Ms Jacinda Euler, Principal
The adage ‘we teach students how to think, not what to think’ can often be questioned in a society that measures success on results and scores, rather than on the development of characteristics that are often far more important to our students’ lives beyond school. In her work on a ‘growth’ versus a ‘fixed’ mindset and the influence of this on our learning prospects and IQ, psychologist and Stanford Professor, Dr Carol Dweck wisely observed, ‘test scores and measures of achievement tell you where a student is at, but they don’t tell you where that student could end up’ (Dweck, 2016).
At Brisbane Girls Grammar School, the focus of our teachers is on fostering a culture of thinking and in doing so, inspire systematic curiosity—in the classroom and beyond—that will, hopefully, see students develop into inquisitive learners for life. That is not to say that achievement should not be celebrated, but when students perform well, win sporting accolades, are accepted into world-leading tertiary institutions—these tangible results are a natural consequence of creating a culture of thinking. They are not the end goal.
Why the cultural shift?
Over time, teaching methods and philosophies of learning naturally evolve, and it is now generally accepted that educational institutions that place undue emphasis on performance and achievement as their markers of success, can become a breeding ground for anxiety and hyper-competitiveness amongst students. Far better to prioritise the development of well-rounded students who can bounce back from setbacks, learn from challenges, and overcome adversity so that they will become resilient. Complementing this ideation, researchers and educators have found that when you focus on thinking as a discipline rather than achieving, academic excellence is a natural by-product.
In 2021, Brisbane Girls Grammar School established The Centre for School Wide Pedagogy, to explicitly explore the important space where teaching and learning intersect—the learning of the teacher as well as the student. It is a two-way process. The Pedagogy Model adopted by the School draws fundamentally on the work of world-leading academics Crowther, Andrews, and Conway (2013) and their six criteria for an effective school-wide pedagogy—one of which is the Cultures of Thinking methodology developed by Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, Project Zero research centre. Defined as ‘places where a group’s collective as well as individual thinking is valued, visible, and actively promoted’, Cultures of Thinking ‘considers education to be a social and cultural endeavour’ (Ritchhart, 2015). The goal is ‘the development of both the individual and the group as effective learners and thinkers who can engage with and adapt to the changing world’. Lead Investigator at Project Zero, and internationally renowned educator and researcher, Dr Ron Ritchhart, said that this philosophy can be encapsulated in one crucial question, ‘Who are our students becoming as thinkers and learners as a result of their time with us?’ (Cultures of Thinking Initiative | Project Zero, n.d.).
A pioneer of Cultures of Thinking, Dr Ritchhart’s research focuses on the development of school and classroom culture as prime vehicles for developing students as powerful thinkers and learners, with the belief that ‘attention to building strong teacher-student relationships plays an important role in supporting student achievement and in particular, the development of critical thinking’ (Ritchhart, 2015).
Small steps lead to noticeable change
The adoption of the Cultures of Thinking methodology into our School’s Pedagogy Model is considered by many Girls Grammar teachers as a shift in, and a re-focus of their practice, rather than an overhaul in how they approach their craft. Subtle adjustments in language and expression, refinements in techniques and tools accessed, and reframing of perspectives, have advanced the vibrant School learning environments that balance judicious stewardship with freedom and opportunities for critical inquiry.
Director of Creative Arts, Mr Andrew Pennay, reflected on the wide-reaching impact that a small variation to his senior classroom routines has had. ‘I now model process over product, and curiosity in a task instead of presenting polished exemplars to my senior students. Using a fictional student as a channel to demonstrate my own progress, I use this vehicle to demonstrate my own obstacles and evolve my work alongside them’.
Mr Elliot McGarry, Head of Subject—Senior Physical Education, also resonated with the idea that small but powerful changes have positively impacted his classroom. ‘I’ve evolved the questions I ask students to allow for unanswered inquiries to be left on the table … by shifting from narrow to expansive framing a curiosity loop is formed, and students’ responses have shifted from statements to questions, with questions leading to more questions, and therefore, to deeper thinking.’
Subtle shifts in language—in words spoken, inflections discerned—can stimulate further, deeper conversation and embolden students who might have otherwise been reluctant to participate in class discussions. Ms Anna Flourentzou, Head of Subject—Year 7 Humanities, recognised that the inclusion of one word in a simple question had a significant effect on a classroom discussion about Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin. ‘Instead of asking “What did he mean when he said this?” I said, “What might he have meant when he said this?” This simple, semantic shift alleviated the pressure for students to ‘guess’ what I might have been thinking and subtly let them know that there are multiple ideas that could be possible. There was no right or wrong answer. I wanted them to think about it and discuss their ideas—stimulating a deeper level of learning amongst the students’.
The Cultures of Thinking framework also prompts educators to explore their relationship with time. Often viewed through the lens of constraint, instead the framework encourages the concept that ‘time’ reflects one’s values, and these values should be prioritised in lesson planning. ‘Reflecting on the dispositions that I would like my students to have when they leave Girls Grammar, I realised that I want them to be reflective and actively seek feedback rather than shy away from comments that could be construed as criticism’ said Ms Flourentzou. ‘To allow time to develop these characteristics in my students, I now dedicate entire lessons to growing this attribute—further demonstrating to students how valuable these lessons are by dedicating what is often viewed as limited ‘time’ to this aspect of their education’.
A thinking culture flourishes
Fostering a culture of thinking requires a mysterious alchemy. Always in the moment, educators must instinctively know when to push down on the accelerator pedal of knowledge and when to ease off and allow students to develop their own solutions. Equally, educators must understand, and be aware of, the cultural forces that they are espousing in their classrooms—taking note of the subtle shifts that they can enact to facilitate a space where creativity flourishes, confusion is untangled, connections are made, and thoughts and ideas can come together. It is from these small moments, often intangible nuances and intimate opportunities for learning, that big things grow.
- Crowther, F. Andrews, D. & Conway, J. (2013). School Wide Pedagogy: Vibrant New Meaning for Teachers and Principals. Hawker Brownlow.
- Cultures of Thinking Initiative | Project Zero. (n.d.). http://www.pz.harvard.edu/resources/cultures-of-thinking-initiative
- Dweck, C. S. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Ballantine Books.
- Ritchhart, R. (2015). Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools. Jossey-Bass.