What Were They Thinking?

I’ll admit it. I’ve thought…and spoken…those words a few times in my career. After observing students somewhat questionable actions or spoken words, I sometimes wonder what’s going on within the confines of their cranium. They might be recklessly impulsive one minute and incredibly empathetic the next. It’s quite tough to pin down the thought process of the teenager…and in a strange way, that’s why I love being around them so much. What were they thinking? Often times, I’m not too convinced they know the answer to that question themselves.

I actually want to encourage you to ask this question of your students (whether they be teenagers or not) quite often. However, I want you to consider the question from a different viewpoint…cognition. What were they thinking? In class, when given a task to complete, what were they thinking? What was their thought process when considering a question or problem? How were they using the information? What were they thinking as you presented material? What were they doing with the subject matter?

What were they thinking?

Ultimately, the only thing that matters for learning is what the students were thinking. If they don’t think about and use the information from class, there is a great chance they won’t remember it. Believe me, I know, the end goal of an education isn’t just to remember stuff…but I believe it certainly does start there. If they’re not remembering information and growing in knowledge, then what are they doing in your class? Why are they in your class? You cannot be creative with information you do not know. Having the information isn’t the end, but it is a necessary start.

What were they thinking? 

Sure, they may have been up and active and that may have checked off some boxes on an observation form if your administration walked in the room.  But, if the students were focused on stimuli that have nothing to do with the material, was the lesson/activity really worth it? Again, I ask, what were they thinking? The answer to that question is crucial and I believe it is being lost in the deluge of the modern classroom that asks so much of our learners and teachers. Students should be physically active, use technology, create…something, have an occasional ‘brain break’ (when you figure out how to give your brain a break, please let me know), consider their feelings and the feelings of others, remember their prescribed role in collaborative groups, et cetera. It’s a lot for anyone to keep up with, much less plan for and consider contingency plans when technology doesn’t work properly or when a student’s absence throws off the group work. Lost in all of this, I believe, is a focus on our student’s cognition and learning.

What were they thinking?

Were they focused on the instructions for completing their project or the subject matter to be learned while completing the project? Were they caught up in understanding and completing their specific job during group work or were they able to concentrate on the instructional material? Were the students mentally on task while being physically active around the classroom? I sincerely don’t want to come across as a teacher who doesn’t see the value in technology usage or collaborative grouping in the classroom. They can be very beneficial, when used correctly, adding a richness to discussion and classroom instruction.

So, how can we (teachers and students, alike) know what they’re thinking?

The simple answer is assessment…in any form that requires students to access knowledge and display their understanding. This may look like a pencil and paper quiz or test. It may be asking questions and having a discussion. It might look like a project or creation of some sort. When students are required to recall material using their own brain (and not their notes/book or other students for assistance) and use that information to complete an assessment, instant feedback is provided for both teacher and student. What did I answer successfully? What did I struggle to complete? Why was this information absent from my knowledge? What can I do to fill this hole in my understanding of the material? All of these questions are incredibly powerful for students to recognize and ask. Without assessment, it is incredibly difficult to answer them successfully. Without assessment, students are left guessing and assuming how much knowledge they possess from classroom instruction. This is not a place we want our students to cognitively ‘live’. And if we don’t explicitly discuss this process of considering what they’re thinking about and providing opportunities for low-stakes assessment of this material, it won’t just happen magically. For most, if we don’t consistently measure understanding in class, assessment will continue to be a word that elicits feelings of stress and anxiety…meaning it will, on most occasions, be avoided by students. These are not the healthy study habits of successful learners. We need to encourage frequent low/no-stakes assessment from our students.

So, here’s my challenge to you: ask yourself frequently…what were they thinking? Ponder it before, during, and after the lesson or unit of study. Have your students ask themselves the same question in class and when studying at home. Help to create that healthy habit. If they’re thinking about the proper material to be remembered, they’ve got a chance of retaining…but if they’re thinking about a snapchat they’ve just received or the Netflix show they’re watching while attempting to study, the chance of successful learning drops considerably.

2 thoughts on “What Were They Thinking?

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  1. Blake,

    Nice one. I, myself, try to make use of epistemic questions (the 5 Ws) and to give students epistemic tasks (see Stellan Ohlsson) and then use this again as feedback in the assessment. Why did you do it this way? How could you do it differently? What would the answer have been if you had done X or Y and why? In this way I get learners to thing about ‘What were they thinking?”.


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