10 Ways to Support a Culture of Thinking of in your Classroom

31 Mar

Some musings for a Sunday night… This post was initially titled ’10 Easy Ways…’, although I retrospectively cut out the ‘easy’. Making space for these changes in the modern, time-strapped classroom environment isn’t easy… but possible.

1. Ask reflective questions at the beginning of the class to allow students to connect prior learning with new learning – simple revision questions are fine (e.g. dot-point 3 things you remember learning in our last class/whose perspective on ____ do you sympathise most with – why?, etc). Try to make the ‘link’ between each new learning clear.

2. Give students reflection time at the end of class – metacognitive class-enders work well.

3. Encourage active engagement during instructional time by getting students to ‘predict’ the next piece of the learning puzzle.

4. Allow for ample thinking time when:
* requiring students to engage in higher order thinking (e.g. analysis, evaluation),
* exposing students to new and novel ways of thinking
* asking students to problem-solve, hypothesise, or link concepts independently.
Over-estimate how much thinking time they will need. You can always cut it back and move on faster than you predicted.

5. Allow for ample reflection time – slow the pace of learning down. Some students just need 5 or so quiet minutes to breathe, zone out, relax. In fact, in Finland, each hour of ‘class time’ includes a 15 minute quiet, reflective break.

6. Be aware of cognitive and/or sensory overload in instruction, teaching and learning activities, assessment, and classroom environment.

7. Be aware of the language you use around learning. Outside of structured outcome-focused activities (e.g. revision time for summative assessment) language should emphasise the processes of thinking/pondering/wondering/possibilities rather than mere knowledge (e.g. “what might be a reason why ……” and “why might’ve X occured here?” vs. “Who can tell me…?”)

8. Encourage students to become familar with shallow questions v. deep questions. Once they understand what a deep question is, encourage them to ask deep questions.

9. Assess students on the quality of their questions – make space in your assessment for this.

10. Ensure your learning outcomes are rooted in thinking and not doing.

Bye for now,
The Bean

6 Ways to Improve your Brainstorming Sessions

27 Mar

I spent some time this week facilitating a brainstorming session with one my senior classes. Brainstorming is a regular activity in my classroom, and I do it for a number of reasons. Chiefly, I feel it is important for me to encourage a classroom culture of inquiry, intellectual risk-taking, and ‘having a go’, and I feel brainstorming is a good way to show students that their ideas are worthy, despite the regular preface of “I’m not sure if this is right, but…”

I’ve uncovered a few things about brainstorming, some unsurprising, some surprisingly disconcerting!

1. It is vital that participants are asked to brainstorm around a question. The question needs to be needs to be specific and works best posed as a ‘problem’.

2. Start with an individual brainstorming session. Although there is conflicting views on this, many studies suggest that individual brainstorming is more productive than group brainstorming (in terms of quantity of ideas generated). What’s more, many personality types find free, creative thinking much easier when working alone – some people find it difficult to generate ideas freely when they are expected to contribute ideas in a group situation.
After participants have had an individual brainstorming time, ask them to contribute to the group.
These ideas add weight to the old ‘Think Pair Share’ routine.

3. Group brainstorming takes time.

4. Avoid both criticism and praise of ideas during brainstorming. Remember that brainstorming is merely a process of idea generation – it is not an evaluation of ideas. Evaluate later. Even subtle praise of an idea from a teacher, facilitator, or manager, can steer ideas in one direction, or deter participants from thinking creatively, as participants subconsciously desire to gain praise.

5. Encourage participants to build upon or improve ideas generated. Likewise, encourage participants to connect ideas/identify relationships to deepen complexity of idea generation.

6. Meaningful reflection time is critical. Some personality types take a long time to reflect. Allow for free reflection, and then when reconvening, a guided reflection followed by an evaluation of ideas is warranted.

Bye for now,
The Bean.

Please, Don’t Die Books.

6 Nov

For anyone else who loves the weight of a book in their hands, the smell of the pages, the coziness of the bookstore, the sage advice of the avid reader, and the chatter of the book club:

“If readers see bookshops as having an important cultural role, then it is  their responsibility to ensure that the shops stay viable.  This is simply by  supporting bookshops though patronage – putting money in the till.

Bookshops, and by this I mean those run by true booksellers as opposed to  retailers,  offer much value-adding to the literary culture. There are author  signings, book events, discussion groups, book clubs, newsletters, staff who  actually read the books they sell, affirmation of the reading culture and  education of readers to try new and “old” books.”

– Christopher Bantick, The Age.

Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/comment/the-real-reason-bookshops-are-dying-20131106-2x0vt.html#ixzz2jpnRcxnG

Bye for now,

The Bean.

9 Things I learned from Substitute Teaching

1 Nov

Last term, I taught as a supply/relief/substitute teacher in several of Brisbane’s schools.

Despite having taught for two years’ prior, I learned a great deal about classroom management in the six-or-so weeks I was in supply teaching. I picked up an arsenal of techniques that I relied on every day, to maintain a positive environment in the classrooms I visited. They were must-dos, bare basics, the base foundation I needed each day.

So, I’ve boiled them down to the 9 most crucial in keeping your classroom culture a positive one:

#9 Have a set of 3 Simple Behaviour Expectations/Rules.

These need to be simple and fair. The reason for your expectation needs to be easily explained, and easily enforced. Be clear on the consequences. The consequences need to be logical follow through from the reason for the rule. Make it clear that you make the call on whether their behaviour is out of line.

Mine are:

1) You need to respect the space of others. You are one of X number of students in the room. You need to make no more than your fair share of noise. We are all sharing this space.

If I feel anyone’s behaviour (e.g. speaking loudly, interferring with property) is not respectful of the space here, I will have no choice but to isolate you.

2) No physical aggression of any kind, even if it is mock aggression. I have a duty of care to you.

If I feel you’re being aggressive, even as a joke, I will have no choice but to isolate you.

3) It’s not an option to opt out of completing work. My job is to make sure you complete your work today, to the best of your ability.

If I feel you’ve chosen to opt out, I’ll be bringing you up to explain why. I am confident we will be able to sort it out together.

The golden rule here is – be consistent! Once students know that’s your deal, it becomes much easier, because the expectations are clear.

# 8 Have a clear, scaled system of consequences.

I believe you should always give students an opportunity to redeem themselves.

This means that consequences for misbehaviour should start out small and gradually get more serious.

In my mind, the first consequence should be a clear reminder of your expectations/rules.

The second is for you to move them.

The third is a quiet talk with you, where you explain why the behaviour is disruptive, and you ask for their input in solving the problem.

The fourth is removal from the class. I’ve only done this 3 times, and it was an awful feeling. It felt like I’d failed!

# 7 Consequences shouldn’t be punishment – consequences are solutions to problems.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve asked a student to move, and had them instantly on the defensive:

“Oh my God, I didn’t DO anything! Ben threw it at me!”

Consequences (e.g. moving them) should be used as solutions to a problem (e.g. three students are distracting each other).

If a student takes offence to you following through with consequence, it’s usually because they perceive it as an injustice. Explain lightly that you’re not doing it to punish, you’re just doing it to fix the “problem of the three of you distracting each other”. I’ve never had a student fail to comply once I explain it’s just a way to manage the class, not a punishment.

Save the deeper discussions of appropriate behaviour, respect, or sharing, for another, more private conversation.

# 6 Move around the classroom.

Circulate often. Teach from all corners of the room. Sit down next to them. There should be no ‘dead corners’.

# 5 Put time limits on everything.

This was a trick I quickly figured out in my first year of teaching. Always, always, always give time limits for tasks. Even for activities as simple as opening books and taking out a highlighter, pairing up, or getting out materials. Giving students a time frame maintains a tone of urgency around the learning, and also makes clear your expectations.

If you’re unsure whether you’ve given too much time, the students’ body language will be the giveaway. Giggling, impromptu eraser flicking games, phones appearing from pockets, heads on desk = you’ve given them far too much time.

# 4 Sometimes, a subtle change of subject is all it takes.

Some students are hardwired to be confrontational with teachers. I had a student aggressively backchat after I asked him to open his workbook.

Be clear in your expectations; draw the boundary quickly, clearly, firmly. A short, clear, one sentence command. If that further angers them, change the subject, and change your tone to one of ease. Adolescents are very responsive to the tone adults set.

It can be anything – a game they’re (naughtily) playing on their phone, the football logo on their pencil case, the cast on their arm. Anything. Your tone should be casual and chilled out. Show them that you care about them as a person, and that you don’t just see them as a ‘problem student’ (for a lot of these kids, they’re defensive and aggressive with teachers because they feel all the teachers hate them anyway!)

Find every opportunity to give them positive feedback (e.g. “Rugby looks like such a difficult game – I don’t know how you manage it!”). Afterwards, restate your order clearly and firmly (e.g. “that’s really interesting… alright, back to it. * In a strong voice * Put your phone away and open your textbook”). By this stage, most students will comply.

# 3 Never take on a student in front of their peers.

Some students are completely different people away from their peers. Never confront a student in front of their mates. A combination of ‘safety in numbers’ and the natural urge to impress their friends will change the way they interact with you. Speak with the student privately.

Open directly. Statements like “tell me what’s been going on”, “is this normal behaviour for you?”, “do you want to talk to me about anything?”, “is everything okay with you today? You don’t seem like your usual self”, or “there’s a bit of a problem between us, isn’t there? I really want to sort it out”. Let the student air their grievances with you. Apologise if they’ve been hurt. Stress you want to make the time you have with them fair and positive. If you suspect they think you don’t respect them, say clearly that that’s not the case. Adolescents are fragile creatures – they all have a need for adult validation.

# 2 If you have a group (or a whole class) turn against you, change goes a long way.

We all share that fear of a group or class turning against you, and you losing all your control and credibility as the leader of the classroom. I’ve had one experience where this happened (and it wasn’t while substitute teaching). I had a small group of boys present a role play in my Legal Studies class, which I felt dealt with inappropriate material in an inappropriate manner. They thought otherwise. The group became quite confrontational with me, and, given it was my first year of teaching, I was rattled.

I learned a lot from that experience, and there have been a few encounters over the years were I’ve managed to salvage the situation quickly, by:

Changing your tone: move closer to the group. Sit amongst them. Lower your voice. Communicate your decision and feelings gently. Ask individual students to communicate their feelings calmly. Show that you’re listening. Allow for silence and quiet. A softer mood will quieten some students’ anger or energy.

– Change the environment: if a pack mentality forms, separate the ‘leader of the pack’, if possible- ask them to ‘walk and talk’ with you, or invite them outside while a nearby teacher watches over the class. Sit down somewhere quiet, perhaps outside or in the staffroom. Speak firmly, but gently. Tell them you’ve got a problem you both need to fix. Ask them for their input in solving it.

– Change your language: If you’ve lost your authority, ‘reading the riot act’ won’t work. Shift your language from blame, consequences, orders, and behaviour, to an objective conversation about ‘the problem’. Use clear, objective phrases like “we have a problem”. Maintain strong body language and firm, clear language, but show that you want a solution.

As a last resort (or if any students become aggressive), get help. Know the school’s formal discipline policy before the first bell.

# 1 Stop any time a student talks over the top of you.

This is one of the first things anyone tells you when you start out teaching. When you’re substitute teaching, this little technique becomes more important than ever. Without being able to rely on knowing the kids, having a relationship with them, or having much credibility, your ability to command control over the classroom relies heavily on this little habit.

Never speak over the top of students.

Wait. Don’t give up. Even if it takes the class 2 minutes to settle, they will. Persist.

One “Guys, shut up!” = a million “I’ll wait…”, or “Mouths closed, eyes to the board”, from you.

If you’re consistent, your students will know within a few days that when you talk, they listen or they wait. And no one likes waiting.

Bye for now,

The Bean.

How ‘The Idiot Box’ Inspired Me

31 Oct

So, during the term break, I spent a little bit of time catching up my favourite ABC/BBC TV shows.

I delighted in 6 episodes of Heston’s Feasts, and I tuned in to an old season of Grand Designs (UK).

Watching these shows, I was reminded of the ample opportunity we have for cross-disciplinary learning.

Either that, or I realised that I never really stop thinking about curriculum and teaching & learning, even when I’m on holidays and curled up on the couch!

It would be wonderful to use Heston’s Feasts as a stimulus for a short cross-disciplinary unit of Social Studies, Science, and Home Economics, where students:

– Analyse the historical, social, and cultural context in which the ‘feasts’ took place (the show sees Heston recreate dishes from the Edwardian, Tudor, Victorian, and Roman eras).

– Apply the chemistry behind the cooking in other contexts (this is what makes Heston’s Feasts so unique).

– Create their own modern adapatations of the historical dishes.

It would be brilliant to take Grand Designs as an inspiration for cross-disciplinary, project-based learning in Mathematics, Physics, and Woodwork/Design, where students:

Explore and understand the basic mathematic principles (e.g. trigonometry, calculating weight/area/volume) behind one of the constructions.

Apply some of the physics to recreate (as a class, or in small groups) a plywood model of one of the constructions – this would be a great opportunity for inquiry-based learning.

Create a piece of furniture or a statement design piece, using materials used in the construction, in an aesthetic sensitive to the design of the build.

We all know our students watch TV.

For many of them, they tune in regularly to shows out of habit, as a result of their peers’ preferences, or in reaction to the voices of popular media.

When I was growing up, we had one TV. For the vast majority of the time, when the TV was on, it was tuned to ABC or SBS. On the weekends, the TV went off at 11am, and on went ABC Radio. I was allowed two hours of free TV watching a week, but for the most part, I found myself tuning in to the ABC. I took so much joy from the programs I watched – they sparked such curiosity in me, certainly more than Dawson’s Creek, Charmed, or Survivor ever did.

In Australia, we’re so lucky to have such high quality public broadcasting. I’ve encouraged my students to tune into ABC TV and Radio on a number of occasions, hoping they will discover the joys of:

ABC and SBS’:

The Book Club (formerly, The First Tuesday Book Club)
Australian Story
Big Ideas

ABC Radio’s:
Books and Arts Daily
All In The Mind
In Our Time
Life Matters

Have you been inspired by programs you’ve watched? What triggers the inspiration for your project-based/cross-disciplinary units of inquiry?

Bye for now,

The Bean.


Preserving School Culture: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and the Realities of Wilful Blindness

29 Aug

I’d love to be a principal at some point in my career. Yes, there! I said it!

But, well before then, I hope to deepen my understanding of school culture, and strengthen my skills in leading and developing cultures. A school belongs to its community, and people make communities – people with energy, curiosity, humour, compassion, hopes – all of them individuals. So too, they may carry with them fear, insecurity, disappointment, anger, worry, regret, or shame.

We all know what works when it comes to school culture: we strive to establish a positive, nurturing, and inclusive school culture.

There are a number of common characteristics I’ve noticed amongst communities (school communities or otherwise) that are distinctly positive, nurturing and inclusive of the people within them.

One of those is a deeply entrenched intolerance of behaviour that erodes the established culture.

The same could be said for communities whose culture is a negative one – there’s often a strong protectiveness of the status quo: challengers, boat-rockers, and whistle-blowers are seen as a threat, and their influence is swiftly and brutally removed.

I was told in my first year of teaching, by my school’s Head of Students, that managing the incoming Year 7 cohort was a full-time job in itself.


Because behaviour expectations had to be so clearly articulated, and so consistently reinforced, in order to preserve the established school culture.

One child can influence a few; the few then influence the majority; the majority establish group norms and a cohort culture that, once in place, is challenging to reverse. Those Year 7s become Year 8s, who then model the negative culture (and behavioural norms), and before long, what started as a ripple in the ocean results in a seismic shift in school culture.

My colleague mentioned to me that one of the most effective strategies in encouraging Year 7s to understand and adopt the school’s positive and well-established culture, was encouraging each of them to ‘own it’.

This meant explaining the school’s expectations, codes of conduct, required behaviours and so on (we called this the ‘Woodleigh Way’), while urging all students to stand up and speak up when they see something that does not fit with the Woodleigh Way.

Of course, I nodded. I understood. If everyone speaks out against negative, damaging, and exclusionary behaviour, the behaviour will be stamped out.

But oohhhhhhhhh, what a task that is!

I tried again, and again, and again, and again, with a number of socially influential students, to little avail. Many of these students brought issues to my attention, so it’s fair to say they’d already taken ownership of the school’s culture. I’d try my best to model it myself. I’d encourage them to ‘step up and lead’. I would explain to them the reasons why behaviour wasn’t acceptable, and why maintaining the Woodleigh Way was so important. Virtually all of them agreed with me.

Still, these compassionate, kind, intelligent, perceptive, influential young minds watched behaviour go unchecked. They chickened out.

And it turns out, as do almost all of us.

I stumbled upon this brilliant clip from Ted Talks. In it, CEO and author Margaret Heffeman, speaks of ‘Wilful Blindness’, who does it, what it looks like, and the kind of person who stands up against it.

Do you think this video would encourage students to stand up and speak out?

Bye for now,

The Bean.

Making Thinking Visible

10 Aug

You might remember that last year, I spent a day with Ron Ritchhart, one of the minds behind Harvard’s Visible Thinking Routines. If you’re unfamiliar with these routines, I’d recommend having a quick browse through the above site before reading on.

I was first introduced to the visible thinking routines when I was at university. I was told they were primarily a mechanism for formative assessment. This is an accurate definition, but thinking routines are far more than mere assessment tools. Rather, they are ways in which teachers can support particular kinds of thinking. We use the routines because we don’t want the thinking to be left to chance.

I’ll confess and give you an example.

Pretty often during class discussion, I’ll ask  for two or three responses from my students. If that sample gives me a solid response, I move on, assuming the whole class is with me where in fact, many of my students might be somewhere else. Not only this, but some students quickly learn how to ‘play the game’. What I mean by this is that some students are able to provide the teacher with a solid ‘answer’, without having gone through the thinking processes that the teacher assumes have taken place.

Visible thinking routines support particular kinds of thinking as well as make explicit the thinking that happens naturally. The routines are not simply teaching activities- instead you can view them as tools for learning.

I’ll take you through what I think are two straightforward routines, making clear the intended purpose for both teacher (as formative assessment) and student (as a tool to support thinking).

Routine # 1: “Chalk Talk”

You can think of this routine as a silent conversation on paper.

Students are to form small groups (3-4 is a good size). Each group is positioned at a station and are provided with some butcher’s paper and a collection of different coloured markers. The teacher then offers the class a rich question for the students to reflect upon. An example of this is the question I posed my Year 8 Social Studies class- “what does a well-functioning society look like?”

It is critical that this routine be performed in silence- it allows for deeper individual reflection and ensures the ‘conversation’ remains on the paper.

After being given the rich question, students reflect silently for a few moments and then contribute an idea, thought or question to the paper. The objective is for each student, holding a different coloured marker, to read their peers’ comments and respond in some way- by linking ideas or asking questions with arrows. After a few moments, the students place their markers down and rotate to a new station (and a new ‘conversation’). It’s important to stress that students need to read the previous group’s conversation and consider closely how they’d like to respond. After a few moments the students rotate again, and this process continues until the students return back to their original station. It’s always interesting for them to read how others in the class responded to their initial thoughts and how the conversation transformed.

The purpose of Chalk Talk:

The purpose of the Chalk Talk thinking routine is to collect and broaden perspectives around a particular topic or point of inquiry. Some teachers use it as an initial brainstorming/diagonistic assessment tool, but it does rely on the students having some prior knowledge and on the teacher providing a rich and appropriate question.

There a some real advantages this routine has over individual or teacher-led class brainstorms:

1. It is a secure way of sharing ideas that’s not reliant on verbal discussion. Some students may feel more comfortable with this way of sharing their ideas.

2. Written ideas go to someone other than the teacher.

3. The focus is on making connections between ideas and conversing with one another.

4. It allows for anonymity

Routine #2: “321 Bridge”

In this thinking routine, students are again given a rich question. When tried this routine in my Year 11 Legal Studies class, I used the question “what is the role of the legal system in society?”

The students are asked to consider the question and write down three words that come to mind, two questions relating to the rich question, and one metaphor- these three tasks are the ‘321’. The metaphor can be quite challenging for some students- if so, ask them questions like “what does the (topic/question) remind you of?”

Now you need the bridge. The bridge is some sort of stimulus designed to shift students’ thinking. The stimulus would work particularly well if it were sourced collaboratively with the students. The stimulus could be as simple as an in-class activity, a film, an image analysis or a discussion, or as complex as an inquiry task or a unit of work.

After the stimulus, the rich question is offered again and the 321 task is repeated- three words, two questions, one metaphor. From here, the teacher facilitates a reflection on the shift in thinking that took place and the reasons behind it.

The purpose of 321 Bridge:

This routine is designed primarily as a metacognitive tool for students to reflect on how their thinking changes over time. Not only this but during the initial 321 task, the questions posed can be a real window into both a student’s prior knowledge and their interests.

I’m still a real newbie to these thinking routines. I’m planning on trying out a few more in my classes before the year’s end.

What are your thoughts on these routines- could you see them working to support visible thinking in your classes?

Bye for now,

The Bean.




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