Collaboration & Web 2.0 | Viewpoint

Technology & Teaching Tomorrow's Thinkers

As educators, we are called upon to challenge the way students already think and guide them into new patterns or ways of thinking as required, in order for them to grasp central concepts and applications of learning. Collaborative technologies, while not central to the process, can help facilitate this core function of education.

How we think is critical to how we perceive the world, how we react to events or challenges, and how we approach problems, questions, and even life itself. As educators, developing the thinking of our students within the various subject areas or professional skills that we teach is central to the success of our students. Their thought patterns will influence students in how they respond to challenges or create new ideas and new knowledge, and that, in turn, will be helpful to them as ongoing students and ultimately as long term employees.

The study of human thought is vast and ultimately falls into two main areas of inquiry--scientific cognitive functions and sensory-based reactions and emotions or socially constructed cognition (Resnick et al., 1991) and educators address both. Additionally, there are many "influences" that help construct how we think and learn. Arguably, new technology has influenced more in recent years than any other societal influence. The reality is, however, most educators are not scientific researchers of human thought but understand that every student is different and has distinct patterns of thought which have emerged from a variety of influences. As educators, we are called upon to challenge critically the way students already think and guide them into new patterns or ways of thinking as required, in order for them to grasp central concepts and applications of learning.

Developing Thought Patterns
It is important for educators to understand the patterns of thinking, although strong, are not non-negotiable. It is quite possible to change totally how someone thinks about a topic or even a belief through critical stimulation and challenge. These challenges, however, should not be based on personal agenda or bias but rather on the formations of disciplined thinking. That is, there are ways in which scientists view and react to the world. There are also ways in which historians view the world and capture and articulate their thinking regarding world events past or present. Musicians and mathematicians differ in how they think as formed by their respective disciplines. While we want to support as general an approach as possible to learning throughout K-12 and then through the formative college years, within that general framework there are various patterns of thinking that students should be introduced to and their minds opened to so that they can understand the concepts being taught.

Math was not one of my strong subjects in grade school, and I know the major problem was that I was not taught how to think as a mathematician. I was presented with a variety of equations to memorize and problems to solve without really understanding the best way to approach the problems or why the equations were important and how they were set. In other words, I was not taught math but only how to manipulate some numbers and logical sequences within set parameters. Also as a result, I could not apply those memorized sequences into alterative contexts because I really did not understand the foundational concepts of what I was thinking through.

Additionally, if a student is asked to write a paper or create an art portfolio for specific subject areas, it is vital that teachers help form their thinking in how to approach the task, what constitutes a central rather than a peripheral idea within that discipline, and how to legitimize ideas within specific disciplines. Stimulating and fostering critical and discipline-specific ideas does not mean encouraging students to produce whatever sounds or feels good to them. Rather it is informing students about the expectations and patterns of thought within that discipline.

The following is an interesting approach to this challenge in the area of middle school Math teaching. This example is taken from "Uncovering student thinking in mathematics: 25 formative assessment probes," by Cheryl M. Rose, Leslie Minton, and Carolyn Arline. In this book, the authors suggested the importance of supporting students in their thinking around and through a specific math challenge. The math topic being taught is symbolic representation. The authors promote the necessity of helping students understand the role of the symbol as well as its function in an equation.

Their teaching methods include:

  • Provide experience or practice in what is required;
  • Explain concepts within real-world contexts;
  • Have students provide their own definition of variables;
  • Provide students with opportunities to create other representations; and
  • Use group discussions to reach consensus about word meaning.

What is interesting about this process is that it is student-centered and is also focused entirely on thought patterns and how students' thinking must be formed within this specific discipline. It then becomes more about how something is thought through than reaching a right answer quickly. Additionally, by understanding the concept of representation in Math, the students are able to apply the central concept to a variety of meaningful contexts.

Facilitating Thinking
More often than not when we refer to facilitation as educators, we are referring to supporting students as they learn rather than imposing ourselves on to the learning process. The facilitation of thinking, however, is more difficult to achieve and requires both intentionality and patience. To actually influence the thinking of another human being within a content area is quite a challenge. It is much easier to quickly provide answers to problems or project our own way of thinking on to the students. So, rather than react to a student's thinking as being incorrect or misleading, the challenge is to encourage the student to continue to think through the challenge until the connections are made and the solutions reached. Trevor Bond (2009), an educator from New Zealand, has created a Web site to promote his approaches and methods for the facilitation of thinking, developing research skills in students, and his overall methodology for inquiry-based learning. Bond's suggestions regarding the challenging of the facilitation of thinking are interesting:

I believe most teachers have fairly extensive and detailed maps of curriculum areas in their heads. These conceptual maps allow them to look at individual children (or cohorts of children), evaluate strengths and weaknesses, and determine needs and next learning steps. Many teachers however would struggle to do this in the area of thinking. This is not meant to be a derogatory statement; rather it is a simple function of a new and changing focus on thinking. Most of our teachers have limited and sparse conceptual maps of thinking. They are in fact moving into new and relatively unexplored territory. If we are going to effectively target the deliberate facilitation of thinking as a corporate exercise then our schools really need to develop commonly held maps of thinking. We need to do some serious reflection and discussion about thinking to help us develop and flesh out our conceptual maps of thinking. (Facilitating Thinking)

Here Bond refers to how intentional the process should be. And while we may differ as to what those maps of thinking should be (several examples on his Web site), my sense is that rather than facilitate right answers as the sum total of learning, we must begin to grapple with the challenges of developing the kinds of thinking skills students will need for future relevance and success.

Accommodating New Ideas
It is interesting how we want students to think in new ways and to develop new thoughts when there is little room to accommodate these in the preset curricula we handle. Some of that is beyond our control, but some of it is definitely within our control. Why is it that we do not make use of the new thoughts students produce in a meaningful and enlightened manner? The National Center for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM) identified the process from assimilation to accommodation; that is, acquiring new ideas for me as an individual that, in turn, my mind accommodates as my own way of thinking:

There is no clear line between assimilation and accommodation, for an ongoing process of assimilation may result in an accommodation. The terms are useful however, for reminding yourself what it is you are expecting of learners. Furthermore, if new ideas are presented as minor 'assimilations' to existing thinking, learners may not undertake to work at the new ideas. For example, starting a new topic with easy examples that can be achieved without using the new ideas may lead learners into believing that there is nothing new in the new topic. (National Center for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics)

This is where academic rigor becomes so important. It is vital to keep learning going for students and not create the perception that knowledge is completely contained within the parameters of a set course and that there is nothing else to learn beyond that. Rather we should help students understand the extent of the thought process and how, once fundamentals are grasped, new ideas can emerge that can then be assimilated into their knowledge framework so that new ideas can emerge again, and so on.

Teaching Argument and Debate
The University of Pittsburgh has a very helpful outline of the importance of debate and argument and how to develop these skills in students. The following was posted on the university's Web site:

Deliberation is the collaborative process of discussing contested issues by considering various perspectives in order to form opinions and guide judgment. Effective deliberation incorporates sustained and appropriate modes of argumentation. Deliberative practices can take many forms--from discussions, to role-playing exercises, to formal debates. All of these activities lead to exploring differing perspectives and informing various decisions. (University of Pittsburgh)

Further, the site offered the following as the basic components of argument and debate:

  • Contest issues: Deliberation involves a controversy or unsolved problem in need of resolution.
  • Exchange opinions: Deliberation is not individual monologues but a substantial consideration of ideas by multiple group members who advance different perspectives.
  • Reflect: Deliberation encourages members to acknowledge others' viewpoints and consider them in relation to their own viewpoint. The inability or unwillingness to consider opposing viewpoints leads to uninformed, and often indefensible, resolutions.
  • Synthesize: Deliberation combines and builds upon individual contributions to create intellectual activity greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Reform opinions: Deliberation between individuals sparks deliberation within themselves, challenging and expanding their opinions on issues.
  • Judge: Deliberation fosters conclusions on critical issues.

Again, this is a process and one that continues regardless of the discipline you are teaching. The reason for this is that students should be able to articulate their ideas within a relevant context of meaning and defend those ideas with supporting documentation or other evidence so that their ideas are legitimized and useful to others.

Why Technology Helps
Although technology is not necessary to achieve these outcomes of developing effective thinkers, it can help a great deal to facilitate the process.

New technology is about connection, networking, collaboration, and mobility. All of these merely enrich the learning potential rather than diminish it for students. That is, ideas can be articulated and shared not only within a class, but networks can be created that will connect students with a wider community of learners that will both enlighten and challenge their own thinking. The challenge is to teachers to think through the potential of the technology fully grasping what the Internet actually is and what it is capable of, including facilitating wider communities of learning than ever before possible.

Additionally, the Internet provides a place for students to publish their ideas, which means they are already being assimilated by readers. This challenges students beyond simply producing work for their teacher to review. Additionally, students can use blogs and Wikis to extend their influence and ideas by continuing to post and explore well beyond the end of a course. The concept of building knowledge bases using wikis is vital here. By contributing equally to a wiki, new ideas can be assimilated quickly and also accommodated through use and context. This democratization of the learning space is crucial to increase collaboration and also redefine it in terms of building new knowledge and application.

Current research is telling us that thinkers and knowledge workers are those who employers will be looking for and who can take us well into the future; students who can only read and reproduce existing information do not have the skills necessary to think us beyond what we are currently doing and into where we need to be. Current technology provides many tools that can provide the kinds of working spaces, collaborative projects, and connections that will facilitate the scope necessary to build communities of learning within which students can grow their own ideas and challenge the thinking of others.

The real challenge is moving teachers beyond information exchange and forward to the development of effective thinkers.


LB Resnick; JM Levine; SD Teasly (1991). Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition. Ch. 1 - Shared Cognition: Thinking as a Social Practice. American Psychological Association.