Making Thinking Visible or How to Debate Poorly

It took me some time to write this post as I don’t generally engage in replying to particular bloggers – I , for one, have better things to do other than arguing with someone in the blogosphere.

Harry Webb posted back in December about the website Making Thinking Visible and called these routines “step-wise procedures” using Carl Bereiter’s arguments. This is his own description and I would like to deconstruct his arguments as he mistakes these techniques with teaching thinking programs.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

First, it is interesting (dare I say ironic?) that he uses Bereiter’s book (which I also read, namely Education and Mind in the Knowledge Age) to discredit the work and research behind Visible Thinking project – the title of the blog post is relevant in itself (“Thinkamajiks”). I say ironic because Harry is a “traditional” teacher (he always mentions that on Twitter) and Bereiter is quite a progressive mind, who sees inquiry (A) as a more effective way to learn, emphasizes motivation and mentions the importance of thinking as a social activity (B), all of which do not fit in the “traditional” model.

  1. To develop such knowledge, it is obvious that students must be engaged in inquiry. Passive uptake of knowledge, as in reading a novel or listening to a lecture, has its value, as I’ve argued earlier. But, to continue with the hiking analogy, it’s like viewing a movie rather than actually going on it.” (ch. 9, p. 338)
  2.  “It is time to take a broader view, in which thinking is seen as a primarily social activity (although always with an important private component). Ignoring these three- thinking as a social activity, how thinking relates to knowledge and motivation -reduces thinking to a set of parlor tricks.” (ch. 9, p.348)

Moreover, in the description of his own model (Knowledge Building), Bereiter states,

“As a constructivist approach, Knowledge Building shares many characteristics with the other constructivist approaches discussed earlier. That goal is to advance the frontiers of knowledge as they (the students, n.n.) perceive them. ‘As they perceive them’ is an important qualification when Knowledge Building is undertaken in educational contexts. Identifying frontiers and judging what constitutes an advance are essential parts of Knowledge Building, which students need to learn to carry out themselves, not depend on a teacher or a textbook to do for them.”

Now, let’s go back to Harry’s post.…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

I. Harry uses the phrase “step-wise procedures” quoting Bereiter’s work as a way to describe the VT project.

First, Bereiter uses this syntagm when he talks about self-help books and other inane yet popular ways to unwittingly disseminate psychology or cognitive science research results:

“The old-fashioned self-help books that I have looked into offer two main approaches to the improvement of thinking: stepwise procedures and slogans.” (p. 346)

Secondly, Harry, perhaps unintentionally although I doubt it, uses the same syntagm when talking about VT:

“This is achieved largely by integrating a series of step-wise procedures into science, history and other curriculum subjects.”

He conflates a “thinking skill program” that Bereiter is against (as I am, see  Who Is Afraid Of Knowledge?) with a series of techniques that are meant to involve students in thinking about the curriculum topics. Even Ron Ritchhart (co-author of Making Thinking Visible), with whom I had a relatively long conversation, stated:

The use of thinking routines is not designed as a program. They are useful tools that engage students in thinking about content. They also sit within the much larger goal of creating a culture of thinking, which is my area of focus, not the mere use of thinking routines.”

What Harry misses is that tools are not step-wise procedures, sequential algorithms to apply to teach “thinking” itself.

Several points here (from Making Thinking Visible authors):

Thinking is intricately connected to content. It makes little sense to talk about thinking divorced from context and purpose.” (chapter 1, Beyond Bloom, p. 6)  There you go – not “teaching” critical thinking as a stand-alone, but as a content-dependent exercise.

The idea that thinking is sequential or hierarchic is problematic.”(p.7)  They deconstruct Bloom’s hierarchical cognitive model which I also refer to here (Difficulty vs. Complexity). The hierarchy of “levels” is less important than the quality of thinking within each – an in-depth, complex analysis of Romeo and Juliet made by a student can reveal more thinking than a brief evaluation of it by another one (despite analysis being on the lower part of Bloom’s taxonomy).

Harry’s entire post is based on using Bereiter’s rebuttal of such programs. I just proved that this is not a program. Let’s move on.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

II.  Harry brings Bereiter’s words again:

“The measures used to evaluate thinking usually embody the same assumptions as the program being evaluated. They usually consist of brief, trivial tasks similar to the exercises used in the program (…).”

First, by their own very name, “routines” indicate that they are not quick, one-time,“fun” activities (as I saw in Joe Kirby’s post , The Cult of Variety – pure business). They represent a way to build a culture of thinking and inquiry within the classroom so they take time. Like reading or writing, they are incremental processes and do not yield a result by one or just occasional use – and the authors explain that this is the very reason they did *not* name them thinking “strategies”.

Secondly, they are not “trivial” by any measure – they are related to content and are means of exploring this content. Of course, if your content is of low quality, there is not much thinking going on. (Digression: That is why I am constantly getting annoyed about the “real-word* buzzword – we need to expand students’ thinking not bring it back to their familiar, day-to-day life. Favoring Justin Bieber over, say, Henry D. Thoreau, in writing a persuasive text is simply dumb – and you can quote me on that.)

Moreover, the authors themselves emphasize the danger of focusing on “activity and work” – which I also see in many educational environments where deep thinking is completely absent because the students are immersed in fragmented, fun and only apparently engaging activities.

“The opposite of this same coin is a classroom that is all about activity. Playing a version of Jeopardy to review for a test may be more fun than doing a worksheet, but it is unlikely to develop understanding.” (p.9)

“To develop understanding of a subject area, one has to engage in authentic intellectual activity. That means solving problems, making decisions, and developing new understanding using the methods and tools of the discipline.” (p.10)

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

III. Harry uses another of Bereiter’s quotes:

“Teaching thinking is treated as a straightforward matter like teaching furniture refinishing.”

No one claims in VT that thinking is teachable in this ‘straightforward matter” at all. How Harry misrepresents the authors’ intentions is simply outstanding. If the quotes above (non-linearity of thinking, complexity of thought processes, aversion to “activity-based” teaching etc.) did not convince you, let me quote more.

The authors identify 6 thinking moves that are integral to understanding:

  1. Observing closely and describing what’s there
  2. Building explanations and interpretations
  3. Reasoning with evidence
  4. Making connections
  5. Considering viewpoints and perspectives
  6. Forming conclusions

“If students haven’t been actively engaged in building explanations, reasoning with evidence, making connections, or having the opportunity to look at things from more than one perspective, then there would likely be significant gaps in their developing understanding.” (p.12)

These can also become assessment criteria in relation to the content the students are exploring – we can analyze the depth of reasoning, or how many connections were made by a student within a topic.

To further emphasize this aspect, the authors quote David Perkins (p.8, Smart Schools, 1992):

Learning is a consequence of thinking. Retention, understanding, and the active use of knowledge can be brought about only by learning experiences in which learners think about and think with what they are learning. As we think about and with the content that we are learning, we truly learn it.”

*On a different note, excuse me again when I disagree with Harry who says that “critical thinking will happen as a result of this knowledge”. If knowledge alone were the sole condition for becoming a critical thinker then we would have only geniuses considering the amount of knowledge that is transmitted in schools in the span of several years. See my other post (Critical Thinking or Opening Pandora’s Box for a rebuttal of this idea).

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

IV. Again, Harry uses Bereiter:

“Thinking doesn’t actually run that way (n.n. as in step-wise procedures). There is a lot of looping back, starting over, jumping ahead and so on.

Harry did not do his reading. Sorry. The authors of Making Thinking Visible are very clear about the interleaving processes embedded in thinking, the complexity of their nature and even the dangers of surface thinking. More, they state that:

“Thinking is a largely internal process. We, as teachers, however, must create opportunities for thinking. For thinking to occur, students must have first something to think about (n.n. content) and be asked to think (n.n. tasks/opportunities).”

Therefore, the VT routines are not content-free. They have the role of making students’ thinking visible so as they can further act upon it; moreover, making student thinking visible enables the teacher to get feedback right on the very ways students process knowledge, how they engage with the content, what misconceptions they have.

Bereiter:

“An important job for the teacher as a party to student inquiry is to ensure there is plenty of looking back and looking ahead. The teacher can help them realize they are making progress: ‘What do we understand now that we didn’t understand last week?’ “  (Wait, a VT strategy that can be used to bring this reflection into focus is “I used to think…now I think.” to make students aware of this shift in knowledge/thinking.)

This is the “coaching” model that Bereiter proposes and Harry seems to agree on. Should I enumerate the ways in which VT routines actually resemble  this model? Moreover, Bereiter encourages the co-participation of students in this process:

“Having students work with more experienced students could also help in developing perspective and expectations.”

I could go on and on to cite from Bereiter and to prove how much he is against traditional teaching. I will stop here though because the focus of my post is another one, not his work. I brought it up briefly just to give you the context in which Bereiter thinks education and because Harry uses him to dismiss Visible Thinking project.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

V. Again, Harry dismisses years of research, stating that “it is circular”.

Well, I don’t know if years of research of the relationship between knowledge-understanding (Bruner, 1973; Skemp, 1976; Wiske, 1997 etc.) or of the distinction surface vs. deep understanding (J.Biggs, 1987; Craik & Lockhart, 1972; Marton & Saljo, 1976 etc.) matter to Harry, but that is irrelevant. Research has been done and Making Thinking Visible authors have over 5 pages of references. So you would have to take the authors’ words or Harry’s personal opinion.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Perhaps I need to write a part 2 of this argument. Perhaps not.

My point is not to convince anyone to use these routines (use whatever approach you think is best) but to argue against a complete misrepresentation of it from one blogger. Critical thinking, aside from its processes (analysis, documentation etc.), relies on objectivity and “good reasons”. That surely does not mean selective use of quotes and decontextualization of arguments to suit a personal belief, especially from someone who praises critical thinking. And if you know me from Twitter you know how skeptical I am of half-baked educational solutions, education snake-oil ( learning styles and the like) and misapprehensions.

And here, for logical fallacies:

https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/

http://www.fallacyfiles.org/

https://bookofbadarguments.com/

Advertisements

8 Responses to “Making Thinking Visible or How to Debate Poorly”

  1. Absolutely brilliant analysis in my view. I am very glad you took the time to write this one and part 2 would be much appreciated if you have the time and inclination. Really enjoyed reading this one.

    It is strange that some bloggers, and Harry is a good example, seem to have unwavering confidence in the quality of their assertions despite the fact that this is usually undeserved. It was quite funny when recently Harry went through a phase of using the word “hubris” to refer to others in every blogpost to emphasise the superiority of his assertions.

    Best blogpost I have read for a long while. If only all blogposts in the edusphere were of this quality.

  2. I too had the same concerns when reading Harry’s original post, boiling it down to the misrepresentation of what VT really is. Yes, there are programs out there that suggest you can teach critical thinking out of context (which I still feel is highly doubtful) and then there are tools and approaches like VT that, when used in the classroom, support in context thinking. The evidence I have seen and heard from colleagues is that VT is no silver bullet but they see benefits to using the ideas in the classroom for their students.

  3. You can definitely see your enthusiasm in the work you write.
    The sector hopes for more passionate writers like you who are
    not afraid to mention how they believe. At all times follow your heart.

Trackbacks

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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: