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5 ways to create a culture of thinking in your school


John Dabell

No school would ever say that they didn’t value thinking but do they have a culture that is focused on developing students as thinkers and learners?

Building a rich culture of thinking is a collaborative and dynamic effort to weave critical thinking, planning, organising and problem solving into teaching, learning and assessment to deliberately push pupils out of their comfort zones so they see and experience the world differently. Where thinking is valued, visible and actively developed then it shines in classrooms and corridors. But how do you create it?

Below are five suggestions to help you craft and generate opportunities for building a thinking culture in your school.

1.Build Habits of Mind

Habits of mind are traits or ways of thinking that affect how a person looks at the world or reacts to a challenge. It is these habits that allow us to routinely come up with solutions to problems or invent and find new ways of doing things. So what do they look like?

Researchers at the University of Winchester’s Centre for Real World Learning, produced the report Thinking like an engineer – implications for the education system and identified six ‘engineering habits of mind’ that generate very specific ways of thinking and approaching problems:

  • Systems thinking

  • Adapting

  • Problem finding

  • Creative problem solving

  • Visualising

  • Improving

The report makes a strong case to suggest that, if the UK wants to produce more engineers, we need to redesign the education system so that these habits of mind become embedded.

Focusing on learning dispositions and habits of mind required to be a successful engineer can also help us develop thinking right across the curriculum and a closer look will show you that they are highly transferable. Thinking doesn’t live in silos but is cross-curricular.

2. Build Empathy

Teachers with empathy look outwards and encourage pupils to be nosy and do the same. They help them to appreciate multiple perspectives and understand that others see the world through different lenses. They grow children’s intellectual, interpersonal and emotional boundaries by getting them to walk in the shoes of others.

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, protagonist Atticus Finch teaches his children that, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” It is this empathy-building that is the essence of great teaching because it fuels thinking, combats prejudices, builds bridges between individuals and groups, improves relationships and contributes to wellbeing.

Looking at things from different perspectives helps students become aware of bias and encourages them to develop a more balanced take on issues, ideas and events.

Share with students The Empathy Museum , an interactive shoe shop box that uses storytelling to explore how to view life from the position of other people in order to transform personal relationships, help tackle global challenges and open up the public conversation around empathy.

3. Build Debating Skills

Debating is highly effective way to actively develop a culture of thinking and help students become deeper thinkers, persuasive speakers, critical listeners and engaged citizens.

Where possible, students should be encouraged to identify, gather and reason with evidence to justify and support their points, predictions and theories through a range of debate, discussion, dialogue, role play and enquiries.

A commitment to debating generates a number of benefits. It can provide an incentive for discussion and starting points for exploration help children pose their own questions illuminate alternative viewpoints make children’s ideas explicit tease out misconceptions, misinformation and doubts champion oracy and literacy learning encourage inclusion and boost motivation.

Debating activities gets students to asking questions and encourages them to make connections, comparisons and contrasts between ideas and helps them evolve their explanations, interpretations and theories.

Why not sign-up for UK Parliament Week 2-8 November and debate some key issues, share different and opposing viewpoints and take a vote. Other debating resources are available here.

4. Build News Literacy

Engaging with local, national and global news and current affairs builds media literacy and helps students develop as critical consumers so they don’t believe everything they see, read and hear.

Fauxtography, deepfake videos and fake news are a feature of life now and can do considerable harm as they blur the lines of reality and distort worldviews.

Misleading pictures, videos and news is something students will encounter all the time which is why promoting a critical pair of eyes is vital. Schools can help them to think like fact checkers and lie detectors, know how to do reverse image searches and use tools like the CRAAP test so they don’t let their eyes deceive them.

A CRAAP test isa set of evaluation criteria developed by librarians at California State University, Chico that can be applied to websites, articles, blogs, books and a range of media sources to help students assess if the information is reliable. The acronym stands for:

  • Currency

  • Relevance

  • Authority

  • Accuracy

  • Purpose

A purposeful focus on the news provides a rich context for discussion and argument by kick-starting thinking and activating a range of learning conversations and debates. It also presents children with an opportunity to develop their public speaking skills and be active listeners.

5. Build in Vulnerability

Developing independent thinkers means that students have to learn from their mistakes and be allowed to take risks.

No one learns without making mistakes but for thinking to flourish, classrooms have to be safe places to speak their minds, be respectful to one another and support each other to take risks and fail. Thinking is a risk-taking activity and that means being vulnerable, not holding back and trying something new.

‘Being vulnerable’ might not be part of your school culture but it would be a more effective organisation if everyone embraced vulnerability as an opportunity to grow. This applies to both staff and students. By taking risks, and in some cases even failing in front of our students, we demonstrate that not everything works as planned and prove that we can rebound from any situation.

Teachers can promote a culture of thinking by embracing mistake-making, risk-taking and a can-do philosophy within a community of experimentation and thinking routines so that novel and out of the box thinking can grow.

And finally…

Creating a culture of thinking for some schools won’t be easy as it will involve a paradigm shift from a culture of receiving to a culture of acting and as Rivers and Kinchin (2018) state, “a learning process in itself, one that is cyclical, multilinear, and omnidirectional, and it needs to be integrated as a pedagogy.”


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