Creating Cultures of Thinking

Jaclyn Zarrella

To realize curricular goals and deep learning, educators must attend to the cultural forces that shape a student’s educational experience. By engaging with the book, Creating Cultures of Thinking, our faculty considered how we shape our learning culture for the students through the outlined eight forces we must harness to build strong group culture.



This summer, the entire field faculty, including our non-teaching faculty, read the book Creating Cultures of Thinking by Ron Ritchhart, a senior research associate with Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. This book centers on the idea that to realize curricular goals and deep learning, educators must attend to the cultural forces that shape a student’s educational experience. By engaging with this book, our faculty considered how we shape our learning culture for the students through the outlined eight forces we must harness to build strong group culture. As lifelong learners, we were able to turn these lessons inward toward our collaborative practices and apply Ritchhart’s research to our instructional design and classroom communities. So far this year, observed our faculty integrating these concepts integrated into their regular practice in the classroom.  

Below are three key quotes from the summer reading and examples from Field faculty members putting this into practice.

Chapter Two: Expectations

Key Quote: “We teachers must have expectations that focus our teaching–for instance, the expectation that school will be about learning rather than the mere completion of work and merely accumulating enough points to score a top grade. Likewise, when we hold the expectation that understanding is a chief goal of learning and take students further and demand more of them than solely focusing on the acquisition of knowledge and skills, then our teaching becomes focused on deep rather than surface learning.”

Seeing it in the classroom:
I have the pleasure of teaching History 11. Junior year is a challenging year to cultivate and maintain a culture of learning over grades. With college admissions looming, the letter-based performance indicator often overshadows the joy and intrinsic motivation of learning. This year also represents an increase in challenge as we prepare our students for more independent learning in the future. In recent parent-teacher conferences, there was a shared excitement for the level of challenging and engaging work in the classroom.

I recently observed a troubling pattern that the students were approaching the reading as compulsory and frustrating and ultimately losing sight of the true purpose of the important historical questions within the readings. Last week in class, we met this misalignment of values head-on and resolved to center our actions, both their approach to the challenging work and my design of lessons and assignments, on a shared purpose of learning history. We created new norms that would guide our actions in the classroom by addressing the culture of our learning space. This renewed sense of partnership did not involve altering the level of challenge. Still, it opened the conversation to HOW we engage in the work and what access and scaffolds were necessary to meet high expectations when paired with appropriate support. This link shows the process my class went through to engage in this collaborative experience while maintaining expectations, and these are the new class norms crafted by the students.

Chapter Five: Modeling

Key Quote: “Often [modeling is] limited to instructional modeling, the “Now watch me and I’ll show you” kind of modeling. Instructional modeling certainly has its place, but it isn’t really a shaper of culture. The kind of modeling that creates culture is more subtle, ubiquitous, and embedded. Students know if a teacher is passionate about a topic, interested in ideas, engaged as a learner, reflective, and deliberate. Furthermore, teachers often find that students respond to authenticity better than they do false bravado.”

Seeing it in the classroom: Building off the last example, we as teachers need to view iteration and revision not as a fault but as a best practice. Being transparent about our life-long love of learning is most authentic when explicitly demonstrated in class. This year we have a new history elective in the 12th grade titled “History of World Cinema.” The teacher, David Kongstvedt, has a depth of knowledge and boundless passion for cinematic history and the analytical lens one can bring to historical moments through art created for the silver screen. However, he made an important discovery in the first few weeks of the course. His carefully designed course was not aligned with the needs of the students in his class. David got to work revising the lessons and openly engaged with the students about his revisions, why he made them, and how they best fit their needs. This authenticity demonstrated his ultimate goal of student learning and showed his students the power of revising our work to meet our ultimate purpose. 

Walking the halls of The Field School, you will see this practice every day. It is present in the classroom pivot of a carefully designed lesson that is falling flat. The willingness to say, "that is such a good question; I'm not sure about the answer; let's find out together" is a valuable tool. It is a teacher bringing in a source from their recent grad school class or an article they read to discuss their learning and encourage further questions that matters. The structure of graphic organizers changes over time as we observe what the students need and talk them through the changes as we make them. It is important to integrate habits of mind practices into our daily routines and normalize the experience for the students so that they then receive these practices as normal in their lives.

Chapter Seven: Routines

Key Quote: “Classrooms and groups are dominated by routines, often invisible to outsiders. This is why it is often difficult for new teachers to learn classroom management and organization from experienced teachers. [While] creating patterns of behavior is important…this must extend beyond managerial concerns. We must also establish learning and thinking routines in our classrooms that offer students known structures within which to operate and tools that they can take control of and use for their own learning.”

Seeing it in the classroom:
Thinking routines and learning routines are utilized broadly in Field classrooms. After reading this book, several faculty members resolved to select more effective reflective practices and routines in their classes to build student awareness of their learning process. At the beginning of the school year, faculty members articulate a SMART goal to focus their professional development and growth for the year. An example of a faculty goal on this topic is: “I will shift the conversation away from grading toward learning through the implementation of consistent visible learning strategies that aid in student metacognition and empower them to articulate their learning process and identify concrete steps they can take in the future.” This teacher implements regular strategies, including "What makes you say that" as a typical response. This strategy helps her middle school students further explain their thinking and provides clear structures. It also allows sentence starters like "I heard you say" to encourage active listening during class discussions. These thinking routines require students to develop their reasoning skills and the process to be visible and audible to each other.

Ron Ritchhart builds the case for "enculturation” as essential to deep learning, habits of mind, and dispositions needed in a changing world. However, it is not enough to subtly do these things. We need to be loud and explicit with our learning community to understand why and how these practices work. Every history department meeting starts with the same routine we call "spotlights on practice." Our department commitment comes straight from Ritchhart: "This is a place in which the group's collective as well as individuals' thinking is valued, visible, and actively promoted as part of the regular, day-to-day experience of all group members." (Ritchhart, p.31) In this bi-weekly meeting, we amplify and make visible our continued work in creating cultures of thinking in our classrooms and celebrate each other's efforts as we create, adapt, and innovate. The more we do this with each other, the more we utilize this process with the students, which leads to students using this technique in the future.
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