The links between student thinking and achievement

If thinking is central to the learning process, then we would expect expert teachers would have a lot to say about their students’ thinking, and how important it is to get their students to think. Hattie concluded that highly effective teachers make sure they understand what their students are thinking and what are their goals and desires. In Loughran’s view, expert teachers would help students develop their higher-order thinking and metacognitive skills. In this section, we discuss what our expert teachers think about their students’ thinking.

Australian expert teachers and student thinking - working with strengths and vulnerabilities

Expert Australian teachers rarely link intelligence with thinking. The only exception is one teacher stating that ‘intelligence is time spent thinking’. In his view, when a student spends more time thinking about a topic or the problem at hand, they are demonstrating a higher level of intelligence. In this example, ‘thoughtful contemplation’, rather than speed of learning, is considered to be more important. It is also clear that these teachers do not consider the memorisation of facts to be reflective of thinking.

Certainly, all Australian teachers are concerned when students don’t ‘get it’. However, the teachers also believe that students need to develop their own understanding of the subject and why it is important to them. Without referring directly to ‘constructivist’ models of learning or the development of unique schemas, these teachers are aware of individual differences in student learning; however, they are not overly concerned with students being able to ‘learn’ a pre-determined set of facts, procedures or skills.

What is interesting is that these teachers not only want their students to create their own understanding of what is being done in class but also to develop a sense of its personal relevancy. These teachers provide opportunities in their classes for students to talk about things that mean ‘a lot’ to them. For example, one teacher says, ‘In order to facilitate their thoughtful understanding, I’ll often pose questions such as “Well, why do you think we study the holocaust?”’

These teachers spend a significant proportion of time ensuring that their students cultivate a sense of personal relevancy. A teacher says that one strategy is to ask students to ‘find something that they’re interested in and ... make sure you do twenty minutes of reading every day or something like that or a little bit of writing for those kids that need to develop fundamental skills.’

Almost all teachers believe that in order to develop their students’ thinking, it is important to know and work with each student’s ‘strengths and vulnerabilities’. However, an understanding of their students’ strengths and vulnerabilities does not come easily, and in one way or another, the teachers would spend a great deal of time building strong relationships with their students. The teachers explain that when students reveal their strengths and vulnerabilities, it is an expression of a mutual trust between the teacher and their students which, in turn, depends on strong relationships. For these teachers, the involvement of parents and other caregivers is an important aspect of this relationship. Many teachers declared that it is also important that teachers are able to express their own strengths and vulnerabilities with their students.

Finally, several teachers believe that students like to compare their thinking with other students rather than compare their thinking with their teacher. For example, one teacher explains that students are keen to see how other students solve problems because they want to compare their processes with other students.

Finnish expert teachers thinking about personal relevancy

Despite having a view that there are many types of intelligence, the Finnish expert teachers would rarely link intelligence with thinking and, in this regard, are similar to those from Australia. When the Finnish teachers do reflect on their students’ thinking, there are a number of similarities with the Australian teachers.

The first similarity is the need to help students find the personal relevancy of the material that is being taught. For example, one teacher says that they ‘would like my students to process their knowledge and understand why do they need this and where they can use this knowledge ...’

Another teacher tries to make any new knowledge ‘meaningful’ and, in some way, ‘touch their lives’. This sentiment is echoed when another teacher declares that it is important not to focus on the ‘trivial’ but, instead, establish the ‘importance’ of what they are learning. Yet another teacher explains that ‘students need to understand why they are learning something and how it is related to their own life ... ’

To encourage students to think, the Finnish teachers use a number of strategies that require students to solve problems and apply their knowledge in new contexts and modes. For example, one teacher advocates the use of drawings rather than text-based tasks to both encourage and demonstrate the thinking of some students. Other strategies include asking students to teach other students, using guided questions in small discussion groups, and encouraging students to develop their own learning goals and criteria for success.

Underpinning the teachers’ strategies to encourage thinking is the need to have a deep understanding of their students. One teacher expresses it as ‘growing’ with her students, while another says that it takes time to know and understand ‘how students think’ before supporting them. Finally, another teacher believes that it is essential to encourage students to talk about their lives in order to assist them to learn.

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