What Does Thinking Look Like?

April 25, 2017

I want to talk about thinking as teaching.  Let me start with a story.

One time in office hours, a student proposed an idea for a paper.  I put my chin in my hand, and looked up and to the side for a moment or two, or maybe three.  And because I did not give an immediate response, the student immediately retracted his proposal. "Okay, that was a dumb idea," he said. "No," I assured him, "this is just what thinking looks like."

So that was a revelation to me.  That so much of the time our education is about questions and answers.  And the more quickly the answer follows upon the question, the better that is seen to be. But my goal is different. It is to show in the classroom what thinking looks like. Because, strange as it is, sometimes this is completely absent or unrecognized when we teach and learn within the classroom.

Sometimes thinking looks like pondering.  This is why when there is silence after you ask a question, it might in fact be a sign that it was a very good question and you should respect that silence while students think about it or even say, "I don't want you to answer right away, but just to think about his for a minute." Invite that pondering before asking, "what came to mind as you thought?"

Sometimes thinking looks like emanation. It doesn't know what it wants to say until it discovers something through saying it.  This is why you should encourage participation, even before a student "knows the answer." Trust that she can find the answer by listening to her own voice as she thinks out loud, as the language pulls her thought forward. Tell her to trust that too.

Sometimes thinking looks like structure.  This is why it is good to ask a follow-up question that does not challenge what a student just said, but instead seeks to extend it structurally.  If that is true, what else might be true? If that functions as a cause, what might be the effect? If that is x, then what is y? Build mental models where the next thought comes from former because the structure demands it.

Sometimes thinking looks like variety.  This is why it is sometimes good to invite re-statements, to recognize the value of repetition with a difference. If you ask a question that seems a bit convulated or that makes sense to you but doesn't seem to translate to some others, you can say: can someone else ask that question in a different way? or if a student makes a particularly good point, you can say: can someone say that again? Know that thinking looks different in different minds and that the coalesence of that variety will always be richer for the difference.

When we prepare for class, we are thinking alone and silently. This is true of both students and professors, but in the class, we can model that thinking together. Share it. Prefer process over performance.  We can use active thinking to break down the cones of silence around private preparations. Professors, of course, are professional thinkers and students are novices.  This is why professors must invite students into the practice of thinking together.  We are so much more knowledgable than them that if the only criterion is knowledge, students will forever be on the bottom rung. But if another criterion is thinking in real-time, thinking in public, then we have doubled what we can teach.  

This is what thinking looks like, I told my student. And then his idea grew, and our relationship grew, and he grew, and I grew too. Because I realized that if students see and value the real-time working of the mind, if they see and recognize and aspire to that, they will all the more want the knowledge to think with. And all the more want to be in the classroom and in the company where thinking together happens.