engage school children and adolescents in meaningful conversations. The objective here is to get kids talking about what they think, what they feel, and what they believe whenever and wherever you may find them. It may be in a classroom. It may be at the grocery store. It may be at a basketball game. It doesn’t matter where as long as you engage students in an topical conversation and, hopefully, even a debate. Mainly, you want to encourage students to voice their opinion about things. Get them to take a position on “this thing, or that thing,” and ask them to support their position with evidence. Curiously enough, the simple process of engaging students in real life conversations and debates will serve to reinforce what they have learned in the classroom, and help them create their own knowledge about a subject or topic. Learning indicates that a student has been exposed to material, understands the material, and can recall the information. Knowledge, on the other hand, goes beyond recall and includes information processing, application to other situations, consideration of meaning, and contrasting with other concepts. Naturally, the topic of conversation you engage in with one of your learners will vary from student to student, and in the level of complexity based on child’s age and developmental level. But even a kindergartener has an opinion about things that are going on in his or her life. Engaging in conversation with any members of your learning community in ways that gets at what they have learned and what they know will help them develop higher order reasoning skills. The goal here is to assist students in integrating their knowledge and experience through day-to-day discussions with adults. A student’s mental synthesis process occurs when a respected adult asks a question, particularly a question that requires reflection. In education, we call this process “scaffolding.” I think all adults in a community have a responsibility to help children build the mental scaffolds I’m talking about here, where one concept formation builds upon another, with the ultimate goal of producing independent thinkers.
TIPS ON ENGAGING IN MEANINGFUL CONVERSATIONS WITH STUDENTS:
• Help students make connections to what they have learned in the classroom to real-life situations. Effective understanding of content subject matter is more likely to occur when students are required to explain, elaborate, and defend what they know in relation to things going on around them. Just about any lesson in math, science, or social students can be used as a basis for “what do you know?” and “what do you think?” forms of questioning. At the grocery store, ask students to practice estimation on the fly and come up with the best value for the size, quantity, and choice of products. Use lessons from history and civics to get the student to voice an opinion on whether some new law or school policy is “fair” or “unfair.” Point out a crumpled car in a parking lot (hopefully not your own) and ask a student to speculate about the laws of physics that must have been involved in the accident. You might even ask them to provide an opinion on how long ago the accident occurred by examining the amount of oxidation (rust) that has formed on exposed metal surfaces. Encouraging students to make connections between what they know to non-classroom situations where opinion, speculation, estimation, probability and plausibility thinking is required can be a fun activity for both parties. It also offers students an opportunity to use intuition, creativity, and imagination that fosters the development of an inquisitive mind.
• Promote diverse thinking about a topic or problem at the local, state, or national level. This is the old “on the one hand, and on the other hand” type of conversation with a learner. Point out to the student that debate is a form of human discourse that is not only tolerated in our society, but encouraged. Ask the student to consider both sides of an ongoing debate that can be found in any local newspaper. Have them argue from both sides of the political arena, and then ask them to choose one side. Get them to defend the position they have adopted. Don’t be afraid to challenge any flawed or inaccurate assumptions that they made along the way. Again, the goal here is to prompt the student to not only report what they know, and what values the hold in the process, but to formulate new ideas about a topic through a mental synthesis process.
• Encourage students to use primary sources of information about a subject, topic or problem. Ask them to report what the textbook and teacher has taught them, but then point them in the direction of conducting their own research using sources that are independent of both. This means teaching them to be skilled users of the local library and the Internet. Students can become very skilled Google Jockeys if they are guided by adults to find quality research articles, peer reviewed magazines, archived newspaper accounts, etc. that either reinforces what they have learned in class or changes their perspective entirely. Either way, they are using higher order reasoning skills that lead to better discrimination of valuable versus not-valuable information. The development of these discriminatory skills leads to better comprehension of reading material and forms the basis of structured thinking. Structured thinking results in better writing. Asking students to routinely find their own primary source information in addition to textbooks leads to more disciplined and diverse thinking, which in turn, leads to good test-taking behavior and better test scores. This is because the student can draw upon multiple associations to the same content knowledge when they need to. • Help students recognize the relationship between cause and effect. Through the practice of disciplined and discriminatory thinking, the next step is to encourage students to use the scientific method to solve problems. As a natural consequence of the type of intentional conversation that you’ve employed thus far, students will begin to routinely use an inventory of cognitive skills that not only activate prior knowledge, but helps them constructs new meaning in the process. Things like comparing and contrasting, classifying, observing, planning and predicting, testing assumptions, and hypothesis formation are skills that have now become well practiced by the learner. These are the sub-set of skills necessary for the student to begin seeing cause and effect relationships all around them, and that’s when the light bulb really clicks on in the critical thinking developmental process. Most schools do an excellent job teaching students the scientific method, but they need help with the precursor skills mentioned above. When students can demonstrate the ability to put aside their personal values, beliefs, and bias and engage in the rigors of purely evidence-based thought, use of the scientific method becomes second nature. As a cognitive coach, when you see these thinking skills begin to emerge, jump on the opportunity to use a “teachable moment” to ask the learner to explain how they have considered facts, ideas, situations, alternatives, criteria, and consequences when they report any conclusions (opinions) they share.
• Call attention to the use of “spin” and “propaganda” in all information sources. This involves teaching students to develop an inventory of common sense strategies that help them develop their real-world discrimination skills. We all know that it is wise to teach children the “Golden Rule” and the old adage that “if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.” What I’m talking about here is more subtle and insidious. Something that is not obvious to children and adolescents until pointed out by an adult, but is a critical analysis skill that is crucial to independent thought. Spin is the manipulative use of an information source. It puts an innocent common sense perspective on an embarrassing occurrence so that it sounds normal or good. Propaganda is an attempt to get the public to adopt a common sense perspective that is not true, and is known not to be true, for the purpose of gaining or maintaining political control.
Hopefully, after reading this article, you will be willing to join with me in engaging students living in your community in conversations that will help them become good thinkers. If we teach children everything we know, their knowledge is limited to ours. If we teach children how to think, their knowledge is limitless. I’m a firm believer that any student’s ability to succeed in life after graduating from high school, and in their competition for jobs that don’t yet exist, rests on their demonstrated ability to be good thinkers. Your help is needed in the development of student cognitive competencies, even at an early age. You can do this be assisting students in the gathering and analyzing information, helping them develop their own set of assumptions, ideas, hypotheses, and most importantly, teaching them to solve real-world problems through disciplined, creative, and independent thought. Having good thinkers in your midst enriches the lives of every member of your community, and you can really help by increasing their numbers by following some of the strategies described in this article.
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