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Thinking in School?

In a recent Huffington Post essay, Eric Maisel presents an argument for adding thinking to school . His idea is simple. Carve out 45 minutes each day for students to ponder big (age-appropriate) questions, write down their thoughts, and present them if they wish.

I like this idea, and I would take it further. Readers of my blog know that I believe that the purpose of schooling ought to be expanded so that we are educating for a future of solutionaries, people who think critically and creatively as a matter of course so that they contribute to new systems that are healthy, just, and sustainable. What if these 45 minute sessions also built upon one another? The questions to ponder could be ones crucial to the health and well-being of the students, their school, their community, and their world. Each day would invite the students to think even more deeply and creatively so that by the end of a week or a month, groundbreaking ideas may have emerged. Imagine the sense of accomplishment. Imagine the sense of competence. Imagine the sense of personal strength and capacity. And imagine the good ideas that would be generated that could be incorporated into the kids’ lives and the well-being and health of their communities and even their world.

One of the questions Maisel suggests is this: “For seventh graders, a big question might be, “How do you decide if you should or shouldn’t support a war that your country is engaged in?”

What if the next day, the question was “Why do so many human cultures resort to war rather than non-violent means of solving their conflicts?”

And the next: “What other means to solving conflicts can you think of?”

And the next: “How could people be persuaded to trade weapons for other forms of conflict resolution?”

And so on.

Mohandas Gandhi managed to think of the idea of non-violent resistance when faced with the seemingly impossible quandary of “persuading” the British to leave India. And this idea managed to take root and work. What ideas and thoughts generated by our youth might come to solve entrenched challenges we face?

I would take this 45 minute thinking class another step further as well. I would make it 75 minutes, and I would imbue it with the kind of gravity with which we present math and science and language arts (and it would incorporate these in relevant ways anyway). Students would ponder their questions long after class, doing research as necessary, so that their thinking was grounded in facts and knowledge. They would take their own ideas seriously because the school and their teachers would consider this period the most important part of school – the time when all of the basics come into play for the great purpose of utilizing their brilliant and creative minds for good.

Imagine that.

Zoe Weil,
author of The Power and Promise of Humane Education and Most Good, Least Harm

Image courtesy of srphotography via Creative Commons.

About zoeweil

I'm the co-founder and President of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE). IHE works to create a world in which we all live humanely, sustainably, and peaceably. We do this by training people to be humane educators who teach about the pressing issues of our time and inspire people to work for change while making healthy, humane, and restorative choices in their daily lives. We also work to advance the field of humane education, and to provide tools and inspiration to people everywhere so that they can live examined, meaningful lives. I'm also a writer. So far I've written six books and several articles.


16 thoughts on “Thinking in School?

  1. Thanks for sharing this Zoe.

    I think the best Project Based Learning is structured this way. I would take it even further and say I think all school should be about these types of questions. How about starting with these questions and approaching math or science to help answer them in one way and writing and reading, art and music in another and then find where they intersect.

    If we have a philosophic underpinning to all education, we need not look at math and science as mere subjects, but instead expressions of how we communicate and think as humans.

    From the philosophy to the pragmatic, we would not just think big, but act big, but live small or in a human scale and help change the world by giving time and space to be the change we hope to see.

    These idea do not need to be utopian they just need to be practiced.

    What big thoughts are you having this week?


    Posted by dloitz | October 11, 2010, 11:59 am
  2. Zoe–
    Great post, great questions!

    My big question this week, David, is why don’t we spend more time in this kind of thinking? THIS is the kind of education Thomas Jefferson envisioned when he set up the idea of an academical village when he designed the University of Virginia.

    We know metacognition makes a difference in how kids think–the more they know about how they’re thinking, the better they get at it–so why don’t we have those conversations more, too, about “how did you figure that out,” or “how did you know how to do that then,” or “why do you say that?”

    School should absolutely be about thinking… that is definitely part of MY utopian vision!

    Thanks, Zoe. I’m enjoying the thoughts you share here.


    Posted by Paula White | October 11, 2010, 12:15 pm
  3. As I studied the history of education and the philosophy of education this past year, I was so dumbfound as to why education is only a field of study in college. Why are we not learning about learning and thoughts on learning from a early age. Not sure we need to have Intro to pedagogy in Kindergarten, but it would only benefit all involve to be open about what we are doing or trying to do. Most of the elementary curriculum is about how things work or are made, why not bring education into the conversation…. I think one of the best ways to do this is have children design schools of the future as a project….those questions will come up and have meaning. We also might be able to break away some of the societal symbols of school that most kids inherited…. like teacher as the center of the knowledge and often taskmasters, desks, learning happens on in a classroom….etc.

    Jill Ostrow showcases this project in her books and shares the students ideas and projects. I highly recommend her two books!


    A Room with a Different View


    Making Problems, Creating Solutions: Challenging Young Mathematicians


    Posted by dloitz | October 11, 2010, 12:32 pm
  4. Great suggestion, Zoe –

    When I ran summer school in pursuit of alternative administrative licensure, we scheduled daily thinking time using Little Big Minds, which is a book and embedded curriculum about sharing the habits of mind of philosophy with kids. It pairs philosophical texts and children’s books and asks questions about themes like love, compassion, and freedom.

    Summer school is not school-school (but why not?). Summer school is smaller. Ours felt more closely knit than school-school does. We had daily meetings and worked in small classes without switching between teachers or rooms. We did community service projects around the school. The nature of our work and the size of our community helped us open up about philosophy.

    I remember one conversation, in particular, that I observed during my morning walkthroughs. A student who struggled with authority in the traditional classroom explained to his teachers and peers the cycle of dysfunction and relief he engaged in with his teachers during school-school. He said that when an adult caught him swearing or bullying and called him on it publicly, he felt embarrassed and so he swore again to get kicked out of the room so he wouldn’t have to feel humiliated in front of his classmates.

    That was important for me to hear as a teacher and aspiring administrator and it came out of the daily time we dedicated to thinking.

    Best regards,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | October 11, 2010, 2:25 pm
  5. I agree we need to allow kids to ask these kinds of questions, and give them the skills and resources to find answers. But I’m pretty sure this kind of class/workshop couldn’t work alongside a traditional school day. It would only take one student to ask, “Why don’t we do this all day?” or at least, “Why don’t we have this kind of freedom in all our classes?” to start a trip down the rabbit hole. The question would soon take this student to topics like how people are motivated and how they learn. While Googling, students would find blogs like this one, share their thoughts, and find that many adults are asking the same question. That’s when the student would go to their teacher, share what they’re finding, and find out that the teachers and administrators don’t consider this to be an “age appropriate” question.

    Posted by Chris Fritz | October 11, 2010, 5:53 pm
  6. A dear friend of mine used to start her music class with a “ponder this.” The topics had nothing to do with music, but she felt strongly her middle school students needed time to think, argue, and listen. Some days the discussion would last five minutes, and other times she let it continue nearly the entire period. I believe it was time well spent.

    Posted by Susan Carter Morgan | October 13, 2010, 9:19 am
  7. Hi All,

    Zoe, thank you so much for this posting and all your inspirational work. It’s an honor to (virtually) chat with you. I guess my feeling about this concept is similar to that I shared regarding Kirsten’s posting about “one inviolate hour.” I love the idea and think it’s a huge step towards the kind of education we want to see. However, much like other commenters I think it is such a tremendous shame to believe that we have to drop everything else happening in school and carve out time to think.

    Much like with Kirsten’s idea to claim dedicated reflection time for teachers, this idea to allow kids dedicated existential thinking time goes against much of what I believe about the holistic and integral nature of learning. Is it too audacious to imagine that we could think while “doing school” AT THE SAME TIME? Can we imagine teachers receiving training in support in Socratic methods that would facilitate real dialogue and nurture learners’ capacities to think more deeply about the implications of the subject matter and actually listen to one anothers’ perspectives?

    If we must have dedicated thinking time, what does that imply about the rest of the kids’ school lives? How tragic to realize the extent to which they are devoid of thinking! Perhaps almost as tragic as realizing they are devoid of feeling, caring, creating, etc. Sigh.

    Let’s strive to create holistic and integral learning experiences in all of our learning environments.

    In Solidarity,


    Posted by Paul Freedman | October 13, 2010, 10:37 am
    • Thanks Paul! It’s an honor to converse with you as well! So here are some more thoughts on this. I agree that thinking should infuse all of schooling, but I also think that time to think deeply, creatively and critically is it’s own “thing” and worthy of it’s own space, especially if there are big questions to ponder or big problems to solve. There are also times to memorize (e.g. multiplication tables or lines in a play); observe (e.g. under a microscope or out in nature); practice (e.g. drawing or dance steps); listen (e.g. to stories or experts sharing what they know), and so on. Deep thinking isn’t something any of us do all the time, nor do I think we would want to. It’s one of the capacities that we need to cultivate and practice, and even though thinking of all sorts pervades everything we do, I like the idea of concentrated, focused thinking around important questions, concepts and issues.

      Posted by Zoe Weil | October 13, 2010, 4:45 pm
  8. Yes, basically, I think we’re in agreement, Zoe. And I do certainly recognize the difference between various levels of thought and that deeper thinking can’t, and probably shouldn’t, happen all the time. But I think we can try to find many more windows into this kind of big picture thinking than we often realize in schools. And if we do, those moments of reflection and contemplation might be better integrated into the more mundane learning experiences and perhaps we might regain some sense of the relevance and contextual meaning of the mundane stuff. (Some of David Jardine’s work comes to mind here.)

    An example…I teach 3rd and 4th grade in a small independent school. We are working with a multidisciplinary theme of “darkness.” This includes science, solar system, constellations, multicultural mythologies and all kinds of literary connections – themes of good and evil, mystery and suspense, seen and unseen forces, etc etc.

    So today with my small reading group I introduce the concept of socratic dialogue and we use some of these methods of questioning and shared inquiry to ask one another about the literature we’ve been reading…they come up with gem after gem, “is there really such a thing as ‘dark literature?'” “Can stories be both light and dark?” “Does an author have to experience tragedy in order to be able to write a dark story?” “Why did Edgar Allen Poe drink so much?” (We read Avi’s brilliant book, The Man Who Was Poe.) “Does knowing death or sadness change you forever?” “Does everyone have some darkness inside them and where does it come from?” “Have any of you experienced darkness? Did it change you?” “What is it like to be changed?” This is just a minute sampling from a half hour discussion today with 8-10 year olds.

    I guess my point is that these young learners are capable of this type of existential thought a lot more than we realize. And now that we have had this kind of discussion in my Language Arts class, integrated within our regular class time, I think the more routine work of that group – responding to comprehension questions, literature-tied vocabulary exercises, the writing of a good paragraph, or simply the reading itself will take on new and greater meaning, you know? If deep thought only happens as a separate detached stand-alone experience, while it would be a huge and welcome addition to most kids’ weekly school experience, my fear would be that the rest of the curriculum continues to be irrelevant and fragmented. (Perhaps even more so, as the implication is that there is no place for real meaning making during the normal school day.) The kids need the opportunity for guided deep reflection and then they need the chance to use this to make all kinds of connections between subject matter, themselves, and the entire cosmos. And I do think it can be done within the same math class that requires memorizing your times tables.

    Is that too idealistic for others of you, given the settings you work in? Do you have that kind of freedom in your work environment where you could explore deep thought within the regular class?

    Thank you so much for the dialogue, Zoe, (and All.) What a terrific forum this is!


    Posted by Paul Freedman | October 14, 2010, 4:32 am
  9. I can’t respond. I’m thinking deeply.

    Posted by Kirsten | October 14, 2010, 9:22 am
  10. Ya’ got 45 minutes, Kirsten. Ready…go! 😉

    Posted by Paul Freedman | October 14, 2010, 10:23 am
  11. I’m with you, Paul. I don’t think deep thinking has to be something separate, and in fact, being part of a larger purpose could definitely make the more “mundane” parts of school more meaningful. I don’t know if I can say it any better than Harry Chapin:

    Posted by Chris Fritz | October 14, 2010, 10:31 am
  12. i love this.

    we have a designated read time in our study halls. i’ve been thinking how much a designated write time could do much of what you are talking about.

    just write. expose your thinking.

    Posted by monika hardy | October 14, 2010, 9:29 pm

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