Posts Tagged Teaching thinking

Challenge Is Uncomfortable. Live With It.

Published by — Kids would be less bored in school if they were asked to put their minds to something intriguing, but difficult.


Speaking at the RIMA’s High Expectation’s Conference, keynote speaker Kate Gerson says, “The number one way we love our students is by rescuing them from struggle.  We hate and feel so uncomfortable with kids struggling.”

When you pose a challenge just out of a kid’s reach, she’s forced to think.  She’ll have to sort through what she already knows to come up with an educated, if not necessarily correct, answer.  The kid blinks at you, deer in the headlights.  You assure her she can figure it out, but the wait for her to wrestle through the problem is nerve-wracking.  Often we spare her the struggle and give her the answer, which she’ll never remember.  Had she dug around in her prior knowledge and figured it out — or even come up with a wrong but thoughtful solution — she’d have exercised her mind.

Gerson, teacher, principal and now CCSS Fellow with the NY Regents, explains that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) encourage just this kind of challenge.  They cover fewer topics, allowing time for a deeper understanding of each.  (CCSS offer clearly-written one-pagers about their philosophies about math and ELA that cut through a lot of the noise generated by the media.)

Gerson distinguishes between “productive struggle and toxic struggle.”

Productive struggle is about thinking.  By protecting kids from thinking, we accidently produce toxic struggle.  She gives the example that when high schools set low standards in order to improve their graduation rates, they “send more kids to college who aren’t ready, and those kids take more remedial courses, grow debt and don’t finish.”  The easy standards gave those students a false sense of their own mastery.  Then they hit a wall.  That’s toxic struggle.  If they’d learned to persist at hard tasks early, they’d have a sense of self-mastery and confidence that pushing themselves will pay off.

The Standards are big, broad, and now under fierce attack, even though few people know much about them, including most of their attackers.  I too have my issues with certain specifics, but on the whole, they challenge American education in a healthy way.  Gerson says, “The CCSS demand that every single student gets smarter.  This is something they can achieve when you slow down, unpack what you’re doing, and get intentional about how it’s done.”

Most current curricula are a mile wide and a centimeter thick.

CCSS are designed to help students analyze texts so they can understand them, not merely pick out bytes of information.  Ten correct facts do not add up to comprehension.  Gerson sees “students who know what you [the teacher] are looking for, so they know what words you want them to use.  But do they actually get what’s going on?”

As a high school English teacher, Gerson all but danced Alice Walker’s The Color Purple to convey her own passion for the book to her students.  She looks back now and realizes that likely they remember only her performance.  They engaged with her, not the book.  She didn’t have them dig into the historical period or the political conflicts.  They didn’t have enough background to comprehend what the book was saying.

Such books are demanding.  Many teachers who are not natural performers turn instead to easier, “high-interest” literature, like Harry Potter.  Reading for pleasure is great.  But during the school day, the kids need to be working on materials that are out of their comfort zones.

Figuring stuff out for oneself is the definition of smart.

Math is similar.  Teachers tend to model how to do the problem; kids practice.  Little to no thinking.  Teachers feel they can’t take time to allow kids to wrestle their way to an answer.  But no matter where they start, such struggle makes them smarter.

As teachers, “we were taught to explain things to students over and over again.  So now we need to unbraid wrong answers, and do so publicly.”  I love that.  Don’t just let the wrong answer be Wrong, but unpack it.  Where did the kid’s thinking go wrong?  And even better is teaching publicly.  Bleeding red ink on a paper or quiz is a ton of work for a teacher and does not get the kid invested in the intellectual puzzle at hand.  No one wants to humiliate a kid in front of a class.  But having students see each others’ thinking, right and wrong, is far more instructive than letting them blow off a teacher’s red-inked corrections.  Learning publically helps kids be more thoughtful.  Rich thinking is a better goal of education than acquiring a canon of right answers.

Honestly, I think kids would be less bored in school if they were asked to put their minds to something intriguing, but difficult.  Achieving mastery with intellectual persistence is an acquired taste that needs to start early.  They can’t be lured into education the way they’re lured into the media.

CCSS is a complicated subject; Gerson did a good job.

[Photo: Christine Lopes Metcalf]

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Learning to Write Teaches Westerly Students Science

Published by — A focus on kids learning to write boosted science learning and test scores in one district.

Back in December 2009, excited 4th graders at Westerly’s State Street School sat down to take a practice science test. Like little sports jocks, the kids approached the task as if it were training for the big game coming in the spring, the statewide science NECAP.

In 2008, the whole Westerly district had performed so poorly on that test that teachers actually volunteered their time to form a K-12 Science Task Force focused on redeeming their sullied academic reputation. (See last week’s column about this Task Force.)

Then, insult to injury, in 2009 State Street’s scores tanked again.

The heat was on. State Street had already started implementing the Task Force’s recommendations, including its strong emphasis on teaching writing.

Wait. Writing? That’s English, not science. But more on this in a moment.

Westerly’s students had struggled particularly with the “inquiry” part of the NECAP, where kids to do a hands-on task and draw conclusions from what they see in front of them.

State Street’s Principal Audrey Faubert says, “Science (NECAP) is only given at the 4th grade (and later at 8th and 11th), so K-3 weren’t exposed to the rigors of testing. We decided to give all the kids an inquiry task to complete. And the faculty also took some of the released test items from the RIDE website. Even though they’d been teaching inquiry with the science kits, it was interesting for the teachers to be on the other side of a test.”

But the spotlight’s glare was on those 4th graders.

Faubert smiled sadly, “The room was buzzing. The kids thought they did fantastic.”

Working in pairs, the school’s entire teaching staff scored the kids’ work. The results were enough to induce clinical depression.

But as it turns out, the school’s good efforts hadn’t quite paid off yet. The Task Force was onto a good thing when they decided writing was key to learning science. State Street’s instruction had only just started to take root.

Here’s the problem: Old science was about answers. When a test asks a question like: “How does wind change sand dunes?” somewhere in the science textbook was an answer that the kid was supposed to have memorized.

New science is about thinking and reasoning. The way Faubert puts it is: “The (NECAP) science test is a thinking test, not a knowledge test. Science isn’t about recall any more, but about synthesizing information.” New science poses essential questions, such as the sand dunes example, but now the kids need to derive the answer themselves, by sorting through data. Teachers provide techniques, tools, research methods, and experiences. But like scientists themselves, students must do their own research and figure out what their discoveries mean.

Writing is always the product of thinking. Writing forces a kid to organize her thoughts to be expressive and communicate clearly.

Middle school principal Paula Fusco says, “Prior to the work of the Task Force, we’d left writing up to the English teacher. But whatever the kids did or didn’t know, they weren’t able to communicate their understanding of science.”

To work on that understanding, Fusco says, “We’ve been taking the vocabulary out of NECAP – infer, predict, explain. So the kids aren’t afraid of the words they’re encountering.”

The ability to define “predict” doesn’t help at all if the ability to MAKE a prediction isn’t also a familiar habit. Kids need to demonstrate, by their writing, that they understand what they need to DO when the test asks them to predict, infer or explain.

Similarly, Fusco’s teachers began to work with the kids on “sentence starters” to guide their thinking – However, In conclusion, Whereas, Therefore.

Fortunately, Westerly’s students were in the habit of writing in science journals. But they had used them mainly to record observations. Faubert says, “Every teacher brought in examples of their students’ science journals. Oh, here are the strengths and weaknesses right in our own notebooks. We’d never had the kids prove their thinking in their journals. Think like a scientist, based on what’s in front of you. Prove your thinking. Prove your thinking. We said that so many times.”

At the end of the day, teaching the kids to EXPLAIN their predictions and reasoning was the clearest way to teach them habits of scientific thinking. And those explanations also helped the teachers assess kids’ understanding and misunderstanding.

By February, State Street dared to try another practice test with the 4th graders. Again, the staff scored it together. Ahhh, much better. So much so, Faubert felt more confident about improving on the 49 percent proficiency they’d managed in the prior year’s test.

In fact, when the results were released last Fall, State Street kids hit 80 percent proficiency, 8th highest in the state, out of over 150 schools that take that test. (And Westerly is the 8th lowest-income community in the state.)

Superintendent Roy Seitsinger’s take on the situation is this: “Nobody (meaning veteran educators) signed up for what we’re doing now. Most of the people weren’t trained to bring students through a thinking process. Now the educators’ job is to teach kids how to sift through all that information and to be critical, reflective and make decisions. We have too much information and not nearly enough sorting skills.”

Therefore, in conclusion, learning to write promotes scientific thinking. Other districts would do well to take notice.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.




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