Teaching the teachers

March 1, 2012 by Henry Benjamin
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A  Culture for Thinking teaches teachers how to encourage pupils to think out of the box and become enthusiastically engaged in their school projects.

The 2nd Culture of Thinking Conference to be held at Sydney’s Masada College took place this week attracting teachers from all over Australia. The Conference started out as a collaborative initiative between Melbourne’s Bialik College and Harvard University

Principal Wendy Barel, Masada captains Stephanie Zwi, Samuel Saltoon and Dr Ron Ritchhard

J-Wire spoke to Masada principal Wendy Barel and Harvard’s Dr Ron Ritchhart.

JW: How did the program start and what was the idea behind it?

RR: We noticed that when teachers were preparing their students there was a great deal of focus on test scores and knowledge and skills alone. Business and university leaders told us there is a real gap between the pupils’ ability both to think and problem solve and their knowledge and skills. The program is designed to make the latter more of a priority in their lessons.

HB: Is teaching the students to think out of the square part of the process?

RR: Creative thinking is certainly part of the process. Learning is a consequence of thinking. We think to solve problems, we think to understand, we think to make decisions. We want to develop students as thinkers.

JW: Does this represent a new approach to education?

RR: Good teachers have always focused on thinking and getting the pupils engaged with the material. But what we’re trying to do is to make sure that that happens more often for more students in more places. We spent time in the classrooms of really excellent teachers and looked at what they did and built on those ideas as to how we could help other teachers develop them.

JW: Some students  find it difficult to concentrate on a topic unless it is of significant interest to them. Will the Culture of Thinking help them?

RR:  There is come concern as to what extent ADD, for example, is misdiagnosed. When you are engaged with something you are able to concentrate…it’s not a processing problem, it’s an engagement problem. So helping teachers make sure that all students are engaged is a sure benefit Some pupils need to be more physically active in order to become more mentally active…and teachers report that when thinking is developed within their classroom it helps all students. Results show that some students who had not been academically strong began to contribute and participate more.

JW:  Are there any special age groups which benefit from the program or is it across all ages?

RR:   All ages but it extends beyond that as we talk with parents, businesses and community organisation like museums….any place where learning is involved finds these ideas useful.

JW: How does it work in its conference form?

RR: The project started in Bialik College in Melbourne. There has  been a growing interest from teachers from around Australia so it’s bringing together those teachers who share with each other what they do in their classrooms. A lot of the learning here at Masada is a result of teachers sharing what they do in their classrooms.

JW: The Australian conferences have been held at Bialik and Masada. Is this confined to Jewish schools?

RR: It is open to all schools. Our original research was funded by Bialik College and Masada picked up the idea from there and is now one of the leading schools using these ideas in NSW.

JW:   Are there teachers here from non-Jewish Schools?

WB:   We have the Jewish dayschools here but the majority of those attending are from independent and government schools from across Australia and New Zealand

JW:  We read in today’s press that Masada primary is number one in the State in the My School statistics. Is this a result of the Culture of Thinking?

WB:   It’s hard to measure. Fortunately, Masada has always had strong academic results. But it would certainly have gone a long way to help. The skills they develop in their thinking and learning processes are reflected in test results for sure.

JW:    There has been a two year hiatus between conferences –  is it an ongoing process?

WB:   It’s a culture so it’s embedded in the curriculum but we have also set up through Masada a collaborative cluster of schools. Schools in the Sydney area that have started or are interested in the journey meet with us once a term. We share professional dialogue and experiences of the Culture of Thinking.

JW:  Has there been any standout benefit.

WB: The professional dialogue between staff and getting the children to be responsible for their own thinking and learning processes rather than the teacher just spoon-feeding them. The children are capable of doing their own thinking and should not see the teacher as being the only source of thinking.

JW:   Surely teachers always exchanged ideas?

RR:  I don’t think so. From my experience there is a real history of hiring good teachers and you leave them alone. Professional development of teachers is quite new. The work of the Culture of Thinking shows that we really get much more benefit when we work together and are collaborative.

WB: There might be discussions on a departmental basis. The English teachers will talk about what they are doing in the classroom and they have no idea what’s happening in the Maths classroom. The Culture of Thinking brings teachers together in focus groups on a cross-faculty basis. They gain benefit from what happens in other departments.

JW: How does it work?

RR: Teachers have to make sure that students are actively and mentally engaged with the information and ideas of the course they learning.  We employ a lot of thinking routines…simple structures such a as asking effective questions. Teachers might ask for example after reading material or a discussion how these ideas connect, extend and challenge us on what we have been studying. Rather than rely on memory skills, it’s focusing on thinking. We are giving the students tools to actively process information, make sense of it and take it to a higher level.

JW: We all remember outstanding teachers from our schooldays. Will this course increase the number of those teacher?

WB: You would hope so.

RR: We often equate good teaching with a great personality. The Culture of Thinking looks at these special teachers and analyses how they created that memorable classroom atmosphere. We will give them the tools to lift their level and become that memorable teacher.

Culture of Thinking Conferences started in Australia but now take place on all continents except Africa.







One Response to “Teaching the teachers”
  1. Sanford says:

    “Culture for Thinking teaches teachers how to encourage pupils to think out of the box” I say encourage pupils to understand principles and know how to generalize them. Here are a couple of books:

    Rational Thinking, Government Policies, Science, and Living. Rational thinking starts with clearly stated principles, continues with logical deductions, and then examines empirical evidence to possibly modify the principles.

    Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better.

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