Science of Learning: Planning our Thinking

Engaging in higher order thinking is not a random process. One of the hallmarks of higher order thinking is that the thinking is directed toward accomplishing something. In order to direct our thinking, we must plan so that we have a direction to go. Our cognitive flexibility and willingness to correct means that our plans are not rigid, but must include the ability to change direction as the process unfolds. We can see how this works in our own studies. We can have a task or problem that we are going to work on, and as we proceed, we know that there will be changes in direction as we gain a greater understanding of what it is that we are trying to accomplish.

In our planning, we decide what it is that we are trying to accomplish, how we are going to approach the problem, what we already know about the problem, and what we are going to have to do in order to complete the task. Built into the plan, as stated above, are contingencies and a constant review as we proceed in order to ascertain if we are still going in the right direction if new evidence, obstacles or other unforeseen challenges arise that will prevent us from achieving our goal.

How do we provide our students with the incentive to plan their thinking? One of the ways that is effective is by having regular tasks for them to accomplish that are laid out for them from the very beginning of a class. I find that if I leave my students to find and plan their own short pieces of work over the course of a semester, I see a plan emerge as they progress. In the beginning, their work is a bit random, but as they proceed, I begin to see a pattern emerging that tells me where the student is going. As they find new evidence and as their peers provide new evidence to them, I watch with interest as their focus often shifts to encompass new directions in thinking.

Something else that I observe is that when a student takes a class from me a second (or third) time, they begin the semester with a plan clearly laid out. I can see it unfold right from the beginning. At the same time I smile when I see their direction change as they really dig into the evidence for their chosen topic. As an example, I had a student a couple of years ago begin the semester with a piece about learning styles. The next week, after I had commented on his piece about the need for him to provide robust evidence for his thinking, he wrote a piece about how wrong he had been all those years while he was in schooling, and how wrong the teachers had been for pigeonholing him with a learning style. He then spent the next few weeks working through the evidence and implications of his newfound knowledge. He had planned, but he had the flexibility and the willingness to self-correct that meant he could completely change direction when the evidence demanded it. I could have stood in front of a class and lectured them about the folly of learning styles, but his own research had a much greater impact on both himself and his fellow students who had to comment on his work and give him evidenced feedback than anything I could have said. A plan that changed, but a plan nevertheless.

However we can get our students to plan, we need to do it. Planning is, really, the first principle of all higher order thinking skills. In order for our students to be able to direct their thinking, we must help them learn how to envision a goal and map out a plan to arrive there.

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