Thinking skills for all students including low achievers


Which practices could best teach all students how to think and learn?

In this episode, we spoke to Anat Zohar who shares her insights into how teachers in Israeli schools approach teaching critical thinking. Early in her career, Anat completed a teacher’s certificate in biology and through her research she became an expert in the education system in Israel; she is the Director of the Center for Teachers’ Learning and Development at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

This episode was recorded in 2019. The views expressed in Edspressos are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSW Department of Education.


Image: Anat Zohar
Edspresso Episode 10: Thinking skills for all students including low achievers with Anat Zohar

Welcome to the New South Wales Department of Education's Edspresso Series. These short podcasts are part of the work of the Education for a Changing World Initiative and explore the thinking and ethical literacy skills students need in an AI future. Join us as we speak to a range of experts about how emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence are likely to change the world around us and what this might mean for education.

Teaching high-order thinking skills can have an incredibly positive effect on achievement levels for lower-achieving students. In this episode, we hear from Professor Anat Zohar from the School of Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, on the process of educational change in the Israeli education system, which focused on implementing higher-order thinking and deep understanding across the curriculum.

Anat draws lessons from this experience and her research to discuss how teaching higher-order thinking skills to low achieving students can effectively lift their subject matter knowledge. Anat also offers advice for a similar shift in the Australian education system.

How would you define higher-order thinking skills and why might that be important to develop for an AI future?

I would start by saying that higher-order thinking instruction is instruction that is intellectually stimulating in getting students curious to think about problems and to practise their minds while they're trying to solve these problems. If we want to get into more professional terminology, then one of my favourite definitions is not very new and not very AI-y, and not very modern.

But, I would go back to Bloom's Taxonomy. Simply because I think most educators are familiar with that and it's good to connect to things that we already know. So, I would say that if we all remember Bloom's Taxonomy that is, roughly it has retrieval of information for memory and comprehension, and then everything that is above comprehension, which is applying, analysing, synthesising and evaluating. And in more modern taxonomies, people have added creativity. Then I would say that all these mental or cognitive activities are higher-order thinking.

Anat, thanks for that. What is the role of subject knowledge in mastery of content in the development of higher-order thinking skills, in your opinion?

Well, the relationship between knowledge and thinking skills is extremely complex. And my stand on this is that there are some general aspects to thinking, but that it's also extremely content dependent. So, there is a general aspect to thinking skills, which makes it possible, when we think about curriculum, to design some general principles that go across school disciplines. But then it's also very subject-specific.

And my own opinion is that, really, you cannot think deeply about anything without rich content, without the knowledge component. If we ask ourselves, what is the goal, really, of schooling in terms of content in the 21st century, in the day of artificial intelligence? Then it's not information, it's knowledge, it's what we call deep knowledge. And in order to construct deep knowledge, we must think about the knowledge we're dealing with.

So, we cannot really talk about teaching any type of knowledge in the deep sense of knowledge without the thinking skills.

That’s really interesting. Higher-order thinking skills are usually well-developed in high-achieving students. However, lower-achieving students may not get the opportunities or support to also develop these skills. Why is it important that all students be engaged in tasks that develop their higher-order thinking skills? And what can educators and policy makers do to support the development of higher-order thinking skills in lower-achieving students?

Yeah, I think this is an extremely important question because in many policy goals of many, many countries we're talking about narrowing the achievement gap. And, I think, part of the difficulty in narrowing the achievement gap is there is something like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many teachers do not believe that low-achieving students are capable of learning with deep thinking. I have been troubled deeply by this issue several years ago.

So I developed a research agenda to investigate it empirically. So, first of all, I asked the question, “Is it true that many teachers do not believe that the goal of teaching thinking is an equally appropriate goal, both for low achievers and high achievers?" Because when I was working with teachers, it always came up incidentally. Let's say, professional development sessions. There was always somebody who raised their hand and said, "Well, you know, this thinking agenda, it really sounds very convincing, but..." The 'but' was always about, “But this is great for the high achievers. What happens with the low achievers? They have such a hard time anyway, why should we also burden them with all these very difficult thinking activities?"

And it really came from good intentions, however, it was very worrisome. Because if teachers do not believe that this an appropriate goal for low achievers, then no matter how many skills they acquire, they will not use them in classrooms with low-achieving students. So, first of all, I asked, is this trend that I noticed incidentally, when I talk to teachers, is it really systematic?

So, I did a study to figure out how many teachers actually hold this belief. And it turned out that only 20% of the teachers we interviewed, because we did this study by using individual clinical interviews, only 20% of the teachers actually believed that low achievers and high achievers would all equally benefit from instruction that highlighted thinking. The other 80% were divided. Half of them, which means 40%, were very extreme in saying, “No, this is not appropriate. Low achievers should not be taught to think." And then the other 40% were not exactly sure. Which means they were, To some of the other questions we asked they said, “Yes” and to the other ones, they said, “No”. They were kind of not indetermined about that.

So, we see that it is a trend among teachers, it's not just something that some people believe in. It's a belief that is quite deeply rooted. So, the next stage of this research was to ask ourselves, well, maybe these teachers are right. Maybe low achievers really do not benefit from a thinking curriculum. So, what we did was we went back to data, from quite large scale projects in science that both myself and my colleague, Judy Dori, ran.

We re-analysed data that we had collected before that showed that students really improved their thinking skills and their subject matter knowledge when following a thinking curriculum. And we went back to this data and we did four different projects. Two were projects of mine in biology, and two were projects of Judy Dori’s in chemistry. And in this second analysis, we divided the data we had into low achievers and high achievers. And even though the populations were different, there were four different projects with top high-order thinking in four different methods. The assessment tools were different, but the results were the same. In all four projects, the low achievers gained a lot from the project. And in some of the cases, their gain was even larger than that of other students.

Now, I want to be very precise in what I'm saying. I am not claiming that following our interventions we managed to, in some miraculous way, to let go of the achievement gap. That's not what I'm saying. We did not succeed in bringing the low achievers to the same thinking levels that we managed to bring the high achievers. However, what I'm saying is all students made progress. In other words, the low achievers, compared to where they were at the beginning of the intervention, they made a huge leap forward.

So that shows that, indeed, it's possible. And they gained both in their thinking skills and their knowledge.

Anat, thanks for that. Would you now talk about some strategies or approaches that teachers can employ to develop their students' higher-order thinking skills?

Well, first of all, I think the first step is to be able to introduce intellectually stimulating tasks. It could be something much more modest, such as teaching a typically quite traditional lesson, but into the lesson I kind of like weave into that an intellectually challenging question. It could be like, five minutes in a traditional lesson. Or it could be in the range in between. So, I think the first thing is really to bring thinking skills into the classroom and let students struggle with and experience intellectually demanding activities. And give them time to work on them.

So, if we introduce a task, even a very good task, and we don't give it enough time, then part of the value of the task is gone. So, this is the first thing. Another thing which I think is very, very meaningful is to not only introduce these tasks but also talk explicitly in the classroom about the thinking strategies that are involved in working on this task. When I'm saying to think explicitly, I actually mean if I asked a student to formulate an opinion and to justify it based on evidence.

So, I can just give him or her a task about some kind of a dilemma. But I can also teach him or her about, what am I doing now? What I'm doing now, is actually argumentation. Now, what are the components of a good argument? This is what we call the metacognitive part of teaching thinking and I think it's a very big difference whether we just carry out the thinking activities or whether we also involve the metacognitive level. Once we involve the metacognitive level, we can talk explicitly in the classroom and construct the meta-level structure of the thinking strategies we're using.

Another thing I would say is that I think it's very important to develop together with the children, what are the criteria for good thinking? Making that also explicit. This opens the possibility of having the children evaluate their own thinking or having them evaluate each other's thinking. And this is a nice way to introduce metacognition in the classroom, through making the criteria of good thinking explicit and having kids use it to evaluate both their own thinking and each other's thinking.

Anat, thanks for that. Would you now talk about what professional and pedagogical knowledge teachers need in order to make the transition from traditional instruction, that centres on transmission of information, to instruction that sees development of students' higher-order thinking as one of its major, explicit goals? And what can education systems do to best support this?

First of all, I think we have to realise that teaching thinking and seeing the development of students' thinking is a crucial thing, and instruction really doesn't go very well together with the traditional transmission of information approach. So, I think one important thing to realise is that you cannot take a teacher whose basic approach to instruction is very traditional and give them the technology or the pedagogical strategies of how to teach high-order thinking, and somehow hope that it would work well in the classroom, because it doesn't.

If a teacher doesn't have a child-centred orientation towards instruction to begin with, it doesn't really work. So, I think that one very important pre-condition is to help teachers see the value of having students construct their knowledge in an active way even before we start talking about higher-order thinking because I think this is a necessary condition for higher-order thinking instruction to work in the classroom. But that's one very important thing.

Now, the other thing is that just like in teaching content, you cannot talk about the pedagogy, about the PCK, the pedagogical content knowledge of teaching a certain topic, if teachers don't actually know what they are supposed to teach. So, in an analogy to this content teaching, if teachers themselves are not proficient thinkers it would be very difficult to expect that they would be able to teach thinking well.

So, one important thing is to help teachers learn during professional development, the thinking strategies that we would like them to later teach. Now, suppose we do have solid knowledge of the thinking strategies themselves. So, then the question becomes, how do we teach them? And how do we help teachers become better teachers of thinking strategies?

So, let me give some examples. One part of this is to be able to choose good tasks. If we said earlier that part of teaching thinking means having children experience tasks that require them to think, then I think teachers need to understand what kind of tasks give students opportunities for active and deep thinking. So, developing criteria to choose among different tasks, among different possibilities of how to structure a lesson, to choose the ones that would be more helpful in helping children to develop their thinking, is one important thing.

Another thing is, how do we design our own learning activities so that they would be richer in opportunities for children to think. So, the way we normally do that in professional development is, first of all, we have teachers experience as learners, as many, thinking tasks as possible. And then we try to analyse them in retrospect. What is it about these tasks that made us think? And we try to draw the principles of what was in this activity that made us think, “Oh, it was these particular kinds of questions."

So, what kind of questions can we ask? How can we ask questions in a better way in terms of how much thinking they will they require of students? Another part of this is the language of thinking.

So, we work with teachers on developing their thinking vocabulary and then we are working with them on thinking about, how can we help children acquire this vocabulary? For example, I have seen above the blackboard, or maybe I should say the whiteboard nowadays, there are lists of words of various thinking strategies. And then when the class is discussing a certain topic, then the teacher refers them to this list. And the list keep growing and growing, and the kids keep practising, both in their oral discussion and in their writing.

That’s really interesting, thanks, Anat. The Israeli education system, which you have been very involved with, has identified so-called 21st century skills, including higher-order thinking skills, as a priority, focusing on fostering deep knowledge and critical thinking skills. Taking lessons from the Israeli experience, what advice would you give about how systems should go about teaching higher-order thinking skills?

First of all, I think this a really complicated issue, because I think that today we have quite good knowledge of how to teach thinking skills on a small scale. I think we have, all over the world now, probably hundreds of good projects that can do that and can do that successfully. I think where education systems all over the world are currently less successful is in connecting those islands of success to a continent. How can we help the whole school system work that way? So, this is a really, really, really difficult issue.

And it's not something that you could do in a few years. It's a process, it's a long term process. And when we start to talk about the thinking curriculum, it's a totally different requirement from what teachers learn to do. And from how they learn themselves as students, and from the way they were taught to teach. So, it's really, in this sense, it's a revolution.

So, I think one of the things we need to realise is that an educational system cannot change from a very traditional, fact-orientated instruction, to a balanced, higher-order thinking curriculum in an instant. In two or three, or even five years, it's a process that should take time. And realising this is very important, because very often educational systems, I think, form unrealistic goals. And then what happens is that students and teachers do so-called thinking activities but in a very superficial and in a very shallow way. And this is a danger.

I think in Israel, I think it happened, a least on some occasions, that there was a policy that tried to move too fast and too broad and what happened was that a lot of teachers and a lot of students were very unhappy with this. Now, the added thing is that I think, in order to be able to connect these islands to a continent, you really need to work on three things at once.

One is curriculum and learning materials. The other one is teachers' professional development. And the third is assessment. And I think that one of the things is that you really cannot work only on one of them, or even on two of them, without working on all three simultaneously. Because, let's imagine, and this is part of, what I think, what was the problem in Israel with this case, which I think was not successful, was an effort to push the system forward through assessment. Because, you know, the teachers teach for the tests.

So, the assumption was that if the assessment would be changed so that it would include more high-order thinking, the teachers would go along. However, they forgot that they did not work with teachers in building teachers’ capacities. And they also did not provide teachers with the learning materials that could help them work with students. So, they changed the assessments, but teachers did not teach differently because they did not get good professional development. What went on in the classrooms was either very much more of the same, or what was maybe even worse, was that you know, it's very easy to develop ways of teaching for the tests.

So, the system found various ways to improve students' achievements on these thinking assessments without really doing the deep thinking. So, it was kind of like gaming the system. If there is a high stakes policy and high stakes culture in a school system, people find a way to game the system. And this is really what happened. So, I think that working on the three issues that I mentioned earlier, simultaneously. Which is learning materials, professional development, and assessments simultaneously and having them very, very, well-coordinated, I think this is an extremely important principle.

It certainly does seem like an important principle. If you could go back in time, and give advice to yourself as a school student, what would you tell yourself to focus on to help you prepare for what was to come? And, would you give different advice to students today?

Well I am now familiar with the literature and with the practice about meta-cognition, both about the meta-levels of strategies and the metacognitive skills, of being more aware of my thinking, of being able to plan my thinking processes in advance. In being able to monitor how I am thinking while I'm thinking, while I'm solving problems. And then in evaluating what I did in retrospect and asking myself, what did I do well, where I failed, and how I should approach a similar task if I had to do that in the future.

I don't think that as a student I ever thought in these terms. And I often ask myself, "How come?" How come I managed to go through school and through all my academic studies and actually not do that? At least not in an explicit and organised and systematic way. In other words, I don't think I was ever taught any kind of explicit metacognitive thinking. I wish I was taught that. I wish my teachers had taught me that. And I think this is advice that was good for my generation and also good for today's generation. I think today's teachers have better tools to do that.

Thank you for listening to this episode of the Edspresso Series. You can find out more about the Education for a Changing World Initiative via the New South Wales Department of Education's website.


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