Helping Kids to Think

10/14/2010 05:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I've been writing in recent posts about a profound problem: that thinking is not much countenanced in our schools. To deal with this problem, I'm arguing for the introduction of a new 45-minute daily class, the thinking module, where a facilitator encourages students to think by introducing juicy ideas worth a student's time and attention. In this post I want to present some concrete strategies that a thinking module facilitator might employ.

A facilitator working with juniors and seniors in high school might begin by providing the following scenario. "John is out walking and sees a man in the street about to be hit by a car. He rushes out into the street and pushes the man out of the way, knocking him to the ground, perhaps saving his life and certainly saving him from serious injury. The man is slightly injured and sues John for knocking him to the ground." The facilitator then poses the following question, "What are the pros and cons of John reacting the same way if a similar situation ever presented itself?"

The facilitator would hand out the scenario, ask the question, invite students to write for twenty minutes, and then ask for volunteers to read what they've written. This sharing would take up the remainder of the 45 minutes. There is nothing else the facilitator need do. Naturally the facilitator can do more if she wants: she may have a didactic piece prepared or she may have a "thinking principle" in mind that she hopes the exercise illuminates. She can do whatever else she likes. But the primary objective is simply that students get to think about something interesting enough to be worth thinking about.

Another way to use the thinking module is the following. Let's say that the facilitator is also an English teacher at her high school, that at her high school all freshmen read The Color Purple, and that freshmen have just finished with that novel. In her English classroom she might have assigned them essay topics on the novel's themes, setting, characterizations, and so on. In the thinking module, she can present students with a very different sort of experience, one geared to help them think big. She could, for instance, ask them to spend 20 minutes writing on any of the following:

"You all recently read The Color Purple. Imagine that you could add a scene to the novel. What scene would you add and why would you add that scene?"

"You all recently read The Color Purple. Imagine that you could remove a scene from the novel. What scene would you remove and why would you remove that scene?"

"You all recently read The Color Purple. Write a brief alternative ending to the novel."

"You all recently read The Color Purple. Write a brief plot outline for the novel you would like to write."

In each of these instances, students are forced to think more like creators than like students. These questions 'teach creativity' in a way that exercises meant to teach creativity do not. The last exercise in particular will produce more creative thinking in a student than almost any other kind of exercise. It actually asks a student to create, rather than to think about creating or to talk about creating.

If you are a high school biology teacher and also a thinking module facilitator, you might ask students in your thinking module science-related prompts of the following sort:

"What is the difference between 'life' and 'not-life'?"

"Describe how a species might adapt to a big change."

"A new species is discovered. How might a biologist treat the discovery, how might a chemist treat the discovery, and how might a poet treat the discovery?"

"Describe an ecological setting and then create a species best suited to survive in that setting."

If you are a high school history teacher and also a thinking module facilitator, you might ask students in your thinking module history related prompts of the following sort:

"What are the pros and cons of entering into treaties with other nations?"

"Pick a large historical event. Why do you consider it significant?"

"You are in a country that has just come into being. Write a quick constitution for your new country that reflects the values you would want fostered."

"If historical events arise out of many causes, how can we know which cause 'most caused' the event?"

The thinking module I'm proposing fosters critical thinking and creativity, makes use of the resources a school already possesses, and helps students move beyond narrow, subject-based specialization. It is a way to reinvent education without doing anything more radical than making better use of forty-five minutes of the school day. Shouldn't every school introduce this?