Thursday, January 18, 2007


Well, it's the start of a new semester, and I am once again working with students who have had a variety of different teachers during the first half of our Sophomore English course. There is a common course description, a fairly well-articulated statement of purpose, and a common rubric for evaluating essays. We teach a number of major texts in common. We meet regularly to compare notes and share ideas. And yet it should surprise no one that in a school with 450 students and up to nine teachers at each grade level, despite all these commonalities, the students entering my class at the beginning of the new semester arrive with widely varying sets of skills and understandings. Since the course designed to have a strong critical thinking course, it is up to me to try to pull together some threads that will help the students individually and also help to build some common understanding of what we are doing and why we are doing it.

I've evolved a number of, well, I need a term here, so I guess I'll call them thinkertools, that I wind up introducing to the students and then reinforcing through various activities through the course of the semester. My hope in this post is to come up with at least a preliminary listing of some of those tools, with a brief explanation of each.

Phrase Your Lack of Understanding as a Question: Many times students encounter something they don't get and respond by saying either "I don't understand," or "This doesn't make sense." (Or worse, "This is dumb.") None of these responses are useful, because none lead anywhere. When a student says, for example, "I don't understand Holden," my automatic response is "Can you phrase what you just said as a question?" Being able to ask the right question, in my experience, puts you well on the way toward an answer. And sometimes, the best questions don't have a single answer, or, for that matter, any answer, but the questions are still worth asking because of the thought processes they engender. (See the Chekhov quote in the sidebar for an elegant statement of this position.)

Question-Based Strategic Thinking: Having come up with a good question, consider as many answers as you can think of, even if they initially look like dead ends: A1, A2, A3, A4...A27. Once the list is out there, you can select, or, if necessary, invent a way of rank-ordering the answers based on whatever criteria are relevant: evidence, adequacy, simplicity (other things being equal, simple answers trump complicated answers). The Future Problem Solving Program has adapted and formalized this kind of process to their scenario competitions, and it's surprising how adept even very young students can become at using it.

Assess Your Current Situation: Three powerful questions that are relevant in any situation are: "Where am I now? Where am I trying to get to? How might I get there?" Whether you're writing an essay or reading a poem or considering where your relationship with your significant other is headed, these questions are worth visiting, and re-visiting.

The Sideways Move: Good thinkers have the ability to shift their point of view. The trigger for the move is some set of words like "Everything we've said so far is true, but there's another way of looking at it." Then consider—or invent—one.

Balance Generalizations with Specifics: The writer's cliché is "Show, Don't Tell." Much student thinking, like most of what passes for thinking in matters of public discourse, consists of what I have come to call BUGs—Big Unsupported Generalities. Like the sentence I just wrote. The next move, for balance, might begin with, "For example..." No one can be specific all the time. But it's useful for students to be aware of when they are generalizing and when they are being specific. As a writing teacher, I would say that I spend about half of my energy helping students figure out what to cut, and most of the other half encouraging them to push down a level or two on the ladder between BUG's ("Life is just a bowl of cherries") and minute specifics (A randomly selected sentence from The Lay of the Land: "The white-capped bay surface reveals, at a distance, only a single wet-suited jet-skier plowing and bucking along, clinging to his devil machine as it plunges, wave into steely wave.")

Write Your Way Through It: I've come to believe that writing is perhaps the single most powerful self-instructional tool we possess. Most students assume that in order to write you have to first know what you have to say. Sometimes you do. But writing can also be a way to generate thought. Five-minute or ten-minute freewrites allow half-formed thoughts and hunches begin to evolve a form. Writing makes thinking hold still. Writing out your first thoughts makes it possible to arrive at second thoughts.

Converse. With Yourself, If Necessary: Each semester I make a point of having students at various times interview one another in pairs, with one partner being responsible for keeping the other one talking by pumping him/her with questions. Then I ask them to go home and write a dialogue in which one person questions the other about whatever the topic was. The results of this exercise (samples here and here) are always vibrant and interesting and alive in ways that student writing too often is not. One powerful way to generate solid thinking is to interview yourself: ask the questions you have, and give the answers that you can come up with. You will in all likelihood surprise yourself.

There are, of course more. But this is the start of an inventory: what's in my toolbox.

(Photo by Alfredo Hisa).