Thinking to Learn

Ms Alison Dare, Director of Humanities

‘Knowing is how we make community with the unavailable other, with realities that would elude us without the connective tissue of knowledge. Knowing is a human way to seek relationship and, in the process, to have encounters and exchanges that will inevitably alter us. At its deepest reaches, knowing is always communal’.

Palmer, P. 1998, 55


In my conversations with parents, the most common diagnosis of their daughters’ performance I find myself making is in relation to their thinking. I hear myself making the same kinds of suggestions: approach texts more critically; look for implicit (not just explicit meanings); go beneath the surface; and be creative in synthesising ideas. Inevitably, the question that I am almost always asked in response to such statements is ‘how might this be achieved?’

Why are some students better at this than others? Is it just a question of age and maturity levels, in which case, they will inevitably improve over time? What am I, as their teacher, doing to assist their daughters to become deeper, more critical thinkers?

Unlike acquiring facts, (an aspect of learning that is still crucial), learning to think (and indeed thinking in order to learn) is not something that can be packaged neatly and delivered in a straight line of transmission from teacher to student. Even if learning was only concerned with the assimilation of information, as was the case in industrial times, the way in which students learn has never been completely straightforward. I am often amused when I encounter past students who tell me what it is they remember about my classes—it seems that the content areas of the subject are infused with the incidental, off-topic stories told by the teacher and the various relationship dynamics in the class. If I think back to my own school days, I can say that this is also true of my own experience.

In the early 20th century, American philosopher and educator, John Dewy, explored the way in which students learn to think. In the context of the relationship between democracy and education he asserted, ‘society not only continues to exist by transmission by communication, but it may fairly be said to exist in transmission, in communication’ (1916, 28). In a classroom setting, it is the multi-faceted communication between teacher and student (and among students themselves) that leads to a shared understanding rather than a simple transactional passing of information from one to the other. This shared understanding, Dewey states, ‘cannot be passed physically from one to another like bricks; [it] cannot be shared as persons would share a pie by dividing it into physical pieces. The communication, which ensures participation in a common understanding, is one that secures similar emotional and intellectual dispositions—like ways of responding to expectations and requirements’ (1916).

In essence, Dewey was suggesting that learning is an inherently social activity. It is in that mysterious space between teacher and student (as opposed to from teacher to student) where deep thinking and learning is developed. Because learning and thinking arises from that transactional space, the relationship between the teacher and the student is obviously vital to robust learning. Ron Ritchard, Senior Research Associate at Harvard Project Zero, identifies the notion of interaction between the teacher and student as one of eight cultural forces in the classroom that help to nurture the development of students as thinkers. According to Ritchard, ‘attention to building strong teacher-student relationships plays an important role in supporting student achievement and in particular the development of critical thinking’ (2015, 203).

Why is this relationship so important and how is that space between teacher and student defined? In the context of a 1986 study by Mary Budd Rowe, American science education researcher, into the relationship between the ‘teacher time’ given to student responses in class discussions and thinking, Budd Rowe concluded, ‘to grow a complex thought system requires a great deal of shared experience and conversation. It is in talking about what we have done and observed, and in arguing about what we make of our experiences, that ideas multiply, become refined, and, finally produce new questions and further explorations’ (in Ritchard, 2015, 203). The ideal space between teacher and student is then predominantly a conversational one; thinking is developed in that dynamic two-way relationship where ideas are challenged and refined. Intellectual engagement is thus also social engagement.

While teachers understand that a truly interactive approach is conducive to the development of critical thinking, sometimes students do not. It is tempting for them to assume, especially when they feel stressed, that classroom discussions are extraneous to ‘core’ learning. Students feel that in order to be successful, all they should need to do is learn from a neatly contained set of facts and objectives, provided by their teacher. However, critical thinking is not something that can be crammed in the lead up to an exam in the same way that learning a set of facts can be. Thinking sometimes becomes convoluted as it draws upon outside stimuli and the inner world of a students’ imagination. It throws up surprises and does not always go in the direction we originally anticipate. Its expansiveness can create some degree of anxiety because the knowledge it produces is not always binary, and does not always make sense. The renowned educator and author Parker Palmer suggests that the teaching and learning space is a paradoxical one. One aspect of this paradox is that it invites the voice of the individual as well as that of the group. ‘Learning does not happen’, asserts Palmer, ‘when students are unable to express their ideas, emotions, confusions, ignorance, and prejudices. In fact, only when people can speak their minds does education have a chance to happen’ (2007, p.78).

Students need to learn to feel comfortable with the messiness of thinking because this is where the brain starts to do its work, unravelling the mess and creating structure and the potential for new connections. They need to be patient with their own development and know that the more they can engage, the better they will become as thinkers and learners.



Dewey, J., (2004). Democracy and Education. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: Macmillan.

Palmer, P., (2007). The Courage to Teach. Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.

Ritchard, R., (2015). Creating Cultures of Thinking. The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.