The Impossible Lesson
© 21 Feb 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Teach them to think.


I deal with many bright young college undergraduates. I am continually impressed by them in two ways. I am positively impressed by their knowledge and negatively impressed by their thinking.

I have spent a great deal of thought over the years trying to find a way to teach thinking skills. What do you do when you discover someone cannot put disparate ideas together? How do you teach creativity? How do you help people think about their own thinking?

I have found, over years of effort, that some but not all people can be coached toward thinking by providing them with what I term a “‍clever mirror.‍” One on one, I sit with them and listen to their thoughts, then explain their thoughts to them until we both agree on what they are thinking. Then, and only then, I can model a different way of thinking and repeat the mirroring process until they see themselves thinking that way too. It is a long process, requiring extended one-on-one sessions over an extended period of time. To be confident of the results I would need a third party evaluator, but to the degree my own eyes can see it seems to work most of the time.

The other successful approach to teaching thinking is simply to require thinking. Robert Luciano see ``Curriculum in Action’’ CSTA Voice, Vol 5 No 6 (Jan 2010), available on page 6 of this pdf. has the best model of this I’ve seen; he has the students get in groups of 2 or 3 for five minutes each class period and gives them a logic puzzle to solve together, then has them show off their results. Key to his success is his not adjudicating correctness or terms; students that wish to twist things are left to do so. The therefor what? clicker quizzes are another model of the same idea.

But, these successful approaches notwithstanding, I still think of thinking as the impossible lesson. If students don’t think, they will never learn to think. You can train anyone to regurgitate anything, using the same reinforcing patterns used to train animals, but it seems to me you can only invite, not train, thought.

If any of my wise readers know better, I would love to be proven wrong!

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