Classrooms as Think Tanks: Setting the Conditions for a Thinking Classroom Part 1: The Values Causal Model
I spent the first part of my career working industriously to be what I thought was a really good English teacher: I carefully plotted and organized lessons and activities to ensure students could demonstrate their abilities and successfully complete the assignments I’d created for them. I scaffolded, modeled, assessed, coached and corrected. When a student wrote a well-constructed and well-worded argument about a particular text, I felt like I’d done my job. What I rarely felt was surprised.
If you’d asked me in these early days whether my students were thinking deeply about what they were reading and viewing, I’d have answered yes. But, if you’d asked me whether my students’ thinking was innovative, I’m not sure if I could have been so affirmative. Were my students generating new ideas? Were my students leveraging each other’s perspectives to gain new insights? Did I ever read their analyses and think “Wow, that’s a new way to think about this!” I’m ashamed to say that even five years ago, the answers to those questions was “rarely”. I also need to admit that the bulk of the collaboration in my classes was more about a division of labour than about building new thinking together.
Integrative thinking, knowledge building, pedagogies for deep learning – all three of these big ideas behind the current best practices in education have provided me with ways to be surprised by my students’ thinking and to move myself from being the engineer of learning to the facilitator of generative thinking and collaboration. If my classroom before was a well-oiled machine whose goal was to efficiently complete carefully constructed reading and writing tasks, my classroom now is an adaptable think tank whose goal is to collectively generate ideas, check and build upon each other’s thinking, and embrace complexity and innovation. Trust me, this is so much more satisfying and fun!
What I’ve learned over the past five years is that building community with and among your students is the key to setting the conditions for the thinking classroom.
Whether you are playing with integrative thinking, knowledge building, or pedagogies for deep learning, what I’ve learned over the past five years is that building community with and among your students is the key to setting the conditions for the thinking classroom. In this blog post, I’m going to share with you the activity I use at the beginning of each semester to set the conditions for meaningful collaboration and complex thinking: the values causal model.
The Values Causal Model as Ice-breaker
The beauty of ice-breakers is that they show the students you value building community in the classroom; the problem with ice-breakers is that they can rely too heavily on trivial information that, ironically, does little to build meaningful connections, and does little to help students understand themselves better.
The causal model is a key tool embraced by Rotman’s I-Think program to help students map complexity in order to gain insight or ask new questions about a particular event or issue. I saw this tool used in Heidi Siwak’s Grade 6 class many years ago when she asked students to map what causes them to be who they are. I’ve adapted the tool to focus on values. Here’s how it works.
In the centre of the page, you write the effect you want to understand, and then around that effect you write the key causes in separate boxes which are called nodes. You then draw an arrow from the cause to the effect. The next step is to take a node, and then ask “What causes that?” Sometimes you realize that one cause relates to a different node on the model as well as the one you are thinking about. Sometimes you find multiple causes of one node. The goal is not to simplify the causality to find the “right” answer but to generate and then engage with the complexity of an issue.
I start by telling my students the story of my values and where they came from. I place my name in the middle of the page, and then I write six different values around my name. I purposefully include both profound values (like kindness and acceptance) and less profound values (like alternative music). I then tell the story of what caused me to value each of those words using a chain of causality. The students learn, for example, that me valuing acceptance is hugely shaped by my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease, and my dad’s incredible capacity to accept and manage her continually changing reality. What caused him to accept hardship so easily? Well, my dad grew up in England during the Second World War just outside of London, and he learned to cope with the hardships of that time by accepting what he couldn’t change and moving on. Each of my values has three to four nodes showing what happened in my life – and in some cases, other people’s lives – that led me to care about each of those words.
I then ask the students to think about what they value and they start to map where those values came from. Some students have no idea what they value, so we brainstorm lists together. Often students find they need to go home and talk to people – siblings, their parents, a coach – to find out what caused them to value what they value, and this information finds its way onto their causal model.
Sharing Their Models
I have the students create rough drafts and then good copies of their values causal models. In the good copy, students often think about how to organize the causal model to creatively reflect something about themselves, and they also add nuance to their nodes so their causes read more like phrases or sentences than single words. Some students choose to add images or colours to help communicate the story of their values.
I use the “last word” protocol for the sharing session. The students sit in groups of three with their causal models, and student number one has two minutes to share one or more branches of their values. The other two students must listen and the only phrase they are allowed to use is “Tell me more about….” After two minutes, student 2 has the floor and so on. I then rotate the students to different groups and repeat the process as many times as possible until the period is over.
During the next class, we have a conversation about what was interesting about sharing the causal models. A common response is that students are surprised that they learned something completely new about a friend they’d known since kindergarten. Another insight is that the activity allows them to share some pretty deep and meaningful information in a safe way. They like the two-person audience, they like that there are at least eight people talking at once in different groups, and they like the two-minute time limit: all of these elements help the students feel safe. Most importantly, students talk about how this activity highlights that our values are not the “correct” values. It becomes very clear that even though many of the students have grown up together in the same town, there is still great diversity in terms of values, and that is so useful in a class whose purpose is to generate new ideas.
Setting the Conditions For Idea Generation and Meaningful Collaboration
This one activity does so much to set up the conditions for a classroom that values collaboration and thinking. First, the causal model provides a way to embrace complexity. If we are going to create a classroom that values thinking, then we need to deal with complex issues, and the causal model is one tool that provides students a way to wade into complexity with confidence.
Second, I post all the causal models in the room to remind us that we all bring very different experiences and ways of thinking in the classroom, and this is incredibly useful. For example, I can ask the class to find someone with an opposite value to work with to help generate new ideas for a topic, and it’s easy to find that person using the causal models.
And lastly, something we talk about from the beginning of this activity is that all models are limited and incomplete. This causal model captures our best thinking at that time, and it’s important that I show them that I’m in exactly the same boat as them: my thinking is limited by my own values, and I need the class’s diversity to help generate insight.
So, after this activity, we’re on the way to creating our think tank classroom. We have built community by causal modeling our values and sharing those values with each other in a safe way. We’ve played with a tool to help us wade into complexity. And most importantly, I’ve positioned myself as a co-learner and a co-thinker who is excited to have a class of such diverse values together in one room. The think tank is born!
Jennifer Warren has been teaching what she thinks is the most important subject in high school – English – for 22 years at the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. Always passionate about building capacity with her students and with other teachers, Jennifer has built a career engaging with new pedagogies with excitement, wonder, and a sense of play. She has been a department head since 2001, and also supported the growth of pre-service teachers at Brock University for ten years. For the past two years, Jennifer has been a co-facilitator of I-Think’s Integrative Thinking Practicum for educators. Although her curriculum goal is always to build students’ confidence and competence in terms of literacy and communication skills, her true passion is helping students become cognitively flexible critical thinkers who have the skills to embrace complexity and imagine innovative solutions to the world’s current and future problems by thoughtfully seeking out and engaging with multiple perspectives. Follow her on Twitter @warrenhwdsb