New Habits for a New Year

SCENE: DINNER TIME
Child stares incessantly at cell phone
Parent: "What happened at school today?"
Child does not look up
Child: "Nothing."
Deafening silence

This dialogue probably sounds familiar to many of you. This single-word response is the habit of nearly every adolescent desperate to ward off the prying questions of their well-meaning parents.

Fear not, parents. There are remedies!

It is very easy for a kid to hide behind as general a question as "What happened today?" Probing more specifically, however, demonstrates our own interest and likely prompts a real response.

"Did you guys talk more about Stalin in History?
"Have anything cool to teach me today from Math class?"
"I loved the discussion we had yesterday about cells; did you keep working on that?"

Our kids often find classes to be chores, but, even if they won't admit it, seeing their parents’ passion for acquiring new information will give them permission and inspiration to seek the same. However, if they need more than mere prodding, your dinner table conversations will require a little structure.

As you may have read in previous blog posts of mine, a critical intellectual difference between children and adults is meta-cognitive awareness, the ability to process learning and organize it in a way that is useful. If your mind is a file cabinet, what good are new files if you don't know where to put them? Or worse, you have so messy a file cabinet it doesn't matter where you put them? This analogy can often literally be seen in the catastrophically disorganized backpacks of middle school students!

Ron Ritchhart, professor and principal investigator at Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has been studying what he calls a "culture of thinking" for students and teachers for the last 20 years. His research aims "to cultivate students' thinking skills and dispositions, and … to deepen content learning. By thinking dispositions, we mean curiosity, concern for truth and understanding, a creative mindset, not just being skilled but also alert to thinking and learning opportunities and eager to take them."

Sounds great, right?

Ritchhart advocates the use of "Thinking Routines," models that can be used to review and process the information from a lesson. Though they seem simple, these structures can be very powerful ways to teach children to organize the information to which they have been exposed. The Cultures of Thinking website and its content are amazing, and I encourage not just parents and educators but also anyone whose objective is to educate to read Ritchhart's work. Below I will outline a couple of the routines most applicable to parents and children at home, but these represent only the surface of a very deep and rich pool of resources.

Among his routines, my two favorites for parents are "Headlines" and "Think Puzzle Explore."

"Headlines" is just what it sounds like. Ask your child to write a headline for today's class discussion, a single phrase that clearly communicates a central theme that he or she finds interesting:

"Stalin's Five Year Plan was his way to industrialize Russia really quickly in the years between the World Wars."
"Volume is how you measure how much stuff fits in a container."
"Cells are like Lego pieces; separate the pieces all look basically the same, but you can put them together into a DINOSAUR!"

Writing a headline is a simple way to get a more substantive answer than "nothing," and it can prove powerful when a subject extends over days and weeks, allowing that headline to shift as more information is uncovered. Coming up with a good headline requires some reflection on the concepts of the day and promotes critical analysis of the concepts to find the core idea.

"Think Puzzle Explore" has a similar purpose but is a little more specific.

What do you THINK you know about the topic?
What questions or PUZZLES do you have?
How can you EXPLORE this topic further?

This kind of probe not only requires that students look back over their day to recall specifics of the lesson but also sets them up well to think about their homework and be ready for the NEXT day's lesson with questions for clarification and further inquiry.

"I think I know that Stalin pretended to be helping the Russian people when he was really helping himself and his comrades."
"How can you measure volume when the container doesn't have straight sides?"
"I can look at images of types of cells on the internet to see if there are major differences between the cells of different organisms."

In time, these interactions will feel less stilted and will become part of the typical dialogue about school. Your child will start to think this way on her own and carry this critical eye back into the classroom. And maybe, just maybe, "something" will happen in class tomorrow...