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Cultures of thinking in education

Posted on: April 26, 2022
Three young learners working together on a laptop

Cultures of thinking emerged from Ron Ritchhart’s 2015 book Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools. The book was written as a response to the increasing emphasis in education on test-taking rather than developing students’ thinking and understanding. The term ‘Cultures of Thinking’ (CoT) is defined as “places where a group’s collective as well as individual thinking is valued, visible, and actively promoted as part of the regular, day-to-day experience of all group members”.

Ritchhart’s text offers a framework which was developed as part of Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero of which Ritchhart is a senior research associate. Project Zero has been in existence for over 50 years and has led on dozens of projects in education research that have inspired and influenced learning communities across the globe. As a doctoral student at Harvard, Ritchhart worked with professors Howard Gardner and David Perkins on his theories. The CoT framework, which focuses on the building blocks of group culture, has established itself in its own right as the Cultures of Thinking Project.

What are the eight cultural forces?

In creating cultures of thinking, Ritchhart believes there are eight cultural forces influencing the classroom and learners’ thinking routines. These are:

  • Time: How do we provide time for exploring topics in depth as well as time to formulate thoughtful responses?
  • Modelling: How do we model our own thinking so that we’re making thinking visible? In other words, the process of thinking is shared visually.
  • Language: How do we help students develop a language of thinking that accurately describes and reflects on thinking?
  • Environment: How do we display the process of thinking and create learning environments that facilitate thoughtful interactions?
  • Interactions: How do we respect and value other ideas or thinking in the spirit of collaborative inquiry?
  • Routines: How do we support and uphold students’ thinking, as well as provide tools and patterns of thinking that can be used independently?
  • Expectations: How do we shift the focus to the value of thinking and learning from mere completion of work?
  • Opportunities: How do we provide purposeful activities to refocus students’ learning on engagement in thinking and the development of understanding?

To add to this, seven traits have been identified that build thinking dispositions which are central to intelligence. Ritchhart posits that human intelligence is not ability-centred but is found within these dispositions or patterns of behaviour. Learners should be curious, open-minded, reflective, strategic, sceptical, and a seeker of truth and understanding.

The ability to learn is innate in human beings, we are naturally curious. However, a number of these traits are not always encouraged or enhanced by curriculums that prioritise tests or exams as evidence of good learning. Ritchhart believes that these dispositions are key to shaping what he refers to as intellectual character. This is expanded upon in another of his books, Intellectual Character: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How To Get It (Jossey-Bass).

Dispositions can’t be taught; they need to be enculturated. This means that group members of any classroom should witness their teachers actively modelling, promoting, living, referencing, and honouring the dispositions of a learner and thinker. Professional development in teaching can so often centre around learning new systems or one-size-fits-all approaches. The organic process of creating cultures of thinking becomes self-proliferating and self-supporting while remaining unique to each group.

What is the Understanding Map?

Aside from the eight cultural forces at play in group learning environments, documentation is key to fostering deep learning, which builds itself around the culture of the classroom. The framework for documentation which is anchored in the power of making thinking visible, is encapsulated in the Understanding Map. This tool offers eight questions to facilitate documentation that supports the development of thinking and the learning process as a whole.

  • Reason with evidence – Why do you think so?
  • Make connections – How does this fit with what you already know?
  • Uncovering complexity – What lies beneath the surface of this?
  • Capture the heart and form conclusions – What’s at the core or centre of this?
  • Build explanations – What is really going on here?
  • Describe what’s there – What do you see and notice?
  • Wondering – What are you curious about here?
  • Consider different viewpoints – What’s another angle on this?

Documenting powerful learning moments, whether via photographs, mind maps, or illustrations helps capture the ideas of the learners and thereby validates them, encouraging their learning. A thinking classroom can initially be unpopular with students who are used to learning things by rote. However, a culture of thinking nurtures independence for all learners whether in schools, universities, or the workplace.

What are the six key principles of the Cultures of Thinking Project?

The main frameworks of CoT to observe are the eight cultural forces and documentation. The six key principles of CoT are also useful in helping to bring the philosophy to life in the classroom. The principles are:

  • Skills are not sufficient; we must also have the disposition to use them.
  • The development of thinking and understanding is fundamentally a social endeavour.
  • The culture of the classroom teaches.
  • As educators, we must strive to make students’ thinking visible.
  • Good thinking utilises a variety of resources and is facilitated by the use of external tools to download or distribute one’s thinking.
  • For classrooms to be cultures of thinking for students, schools must be cultures of thinking for teachers.

The Cultures of Thinking Project offers numerous case studies on how to effectively create learning cultures that honour the thinking of the individual and the group. There are more prescriptive formats of teaching which certainly help students to pass tests but do not necessarily develop the critical thinking that is required out in the real world. The purpose and promise of schools is to offer learning that equips young people to flourish in an uncertain and rapidly-changing world. Learning should also be fun, something which learner-centric teaching can elevate.

Continue your learning with a master’s

With the emphasis on encouraging life-long learning at the core of Cultures of Thinking, there couldn’t be a better way to step up your professional learning than with a 100% online MA Education Leadership and Management from Keele University. 

Lead by example by deepening your understanding of up-to-date practices on this distance learning master’s course. Find out how you can apply for this degree today and inspire the big thinkers of tomorrow with the teaching and leadership skills you’ll gain.

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