Tips For Creating a Culture of Thinking to Start the Year

School will be starting soon and we will all be hit with the latest pedagogical trends in an effort to update our practices. There are, however, some things that are universal and transcend trends. Ron Ritchhart raised this question in his plenary talk and, as you can see, it is a fundamental question that gets asked anytime we reflect on our practice: What is the role of teachers?

How you answer this question is highly illustrative of the approach you take in your classroom.

For example, if you believe it is the role of the teacher to push students through the curriculum and its content, you believe in coverage, you will find that most of your assessments are tied to the notion that students need to know stuff and learning is based on what you think about, not on the fact that you think and how you think matters. Those notions may lay outside the scope of your class and are looked towards more as ideals and not as targets. If anything, the constant criticism is yeah, metacognition would be great but we just don’t have time for that. Such arguments are, unfortunately, true considering the burden of standardized testing and the role of standards as the targets for public education.

But what if we weren’t there simply to deliver curriculum? The implication of that notion means that teachers are instruments and their students are subject to their effectiveness. This is the result of the industrial revolution and is an outdated way of conceptualizing education. Teachers become less likely to collaborate with their peers, regarding their lesson plans and practices much like state-secrets (more like nuclear launch codes). Instead, this approach increases competition and makes collaboration filled with more tension as teachers are evaluated based on their student performances and are now being asked to work with others and essentially give up their secrets.

Instead, consider that teachers are not just there to deliver curriculum but instead there to enact curriculum. How does this differ? Enacting a curriculum requires students to become more proactive and responsible for their education, which sounds fantastical, but the way there is to create a culture of thinking in class. Three ingredients are necessary for first establishing this culture:

  1. Develop a sense of respect and familiarity and trust within your classroom. This must take place over time and through repeated actions, which is why activities in the classroom are the best way to do this. Oxytocin is a chemical that the body naturally releases whenever we feel safe and among friends and those we trust. This amazing chemical can even be passed along through observation – if someone does a small act of charity, the person performing it and the person receiving it also gets a dose of oxytocin. What is even more amazing is that those witnessing the act also get a shot of oxytocin. In fact, the higher the levels of oxytocin, the more empathic people become!
  2. Establish a growth mindset through assessment protocols ad procedures. Use formative and summative assessments instead. This allows students to demonstrate a snapshot of where they are in their learning as opposed to being at a certain point. This will require a shift from coverage and delivery to cognition and processing. It will also stress process over product. (See Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success as a starting point).
  3. Allow routines for reflection and discussion. If you have a safe and open environment where students are comfortable and you allow them to demonstrate their mastery as an ongoing process, where thinking routines allow for metacognition, then the reflection and discussion will spring up naturally. If the shift can be done from coverage to cognition, to focus on understanding over regurgitation, then all of this will happen organically.

These ingredients need to be actively put into place and underscored each day. The activities in class, the opportunities for learning to take place, need to be in alignment with this way of teaching. If this does not occur, no matter what strategies are shared at the beginning of the year, it could possibly end in failure and frustration. That result will only further distance those who are dubious in trying new things and revert the system back to its default nature.

Give 1 Get 1 Activity

Here is a little activity that could be quite effective in helping develop this culture of thinking in class. It requires students to get out of their comfort zones, but also gets them talking. It could be repurposed for a beginning of the year activity.


  • Must write down 3 ideas (which responds to a given prompt or topic)
  • Find one of these ideas and share with someone else in the room
  • Can’t be “local”, have to move around the room
  • When sharing, can’t use the same idea as your partner

As a result of this activity, students will essentially trade ideas with one another and will gain more depth of understanding around a given topic while also developing listening skills. There are many ways to adapt this activity – share yours!