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Creating Cultures of Thinking-It’s Not Just For Teachers

Creating Cultures of Thinking-It’s Not Just For Teachers

Think; a word students hear often in school.

  • Think before you speak.
  • Think carefully about your answer before you write it down.
  • Think about how you would feel if it happened to you.

It’s such a common word, yet students struggle each day to stretch their thinking past surface answers.

In 2000, Dr. Ron Ritchhart, a senior research associate at Project Zero in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, created Cultures of Thinking to develop “both the individual and the group as effective learners and thinkers able to engage with and adapt to a changing world.”

This sounds like a lofty ambition, but as teachers in my school redesigned their lesson plans, and I observed students engaged in deeper thinking, I quickly discovered how the Cultures of Thinking (CoT) could easily be intertwined into my interactions with students as a school social worker too.

That’s why this blog was created. With a slight shift in your thinking, (and the lesson ideas from future blog posts) you can help your students make their thinking visible.

Through this series of blog posts you will discover specific Thinking Routines that easily mesh with the lessons and activities you’ve already created in addition to understanding the core principles of Cultures of Thinking.  (Editor’s Note:  Cultures of Thinking is a still-emerging theoretical framework, mostly supported by intensive and small-scale qualitative research e.g. focus groups, whole-school case studies. For more information on the evidence base for CoT, click here for their site at the Harvard School of Education.)

What is Cultures of Thinking?

A school actively engaged in Cultures of Thinking creates an environment where thinking is valued and actively encouraged. Teachers design lesson plans with the intention of students being able to express their thoughts (verbally or nonverbally), respectfully challenge each other’s beliefs, and justify their thinking.

I quickly saw many of these lesson themes through the lens of a social worker.

  • Increasing perspective taking
  • Understanding new concepts to a greater depth
  • Becoming aware of our own beliefs
  • Evaluating ideas
  • Becoming more creative in expressing thoughts

I knew that with small changes in my social work lessons, I could create my very own cultures of thinking with my students enabling them to gain more insight, knowledge, and understanding from our discussions and activities.

Was I formally trained in CoT at that moment? No. Was I intrigued? Yes! I had nothing to lose. Everything from my social work training and daily experience told me that CoT and school social work could easily weave together.

The 8 Cultural Forces

Dr. Ritchhart’s research discovered  8 Cultural Forces (Modeling, Opportunities, Routine, Expectations, Language, Interactions, Time & Environment) that define our classrooms (social work offices). By focusing on these forces he states that we can reshape our learning environment.

As social workers, we are already well aware of the impact these forces have on our interactions with students.

Through our training, we create nonthreatening environments in our offices that encourage students to let down their defenses and build a level of trust.

Our open-ended language is designed to establish opportunities for active listening and sharing of thoughts.

We know that time is essential and relationships are not built in one 20-minute session.

And finally, our moments with students lend themselves to experience the cultural forces of modeling the language of thinking & wondering, setting expectations, providing opportunities for students to share their thoughts with us, and creating an environment for positive interactions with others.

That’s seven out of the eight cultural forces that instinctively are part of our school social work practices. We are on our way to creating a Cultures of Thinking environment without even knowing it!

Using Thinking Routines with students

Finally, the 8th cultural force is routine. This is where the magic happens. Through Thinking Routines we can scaffold, support, and direct students’ thinking. These specific routines give us a framework to guide students to a deeper understanding of the subject we are discussing and a greater ability to be able to express themselves.

Some examples for when to use Thinking Routines include;

  • When talking with a student who is struggling with the transition to middle school.
  • For a small group evaluating how to work as a team.
  • Or as a whole group lesson in a classroom discussing feelings, or bullying, or gender bias.

Thinking routines are tools to promote thinking. Just like any tool, you need to choose the right one for the job. There is a structure to each routine and the steps of the routines act as natural scaffolds that lead students’ thinking to higher levels. Finally, routines create patterns of behavior. When I use specific routines with my students on a regular basis, they know what to anticipate and look forward to sharing their thoughts.

Interest piqued? Are you ready to Step Inside a Cultures of Thinking routine? In the next blog entry you will discover ways to help your students increase their perspective taking with the Thinking Routine called Step Inside.

About The Author(s)

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Jennifer Hollander has over 26 years of experience as a school social worker and is currently employed by the Huron Valley School District in Milford, Michigan. She earned her MSW from Jane Addams School of Social Work at UIC in 1991. Always passionate about discovering new ways to engage students, Jennifer integrated the principles of Cultures of Thinking (CoT) into school social work, combining Thinking Routines and Social-Emotional Learning. She received advanced training in CoT with Ron Ritchhart the founder/author of the model. Since 2015, Jennifer has facilitated multiple Cultures of Thinking presentations in her own district, at the county level, at the Michigan Association of School Social Workers State Conference, and at the 2018 National School Social Work Association of America Conference. Jennifer was awarded the School Social Worker of the Year award in Oakland County, Michigan in 2017.

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