If the goal of learning is to understand, then where does thinking fit into the mix? For the past ten or fifteen years, educators have been focusing their practice on the idea of understanding, thanks in part to the work of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe who co-authored Understanding by Design in 1998. I remember being in graduate school and thinking that this finally captured what progressive educators were trying to accomplish in curriculum design, that is, to make sure that students really understood a topic or idea. Wiggins and McTighe wrote about Backwards by Design, referring to curriculum design that started with a focus on enduring understandings that would emerge when a teacher posed essential questions, questions that would frame a course, pose dilemmas, and lead to an uncovering of important topics by students.
At Watershed School, teachers spend hours determining questions that are large enough to expose a variety of ideas and incongruities, and then plan projects that students will engage in as they work on understanding the interdisciplinary nature of the answers to such large questions. As we hone this work, we wonder, are students thinking deeply, critically, and complexly? What might evidence of such thinking look like?
As a staff we decided to read Making Thinking Visible (Ritchhart, Church and Morrison, 2011), because we thought that it would not only help us to unpack thinking, but also to strategically plan for and assess student thinking. In this text, the authors argue that there are eight features of thinking that are integral to understanding. In their words, these are: 1) Observing closely and describing what is there; 2) Building explanations and interpretations; 3) Reasoning with evidence; 4) Making connections; 5) Considering different viewpoints and perspectives; 6) Capturing the heart and forming conclusions; 7) Wondering and asking questions; and 8) Uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things.
Our first step during each school year is to enforce the notion that Watershed School is a place where thinking is valued. Students use reflection journals during their orientation trips, which can include a backpacking trip with a small group or a high ropes course with an entire class or a foray into service through the all school clean-up of a native plant restoration site. Whatever the project or vehicle, reflection is the tool to gain insight. We believe that thinking deeply about a topic in the ways described in the book Making Thinking Visible is the best approach to learning.
For more information about the Making Thinking Visible Project, go to http://pzweb.harvard.edu/vt/VisibleThinking_html_files/VisibleThinking1.html