Providing Opportunities for Thinking & Learning

If great thinking and learning is a part of your agenda for your students, it seems obvious that you need to give them opportunities to think and learn. Ron Ritchhart describes this as, ‘Crafting the Vehicles for Learning.’ He states, “Without the right vehicles, learning slows down, loses momentum and in some cases comes to a stand still, producing parking lots rather than speedways.” As a teacher, focus on creating opportunities for engagement, to delve deeper into ideas and concepts, to explore, to create meaning and to think.

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Opportunities come in many shapes and sizes and are bigger that the term ‘work’ or ‘task.’ It means providing opportunities for students to ‘bump it up’ to the next level of thinking. There are some key areas to consider when increasing the opportunities for thinking and learning.

1. Duration, Format and Complexity

There are three clear dimensions of learning opportunities: duration (time), format and complexity. The time may range from a quick ‘teachable’ moment to longer term events. Events are spread over longer periods of time, and are likely to be made up of smaller projects which include tasks and more frequently teachable moments. Because of their complexity, events will be infrequent whilst teaching moments are common place in a thinking classroom.

Opportunities also vary in their format. Teachers may use an array of strategies including whole class instruction, discussion, small group work, partner work, videos, worksheets, technology led instruction, etc. All of these strategies or formats are to be designed to engage students to think, actively learn and deepen their understanding. Here, opportunities for students to develop greater autonomy and independence is important. This requires the teacher to take a step back and allow students to make mistakes, struggle and problem solve on their own, rather than being rescued with the answer by the teacher.

The complexity of an opportunity may range from simple, low level recall tasks to original, challenging tasks that require deep learning strategies to build deep understanding. One way to increase complexity is to list the verbs you have used for the task or project and rank them in order of thinking complexity, specificity and the time students will spend on each. Are the tasks simple recall or do they involve more sophisticated understanding? Another way to add challenge is to ensure your tasks are open ended and have stretch goals or possibilities for students to go beyond the simple and obvious.

2. Promoting Learning Through Opportunities

There are four characteristics identified in creating powerful learning opportunities: Novel Application, Meaningful Inquiry, Effective Communication and Perceived Worth.

Novel Application: Transfer is perhaps the ‘holy grail’ for teachers. Having students applying their new knowledge and skills in different situations, rather than simply replicating the information is the goal. Organising, interpreting, evaluating or synthesising knowledge to create something new allows for knowledge to be sharpened, deepened and enhanced.

Meaningful Inquiry: Project Zero’s Teaching for Understanding framework requires students to demonstrate their understanding,
whilst teachers develop that understanding. This goes beyond application to build new understandings and developing personal insights. It necessitates a shift from students not just wanting good grades, but a desire to learn something new, to stretch thinking and develop further knowledge and skills.

Effective Communication: The use of thinking routines to make thinking visible will extend and expand the thinking. When asking students to give evidence, explain their thoughts, and make explicit connections, you are increasing their language and understanding past just the ‘answer.’ This, in turn, helps students in testing situations to be able to go beyond the answer and give responses which show a deeper level of understanding and discernment.

Perceived Worth: Researchers David J. Shernoff et al, have found that, “Not only was perception of importance by far the strongest predictor of engagement, it was also the most robust predictor of perceived learning and attention.” In my experience, the number one question I am asked by students is, “Why am I learning this?” Shernoff’s research also found that a teacher simply stating the objective or goal for a lesson was not enough. Worth requires the teacher, ‘…to place the activity within a context of a larger goal or enterprise.”

3. Putting it Into Action

Ron Ritchhart states, “Opportunities are the bread and butter of teaching.” He continues to say, “To be able to create the stage for students’ performances, either by inspiring, engaging, and opening up possibilities and originality or by reducing and limiting students efforts to superficial reproductions.” The goal here is to replace low level tasks with purposeful opportunities. And yes, this may take more time to plan and execute, and this is what learning is about. Looking for opportunities to push, grow and expand students thinking and learning. It may require teaching less and providing more opportunities for students to discover. Kath Murdoch talks about having the students do the heavy lifting in terms of thinking, rather than the teacher.

This requires a teacher to be clear on the goals of the learning, be flexible within the learning structure, be open to the teachable moment and skilled at questioning.

It is about immersing students in a culture of thinking and both the teachers and students knowing that the development of understanding and independence are central to success.

Action points include:

  • Shift focus from what students will be ‘doing’ to the thinking verbs they will be using.
  •  Create open ended tasks with possibilities, rather than the same final product for all.
  • Create tasks, activities or events which give students a reason for learning from their perceptive, not yours.
  •  Rate and review your tasks and projects using the 4 criteria: Novel Application, Meaningful Inquiry, Effective Communication, and Perceived Worth.
  • Teach less. Look for ways you can step back and have students doing more of the work.
  • Videotape yourself and analyse the balance of teacher talk versus student learning.

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Karen Tui Boyes

Karen Tui Boyes is a champion for LifeLong Learning. A multi-award-winning speaker, educator and businesswoman, she is an expert in effective teaching, learning, study skills, motivation and positive thinking. Karen is the CEO of Spectrum Education, Principal of Spectrum Online Academy and the author of 10 books. She loves empowering teachers, parents and students and is the wife to one and the mother of two young adults.
Karen was named the GIFEW Evolutionary Woman of the Year 2022.