Teaching Your Students to Think

Dear Teacher,
            You want your students to think for themselves. Try this:

Student actionRequired thinkingExample
Find a question in the world.Engages observation and pattern recognition“Why are so many cooks and bus-people in Minneapolis Latino?”[1]
Consider why it needs an answer?Engages contextualizing[2]“To determine if Minneapolis restaurant hiring practices are discriminatory”
Refine the question.Requires research skills and actions[3]“What is the usual ethnic makeup of Minneapolis restaurant staffs?”
Formalize the question.
(the research question)
Engages observation and pattern recognition. Engages contextualizing and analysis[4]“What are the characteristics of jobs dominantly held by each ethnic group in a variety of Minneapolis Restaurants?”
Answer the “Why ask” question.
(the thesis of the report)
Engages analysis and evaluation[5]“Depending on how one defines discrimination, one may or may not see the ethnic imbalance in Minneapolis restaurant jobs as discriminatory.”
Defining all terms and using the evidence collected, state and explain a “thesis.”Engages composition skillsCarefully and clearly explain the above statement, i.e., write a research report

The examples given in this chart work well with upper class (juniors and seniors) high school students and above, where I have used them, but the process can be adapted to earlier grades. I have used something along these lines with students in what was then junior high school (7 and 8). I can fairly easily imagine it being adapted to younger students, but it would need major reform to be used with students who had only begin using abstract thinking – probably about 8 or 9 years of age. It is the thinking process that is the focus, not the inputs or outputs, which we are usually expected to score as a measure of the students’ learning. Using pre-writing work, we can assess the amount and depth of the thinking, and design activities to strengthen shortcomings.

If one internalizes thoughtful processes in early and frequent use, one may find good thinking becomes automatic. For that reason, it is helpful to begin building students’ thinking-framework early. Thinking may seem threatening to some in a conformist world, but it is necessary, if uncomfortable, to innovation, and that generates forward movement in all fields, as it has in the technical fields. Economic, social, governance, even math and science fields can all benefit from the ideas of those who see, question and postulate change. We must teach the whole person for life in the whole world.


[1] This is by far the hardest part. One must always be observing what is going on around them, noticing and recognizing patterns. In this table, for instance, a pattern is defined by the header row of terms. Look for some more patterns.

[2] Contexts may be wide ranging – economic, ethical, legal, success based, etc.

[3] This will require a range of question situations, in this case restaurants, possibly involving first hand visits, phone calls and letters. Cover different ranges of situations – location, economic, variety – such as cuisine, and other possibly impactful variations. There may be organizations that have already collected some or even all of the information you are seeking. Search the question on the Web.

[4] Keep accurate records of from whom, about what, where, and/or when information was found. These references should be cited in any writing that calls on any of this information. This may be the longest and most complex part of the process. Good research is work. It comes with asking a good research question, and then constantly asking yourself, “am I really getting answers to my research question?”

[5] Analysis is non-judgmental. Evaluation is the comparison of substantiated conclusions with some set of standards. Analysis must be included in a research report, but a value-based conclusion may be included or left clearly open-ended.

Follow-up footnote

It has come to my attention that there is more to the process that I have laid out here. Two areas, in particular, that are not detailed here are process assessment and research journaling have been noted and I would love to discuss them with anyone interested. I realize there are other things to apply here too, action research being but one of them. Action research is a teaching process that parallels this observation-relevance learning process.

I can be emailed at Jay@jaezz.org. For those looking to advance the process, we can talk about how to customize for specific foci. For those who find this process too overwhelming for their students, we can talk about how one might step into the process rather than taking it on whole right out of the box. And I would be more than interested in hearing your ideas to make this more adaptable and richer. My goal is to do something to staunch the bleeding of critical and creative thought from the American educational system.

About Jay C Ritterson
If I say nothing, it might be that I have nothing to say.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: