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Encourage and Promote Student Thinking

Laurie Wretling

I often think back to the Great American Eclipse of 2017—what an exciting event! This was the first time in 99 years that a total solar eclipse crossed the contiguous United States. Most of us adults realize the significance of this scientific phenomenon—however, to elementary students this was not only a special event, but also an opportunity for them to learn about the relative positions of the sun, moon, and Earth by doing the work of scientists. As a parent and educator, I volunteered to help my daughter’s kindergarten class experience the eclipse using pinhole cameras. As I listened to their observations, I was struck by how natural it was for the students to think and draw conclusions based on what they saw.

I heard a lot of great observations from students, including: “It’s getting darker!” “My circle shape is changing!” and “It feels cooler!” Which were then followed by ensuing questions such as: “How does the moon move?” “How dark will it get?” and “My dog is at home. Does he know about this?”

As students shared their thinking, the teacher and I walked around encouraging them:

  • Tell me more about what you see.
  • How might you connect this to what you know about the sun?
  • What other changes do you notice?

These little scientists were engaged in the hard work of voicing curiosity, making connections and drawing conclusions as they grappled to make sense of this incredible phenomenon. Learners weren’t focused on the right answer or getting the steps of an eclipse correct, but on thinking and understanding by using the tools before them to make their own meaning.

So how do we ensure that all of our students are thinking as scientists each day and best support them in the journey of making their own meaning?

Tasks: Consider the kinds of tasks you offer students. A page of skill-based problems might not invite learners to think as deeply as an open ended inquiry question or a historical document to compare with a modern day text. As you plan, ask yourself:

  • Does this task require application of the content area skills and concepts?
  • Is this invitation open ended?
  • Will this work stimulate discussion among students?

Questions: Plan for and ask open ended questions that require students to reflect upon not only the content but also what they are learning about themselves. These might include:

  • How did you figure that out?
  • What helped you make sense of the text today?
  • What conclusions can you draw?

Discussion: Provide multiple opportunities for learners to engage in academic talk with their peers. Teach your students that by sharing and collaborating they build their collective knowledge. Offer them question starters or sentence stems, such as:

  • What do you think about…?
  • What ideas can you add to…?
  • What evidence can you present for…?

Celebrate Thinking: Notice and name the kinds of thinking students are doing. One teacher I know has students list all the ways they solve problems on a chart that hangs in her classroom for the entire year. Then, she uses the strategies for problem solving to help students identify the kinds of thinking they do. Here are a few examples of the language you might use to elevate your students’ thinking:

  • You are asking questions that help you think about how these two objects are similar or different.
  • You are really connecting this to what you already know to help you make sense of these new ideas.
  • You are determining importance in the data table to talk about your findings.

Remember, there are multiple ways to encourage student thinking. Focus on the process and not just the content to create a classroom culture that provides access points for all students to uncover new ideas as they voice their curiosity and engage in authentic learning experiences—just like the kindergarteners viewing the Great American Eclipse of 2017. So as you continue the school year ask yourself, “What can I do to create a thinking environment for all students?”

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