Beware! Students Thinking!

Wow! I tried the Visible Thinking activity that I wrote about yesterday in my class this morning. We only made it through the “I know” and the first 4 steps of the “I wonder.” It was amazing – a real challenge, but one that will be a great model for the future. I can see using it again and again, because it really provided a way for the students to think about and connect with their research topics, though it is not for the faint-hearted! Lots of noise, questions, energy and interactions! It is not a lesson for a day when you want to sit behind your desk. But on Halloween, it just added some focus to their energy and excitement.

The students were fine with the initial activity of finding facts in their notes that connected to their topic. They had done work like that before. While they wanted to know, “How many facts should we have?” and found it frustrating when I responded that it depended on the topic that they had chosen. For some, there were lots of facts and for others, not as many. Accepting their own ability to find and record the facts was the first step of pushing them away from Teacher-driven to Student-driven research. I want them to build on what they know and then think about what they want to investigate. It is a strategy that will become familiar, but for today, they struggled with what they saw as a the lack of clarity. None of us likes to wander in the dark, so I had sympathy for them, but still continued to push it back to them. Identifying what they know and what they want to learn about was simply one of their jobs.

The next challenge began when they had to develop questions about what they were interested in learning. They wanted to be told what they should research, rather than consider for themselves what interested them. After they had written their 5 questions, they had to get them checked before writing them on Post-Its. This was where it got especially intense and wonderful at the same time. They wanted a quick OK from me, and my job was to push them to explain what was behind the questions they had, what was of interest to them.

“Did Rome have slaves?” had to shift into something like, “Where did the Romans get their slaves?” or “What jobs did slaves do in Rome?” I wanted for them to move away from the “Yes” and “No” questions towards the aspects of the topic about which they were curious. For some, it might be where slaves came from; for others, it might be gender roles. Sometimes getting a student to make the necessary choices, to think through what they wanted to know, was like pulling teeth.

I didn’t want to give them their questions, because I wanted them to grow from their interest, but at the same time, I had to model a good question so that they could understand the direction in which to move. Lots of thinking on my feet while making them laugh, rather than feel pressured and confused. It had to feel safe enough for them to experiment with their thinking.

Once they had their questions approved, they wrote them on Post-Its and decided where they should place each questions. They had to identify one of the categories for each note. It was great, watching them wrestle with their questions, talking to each other, making decisions, changing their minds and finally deciding. It was truly Visible Thinking going on.

As I wandered around after class, I realized that some of the notes were in very strange categories, for example “Were slaves allowed to marry?” was in the Geography category. Now, granted, in the mind of a 7th grader,there may be an explanation for that choice, but it was a bit unclear to me, but getting it “right” was not the point of the activity. It was about experimenting with new ideas, trying out new questions and perspectives, and working together as one messy whole.

The first task for the next class will be to divide the students up and put each group with one category. They can then make sure that all of the questions connect to that topic. Then I will rotate the groups through all of the categories, having them look for questions that they find interesting and recording them. At that point, they may decide to change the focus of their research, which will be fine, or they may like what they have and stay with it.

What an adventure! It was a great activity to kick off a research project with lots of student engagement and questioning!

2 responses to “Beware! Students Thinking!

  1. What a great learning experience for everyone in the room! One of the great challenges of visible thinking is the students getting beyond thinking of the teacher as holding the answers to start considering their own ideas and looking for evidence to support that thinking. It does make for exciting class experiences. As the teacher, I really have to hold back and try to be less helpful – not easy for me. One of the the things I’m learning is to repeat the mantra: “What makes you say that?” over and over and over. My role is shifting and I like where I’m headed. Kudos on a visibly thoughtful plan!

  2. Thanks for your helpful and thorough description of the visible thinking activity. I’m finding in workshops with teachers that they want and need support for building questioning skills among their students. As teachers educated in the tradition of receiving rather than generating questions, they do not necessarily have an understanding of what makes a strong question, nor of how to improve questions in order to guide research. Some may instinctively identify strong questions but lack practical techniques to teach students how to edit and strengthen weak questions. They broadly praise critical thinking as a 21st century skill but do not always connect it with specific questioning competencies.

    In three upcoming workshops around teaching with primary sources, I’m planning a questioning activity that I hope to share as you have done. I’m grateful for your timely post!

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