Teaching Thinking

There are currently a couple of initiatives at my school that target thinking as a skill; I’ve been fortunate enough to be somewhat involved in both..

One of these is using the Philosophy framework, i.e. Socrates’ “Logos, Pathos, Ethos” to unpack how we think when faced with situations where we need to make decisions or we need to be persuasive. In a nutshell, what is at the forefront is logical reasoning for Logos, emotions for pathos and ethics, character and wisdom drawn from experiences for ethos. This is a simple framework that is very accessible for year 9s to whom this initiative is targeted.

Another one uses the neuroscience framework, i.e. “Pre-frontal Cortex (PFC), amygdala and hippocampus” – parts of the brain. In a nutshell, amygdala is responsible for our ‘flight or fight’ response or when we allow our impulses and emotions to rule our behaviour and thoughts. The hippocampus is in charge of storing our memories, like a scrapbook of our lives. The PFC – which is not fully developed in adolescent brains – takes care of thinking and decision-making and so, moderating our behaviour. This framework is very accessible for year 8s to whom this is targeted.

In Software Design and Development – and really many (all?) subjects, students need to think logically particularly when critically analysing, evaluating and making recommendations. In SDD, we look at software from the perspective of users and developers and yet I’m finding that my students are not leveraging their extensive experience using software to inform their thinking. Seems like such a waste of resource, right?

So, I told them about the 2 frameworks above. The idea is that the frameworks provide them with another way to view contexts. For example, when they struggled to name features of a banking system, a prompt using their own experience in banking opened a flood of features in far greater detail…and stories (gotta love those). A student who often struggles with staying on-task and is regularly disruptive was also quick to change when prompted with “you’re letting your amygdala rule; try a bit more PFC”.

In our last lesson discussing software installation methods, a richer discussion was had as students were challenged to think of examples drawing from their experience and how they may have felt (connecting to another syllabus content: impact of software to users). And so then, the logic of choosing one method over another makes more sense, from a social-ethical perspective. It may well merit adding to my list of ways to teach empathy.

I’m under no illusions of the impact or permanence of these changes.  What I’ve done is planted seeds that I hope to nourish in the next few terms as I help my students face the HSC and the wider world beyond. I’m teaching them to draw deep into resources within themselves as a way to connect beyond themselves (is any other way possible?). Teaching thinking skills is all part of building student agency.

This may be an unconventional approach to teaching the syllabus but for me, it makes sense. It aligns with my own industry experience and consequently, vision of introducing more of humanities into learning about and creating digital technology.

I love teaching girls to code

Tomorrow, my classes and club will begin participating in the NCSS python programming  Challenge 2014. It’s our second year and I’m quite excited as it’s a really fun challenge.

Like last year, I introduced the software programming and design topic using dance; except this time, I actually linked it to computational thinking straight away – decomposition, pattern recognition, pattern generalisation and abstraction, and algorithm design.  Timing was on my side as the year 9s have been learning new dance steps in preparation for the Year 9 dance. Plenty of inspiration in terms of computational thinking processes, value of coding, control structures and even functions…with parameters!

There is so much hype on teaching kids to code – nearly 12 million views of code.org’s What most schools don’t teach and the rise and rise of many learn to code sites. There’s also the impending implementation of the Digital Technologies curriculum, etc. etc. etc. But for me, it’s far more than the hype – I actually love teaching students to code.

Learning to code is more than just about writing code; it’s the least of it, in my opinion. It’s all the other stuff about computational thinking and systems thinking and critical thinking and creative thinking. That’s a whole lot of thinking – and doing – right there!

With computation thinking, I think it’s important to point out that we all do most of this already.. in real life! Think of all the procedural and component-based stuff like recipes and routines we have, for example. What is less common is algorithm design, especially in school where we teach ‘tried-and-tested’ algorithms. This is true not just in mathematics where we teach (and test) mastery of algorithms but also in humanities subjects like English as we teach the “right way” to write essays, for instance. In schools, it’s rare for students to design their own algorithms, their own way of doing things.  Learning to code provides opportunities for algorithm design, encourages it even. And I love it.

Systems thinking is taught in many subjects. We are surrounded by systems. We’re made of systems. But, it’s rare for students to make their own systems. Learning to code provides opportunities for designing systems.

Teaching kids to code can be daunting and having set “courses” do help. Learn.code.org is a good entry point for beginners (students and teachers alike). I also recommend  NCSS python programming  Challenge . Both are challenge-based and fun.

I also think it’s a good idea to expose students to the experience of learning another language, mapping similarities and differences – the meta stuff. This includes reflecting on problem-solving methods and attitude when faced with difficulty.

I enjoy doing the challenges with the students. Sharing the joy of wrestling with knotty problems and working out solutions. I love that I have a window to how they think. I love it when they come up with creative ways of thinking and solving problems. I love that they don’t ask “when I’m I ever going to use this?” because it’s fun just getting through it.  I love it when they teach each other and work together and share frustrations and wins together. This, for me, is the fun stuff…and I’m lucky I get a chance to be part of it because I teach coding.

The best part is that I get to play along.

print (“NCSS 2014, here we come!”);

Why teach Simultaneous Equations?

Questions?photo © 2008 Valerie Everett | more info (via: Wylio)…a Critical Thinking exercise…

Tom Barrett asks the bigger question: “What is the purpose of education?” My limited scope is an attempt to distill many ideas, often incongruent, in a hopefully comprehensible post; I could fail in this attempt.

A bit of Context (optional background info)

I am not an expert on Philosophy or Psychology and often struggle to understand the technicalities. However, wrestling with ideas does not preclude appreciation of nuggets.  These are some I’d like to use as a context for this post.

I like the ideas behind Glasser’s Choice Theory wherein actions (or in-action) are products of choice/decision-making to suit our basic needs: survival, love and belonging, freedom, power and fun.

I also like the ideas of David Seedhouse in his book Ethics: The Heart of Health Care. I have only read Chapter 2 as a necessary background for the Values Exchange Program (also by Seedhouse) I’m involved in. Seedhouse posits that ethics provides a theoretical framework for practical decision-making in professions that affect lives of other people (health care certainly, but easily applicable to teaching). Seedhouse makes a distinction between everyday – what we “use” regularly, sometimes without conscious thought and with inconsistencies – and technical ethics – ethical theories, including utilitarianism, designed by moral philosophers to provide a foundation avoiding the “vagaries of everyday ethics”.  I find most intriguing this idea of deliberative ethics, considering the best ways to achieve the potential of oneself and others.

I have also previously posted on the usefulness of Philosophy in teaching and learning, in particular creative and critical thinking.

Teaching as a practice of deliberative ethics

I follow many educators on Twitter and blogosphere.  The admire the passion voiced by these people who choose to learn, educate, facilitate learning, prepare students to become positive contributors to society, etc. (you get the drift).

With the framework of everyday ethics, contradictions eventually arise as my recent Twitter conversation with Matthew Campbell and Josh Stumpenhorst. I am definitely inclined to think of technology as a tool (a means to an end) just as these guys do. Yet, I argued in this conversation that for some, technology is an end in itself stating as a really good example (I think) Jack Dorsey the co-founder of Twitter – for him, technology is an end to pursue…ok, so it can be used as a tool (re: Gary Stager’s blog post). Notwithstanding my debate with Matthew and Josh, this is a very good illustration of how I contradict myself using everyday ethics as a framework. If I keep using this framework, I’ll drive myself up the wall asking questions like I do.


With the framework of deliberative ethics, however, educators unite in the desire to draw out the potential of learners in our care as well as of ourselves. (I am not going into drawing out “the best” as I have issues with that – subject of another post).  Our own unique deliberative processes – subject to our values (what we hold dear) – inform not just what we teach but how we teach it.

Many issues plague education making educational reform a hot topic, not just in #edchat. Not the least of these are the currency and relevance of the required curricula and focus on standardized testing.  The latter are constraints educators are ever mindful of. To look at it from an everyday ethics perspective is naturally divisive since every sector of society has a different set of values, some contradicting (e.g. every individual is important but not at the risk of maintaining a “good” society).  The point is not to stop the debate but rather to highlight that when we raise our views, we do so in awareness of our deliberative processes AND respect those of others.  Just because we disagree with others does not make their point any less valid than our own.

Why teach simultaneous equations?

Solving Simultaneous equations is part of the required syllabus and included in standardized testing. I can choose otherwise but in fact, I do choose to teach it because I am accountable to teach it – it is the “right” thing to do, as I don’t want my students to miss out.  I have to teach it because one day it could be useful like if some of them end up as engineers.

In short, I teach it because I choose to. BUT, I’ll keep asking why or why not or why else.  Questioning is part of my deliberative process and perhaps one day, it’ll lead to a different answer….or perhaps to no answer at all. I believe @lasic calls that doing philosophy.


Many links have been provided above but many more are absent. Discussions with fellow educators like Bianca Hewes, Mitch Squires, Nathan Hutchings, Tim Milkins, and many more helped me get confused and sometimes understand. Join us in our musings on #42c.

How can we teach critical and creative thinking?

The catalysts for writing this much-procrastinated post are these posts on the same theme by Bianca Hewes (@biancah80) AND this by Giorgio Bertini.

Bianca posed the same question as my title and my immediate answer was – teach them the way you learned to be a critical thinker. Thinking back, I know there were several ways for me though the most influential would be learning Information Systems Analysis and Design and Philosophy (and Theology) – both at college/university level. Let me focus on the latter because G Bertini appears to have successfully used philosophy in his classes.

I did enjoy the content of my philosophical and theological studies, some of which have stayed with me even now (as mentioned in About Me). But, it;s not just the content – largely irrelevant and too abstract for kids younger than 15 perhaps. Philosophy as a study of what is fundamental is a way of learning, so-to-speak.

Here are some practices to foster if we are to teach critical and creative thinking.

It is okay to question

Nothing prepared me when my Philo professor asked, “How do you know you’re real? (differentiate reality to a dream and vice versa)”. I was only 16. Moreover, going to a Catholic university, the last question I expected was “Is God real?”. These are heavy questions to contend with and we did study several discourses to answer them. But for this post, what I want to highlight is that with philosophy, you soon learn it is okay to question. More than okay, it is integral. Questioning is that important to philosophy and critical and creative thinking. Asking “what if” is part-and-parcel of the process.

In teaching maths, I’ve tried to instill in my students that it is okay to question what I say or write – in a polite way, of course. I am fallible.

Adjunct to this is that students must feel safe to question. That involves among other things, no put-downs, follow-up, some fun activities (not all activities must be graded or marked), knowing the kids, teacher as facilitator (don’t let them drown in the unknown).

Find different ways to respond

There’s no point asking questions if there is no intent to find answers. As mentioned, we studied various philosophers and theologians – thinkers. All were logical though I have to admit that in theology, I found the discourses into the existence of God ultimately required a leap of faith.  I doubt that any of those would have convinced an atheist, logical or not. The point is, in order to teach thinking, it must be modeled, preferably in various ways and concretely.

In maths, this can take the form of equations but also of diagrams and reasoning (esp. in Geometry). It is worth showing that sometimes there are multiple methods to arrive at the same answer. I also remember when I told my year 9 class about Descartes (cogito ergo sum***) before launching into a lesson on the Cartesian Plane – they were enthralled; sometimes maths is so abstracted that students forget maths is wrought by human hands, or minds, more like.

Encourage group work

We had a lot of group studies, especially in preparation for oral exams. These group studies showed me how limited my thinking was and how through open discussion my thinking expanded and grew. That was learning with and from others outside of the classroom even.

I find that for younger years, it is easier to assign specific roles to play in group work – especially for assessments. I also like to play around with group sizes; mostly I find 2-3 most workable in maths.


***Descartes said: Cogito, ergo sum.  I think therefore I am. I can doubt everything except for the fact that I am thinking now. Thus, my existence is proven by the mere act of thinking. (my extremely simplified version of Descartes’ philosophy on existence)

Do you think these practices would help?

Technology for learning

Today I saw technology integration in action, twice.

Video Conference

Today I’ve been very fortunate to observe three year 6 classes in a video conference with New Zealand’s Scott Base in Antarctica.

There were  plenty of questions answered by 4 people based at the camp.  One of them modeled the multitude of layers and items they have to wear before they go out. We looked out the window to see the weather conditions live, and with a running commentary.  It was easier to imagine somewhere where zero degrees is mild and there is no night, 24-hour daylight (the reverse is just as weird, 24-hour night in winter) when these scientists talked about these as a matter of fact – another aspect of their working lives.  They constantly reminded us of what it’s like to live in a remote place with hazardous conditions….and the importance of  learning to respect and live by these conditions.

I thought one of the interesting things were (1) how diplomatic they were when asked about global warming and (2) tourists into Antarctica can be a good thing. A student asked about whether or not there are signs of global warming in Antarctica. The reply was that scientists are working together to gather, collate, share and interpret scientific data. With regards to tourists, they mentioned that it is good for people passionate about the environment, and Antarctica in particular, to be able to go there.

Much was learned from this conference, made possible with HD video-conferencing facilities.

Values Exchange Program

It doesn’t end there though. Afterwards, I went to one of these year 6 classes when they started on the Values Exchange program, “a web-based debating and learning system”promoting deep and critical thinking through exploration of social concepts and personal views/values. It is free to sign-up if you want to participate. Otherwise, you can view data which represent real perspectives.

The topic of choice for the year 6 class was whether or not tourists should be banned in Antarctica. I was very impressed by students’ level of engagement in terms of thinking as well as justifying their thinking.

The online program made use of text and visuals, e.g. bar and pie graphs, to help participants along.There was a de-brief at the end; the topic proved to be controversial, i.e. almost a 50-50 split. This de-brief made it clear that everyone can have and justify opinions and, particularly with regards to questions about ethics and values, there is often no right or wrong answer.  

Final words

This post has gone longer than intended. However,  both activities were excellent learning opportunities in themselves and much can be said.  Done together, they were even more powerful; hence, I didn’t want to separate. Anyway, neither would have been possible without technology.  Rather than raise the import of technology, per se, I’d like to highlight rather what good technology integration can do to enhance learning.