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A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

Teaching Kids To Think

One of the most difficult things to do in the classroom is to draw kids into a rich discussion in which they feel comfortable enough to risk being wrong and to show their thinking. It is often a little uncomfortable for kids to stretch their thinking skills. Many think this is hard work.

The truth is that most kids do the hard work every day. They just do not do that hard work with critical content. They do it with video games and puzzles and daily problems they solve using thinking skills. The trick is to make those problem solving and thinking skills visible to the students so that when they encounter similar problems they can use the same skills to solve them.

This visible problem solving is usually most familiar in math.  When a student learns about percentages they become more and more adept at using that kind of fractional thinking to solve all sorts of problems. We do not usually make thinking as visible in science.

In the lab, the question I most frequently ask is, “Tell me how you figured that out?” Second is, “give me the evidence that supports what you are telling me.” Both questions help the kids to make their thinking visible. They also help the students to repeat and sometimes examine their thinking for strengths and flaws.

We have been experimenting with bubbles to explore the visible spectrum. In one experiment I ask the students to blow a large bubble on a flat table top and watch the bubble to see if you can identify a pattern to see when the bubble is going to pop. Many students watch the size, some watch specific colors and few see the black spots begin to emerge to give evidence that the bubble film is getting too thin to reflect light. Some students will focus only on their won experiment. Good problem solving technique would have the students ask others what they are seeing. Some students do this naturally and others have to be prompted to compare results. One of the cornerstones of scientific inquiry is to examine the work of others and to consider alternative explanations.

Asking each student to construct a simple flow chart of what they did and what they found out at each step is a good way to make the thinking visible. When the students post their flow charts they can then examine how others approached the problem and see which ones produced the richest observations or the best evidence. I often ask students to begin this process by construction a flow chart of solving a problem that is more simplistic and directly related to their life. Some have used problems with siblings, decisions like which class to take and even mechanical problems when there is something wrong with a device. These flow charts reveal thinking and then the students can use similar thinking in solving science problems. They can do this more easily when they see the process in the flow charts.

To expand and stretch the thinking skills it is necessary for students to engage problems that are a bit difficult to solve. I like to use, at the middle school level and higher, problems with more than one variable. The classic math example is a problem where the student has to decide what cell phone service to buy based on their text and voice needs. In science most labs have more than one variable. The trick is to keep it complex enough to challenge the students and still simple enough for the student to be successful.

The weather provides excellent content for problem solving. Students may need to look at the temperature, wind and precipitation to decide on what clothing to wear. In the studies on weather predicting the weather involves knowing how weather systems move (west to east usually) and knowing a bit about highs and lows.

A great WIKI about weather prediction can be found at:
NOVA has an exceptional web site with a connection to the weather associated with tornadoes:

Weather is engaging content and that is a critical piece of getting kids to think. They will persevere when the content is interesting. Then, once they learn the thinking skills they can apply those same skills with content that is not as eye popping.

The truth is that students come equipped ready to think. Our task is to give them engaging science problems to let them practice that thinking and to give them a safe place to embrace and examine their confusion. Often, students have preconceptions about the natural world that are not accurate and they hang onto these preconceptions and misconceptions tenaciously. To get them to construct more accurate understandings of the science they need to have opportunities to confront those preconceptions and think through why these may not be correct.

For that reason I think that error analysis is a key in thinking skills. I often would run through labs and not take enough time to ask the students to look at their results and examine their work for possible sources of error. This is more appropriate for middle school and higher. But, even lower elementary students can be asked to stop and take another look.

In each flow chart we do in my class I ask the students to include a box for error analysis. Often the richest thinking insight comes from this visible link in the process of problem solving. There are several good sites that dissect error analysis to even a smaller grain size:

It is important to remember that not all errors are mathematical. Most errors seem to stem from poor observation, not paying attention to all of the factors in an experiment or from making assumptions that are not supported with enough evidence.

To get started try the flow chart. From there the process will take on a life of its own and it is all good for producing better thinking skills in our students.


Shannon C ‘de Baca is a passionate educator who teaches at Iowa Learning Online. Visit her blog at 

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