Teaching thinking is really tough. It takes a great deal of tenderness, flexibility, and most of all, patience. My favorite analogy for teaching thinking comes from Jennifer Saravello, which I was first exposed to in her book, Teaching Reading in Small Groups. She equates scaffolding thinking to learning how to draw human figures.
When an art teacher scaffolds the experience of learning how to draw human beings, he or she begins with ovals. The arcs of the ovals overlap, their symmetrical ellipses connecting to one another to build the structure of the human form. Once ovals are constructed, the artist can connect them with tangential lines, forming the contour of a human’s muscular structure. Seasoned artists don’t need this scaffold forever. With time, the ovals become intuitive, a structural framework that needs little consciousness in order to achieve the same end as a novice art student.
In our classrooms, we are the seasoned artists of thinking, and above all else, it is our job to help our students learn how to think by helping them draw the ovals of thinking strategies. Scaffolding thinking for our children allows them to develop a roadmap and mental model for strategies they can apply in complex situations, and building this strategic thinking makes their brains more malleable with time. With enough repetition, these strategies become intuitive and fluent, just as a repeated reading develops reading fluency with time.
I’ve explored this a lot with little ones over the past two years. For them, it’s especially hard to make their strategic thinking visible. They can’t communicate their thinking in writing like older children do, and they rarely have the metacognitive skills or vocabulary to think critically about their thinking, identify strategies that work, and apply them to future situations. That said, if the strategies become concrete enough, scaffolding their thinking and providing them with the tools to become flexible and strategic thinkers becomes a lot simpler.
This strategy began in Chicago. Back then, I was most focused on trying to scaffold thinking in reading. Inspired by Mosaic of Thought by Ellin Keene, I created laminated cards that had each one of the reading strategies on them. I hung them from the ceiling using paper clips and fishing line, grabbing onto them as I thought aloud in front of my students. When I made a connection, I’d grab the card that said Connect, and when I monitored and clarified, I’d grab the card that said Monitor and Clarify, signaling a spontaneous, yet concrete retrieval of thinking strategies that were helping me dig deeper into the text.
When I started with the youngest children, though, I knew this strategy wouldn’t work quite as well. Simply showing them a word wasn’t going to encode the strategy into their minds. Instead, I needed repetitive practice with images. Images would encode into their minds much more easily, and using them repetitively and in different combinations–depending on the task at hand–would create an intuitive fluidity and flexibility with their thinking over time, similar to how the apprentice artist gains fluidity and flexibility through the random, repetitive assortment of ovals he or she draws, melding to the unique curvature of the human to be drawn.
I started by creating cards for the eight mathematical practices, referring to them as I thought aloud during math workshop minilessons. I would refer to finding patterns, to using tools appropriately, to being accurate and checking our work. In reading workshop, instead of hanging cards from the ceiling, I bought a transparent umbrella, hanging strategy words paired with relevant images. As I read aloud, I would sit with the umbrella, referring to strategies and allowing the kids to grab them, as well, while they were sharing their thinking. I could even bring the umbrella around with me for reading conferences, so that the children could refer to the thinking strategies while they were reading with me.
It wasn’t long before the children started using the verbiage independently. “I’m visualizing!” they would say, or “Paul, I’m making a connection to the other story we read.” What’s more, I would share my thinking and ask them to label it, too, which many of them were able to do successfully.
Recently, I took these thinking cards to one more area: fact fluency. I don’t know about you, but building fluency with math facts has always been a challenge for me. I’ve had a hard time thinking of any other way to build this fluency other than timed tests, even though timing their fluency didn’t feel right. I did a bit of research, and learned more about what fact fluency actually meant. Fact fluency did refer to an automatic recall of addition and subtraction math facts up to 20, with mastery expected towards the end of second grade, but it also meant that this automatic recall wasn’t expected with my kindergarten and first-graders. By the end of first grade, fluency only meant using a variety of strategies to compute sums and differences within 20. Memory was not a necessity, allowing me to settle more into strategic thinking to build fluency rather than quizzing based on automatic recall.
The thinking cards I made focused on strategies I’d already introduced over the course of previous minilessons, using snap cubes, unifix cubes, number lines, and other manipulatives as points of reference. Introducing the thinking cards for math facts would fulfill the same purpose that the mathematical practice and reading strategy cards did: it would help them create a mental map for the strategies at their disposal, to use in their own unique way when conquering a new problem.
I introduced them today, and they worked like a charm, just as my other strategy cards have in the past. Within minutes, the children were flipping through these familiar strategies. I had relieved them of the cognitive load of having to recall the strategies, and instead scaffolded their thinking by reminding them what there was to choose from. What’s more, the personalization here was inherent. While all students were accessing the same learning task, they were able to mold the task to fit their readiness–they were able to personalize the task on their own–using the strategies that worked for them. My most emergent mathematicians relied on counting on, while my most developed were navigating making fives and tens.
There is so much power that lies in teaching thinking. Too often, we’re focused on securing crystallized knowledge, when in reality, we should be teaching our children how to learn and how to develop a roadmap for problem-solving. It is through teaching strategic thinking that we develop a self-sufficiency and self-efficacy in our children. It not only helps them learn important content, but it helps them get to know themselves–and their brains–better, too, making the experience of learning inherently personal.