The Thinking Classroom - In Conversation with CAO Will Pierce and Teacher Julie Schwab

The Thinking Classroom challenges the traditional teacher-student dynamic at every level, stressing the most important impact on a student’s learning and growth results from their own thinking and hard work.

Chief Academic Officer Will Pierce said the system-wide model “has been gathering momentum for a long time.” “A Thinking Classroom challenges all 27J classrooms to use strategies that activate students as learners, playing a larger role as thinker and driver of their own learning and challenges our students with higher learning rigor that the new Common Core and Colorado Academic Standards help define,” Pierce said.

Based on the premise that compliant learning no longer work for the student or teacher, thinking classrooms seek to eradicate practices that have produced disengaged and uninspired students; teachers prone to lecturing and over-helping; and systems driven by mandates and guidelines that robbed professional educators of both autonomy and responsibility.

“We have wanted more from our teachers than to talk, test, and grade. We want more from our students than to just show up, be quiet, and do what is told of you. We are preparing our students for a world where we don’t even know what exists,” Pierce said. “Information is everywhere and if we are going to prepare our kids for a successful future, we must have them stop memorizing facts and start thinking about how they may use information to solve complex world problems,” he said. Each district school has latitude in how it approaches and implements the thinking classroom. Every classroom must have clear goals, discernible evidence of growth, and learning experiences that challenge and engage students to participate, ultimately producing a thinking district. While Pierce understands it is human nature to resist drastic change, the lines of communication are open. “In some places, where the teacher is skilled at this practice, kids are responding with great energy, thought, increased responsibility and ownership for their learning. Other students are stunned by the overwhelming idea of responsibility and the expectation of participation,” he said.

He said parents who are also products of the “traditional educational game and struggle with some of the concepts” have come to “love the idea and agree with the philosophy and preparing our kids for a world that don’t yet know.”

Twenty-one-year veteran teacher Julie Schwab is in her 11th year as a fifth-grade teacher in District 27J and her eighth year utilizing the thinking classroom. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 caused a shift in her thinking. “The teacher as ‘the keeper of knowledge’ had to go,” she said. “I had to ask myself whether the learning I was presenting my students was providing them surface knowledge or depth of knowledge? Were the students given the opportunity to meaningfully interact with the content and transfer the knowledge they were acquiring through authentic tasks across the content areas?”

Schwab’s program is gleaned from a range of experts (Benjamin Bloom, Carol Ann Tomlinson, Nancy Johnson, Robert Marzano, Susan Drake, Shari Tishman) in the field of creating classrooms that actively engage students. She said intentionality, purpose and clarity of target are the main elements/objectives of the thinking classroom. “Planning, with the end in mind, the level and the rigor of questions asked is key to the thinking classroom. Identifying the purpose for learning and how I will take students from point A to point Z is necessary in the preparation and planning of lessons and units,” Schwab said.

When students and parents embrace the methodology, results can be transformative. “When given the opportunity to work through the struggle on their own, what the child gains is a new sense of self and what is possible through continual practice, hard work and perseverance,” Schwab said. “As parents watch this magical transformation occur, they themselves are then transformed into believers and advocates of the Thinking Classroom as well.” Pierce and Schwab agreed technology is a complementary piece of the overall plan, used to enhance, inspire and spark creativity in learning.

Does the Thinking Classroom work? The improvement in academic achievement is measurable. Schwab said she has seen consistent gains by all her students on the state assessment (TCAP) with 90 to 100 percent making at least one year’s growth and at least 80 percent scoring proficient or advanced in reading, writing and math. “Outside of state assessments, the quality and depth of thinking in daily student work is quite dramatic,” she concluded.