Illinois Association for Gifted Children
Developing Good Thinking Habits in Gifted Education
Todd Kettler, Baylor University
Teaching students to think lies at the heart gifted education. Good thinking—thinking that is cognitively disciplined rather than impulsive—is necessary for exceptional achievement, innovation, and leadership. Our technical world of ubiquitous information requires students to mature into nimble, efficient problem solvers prepared to analyze and generate ideas. While constant, adaptive streams of information fuel both controversy and possibility, those who do not learn to master the information may be destined to be mastered by the information. Curriculum designers and teachers in gifted education should give serious attention to what constitutes good thinking.
Good thinking is a broad term that incorporates multiple approaches to intentional cognitions. Good thinking includes critical thinking, analytics, design, creative thinking, and problem solving. Becoming a good thinking requires students to master cognitive skills as well as disciplined commitments to clarity and consistency. For instance, it is not enough to know how to evaluate sources of information; one must commit to ongoing evaluations preceding knowledge and belief. In this way, good thinking becomes as much a character trait as a learned skill.
What is a Thinking Curriculum?
Over time, curriculum models have fluctuated on the relative importance of teaching thinking. A quick tour through some schools and classrooms today would yield a mix of emphases on content versus process. Whereas some learning environments emphasize content with some thinking opportunities, others may ground the learning processes in inquiry approaches such as engineering designs, problem-based and project-based learning, or small group seminars. A recent focus group of gifted students told me they want more time in school to think critically about real and important issues. They said they want more debate and discussion that engages the complexity of local and worldly issues. They described this as a fresh and meaningful curriculum that expects them to think deeply and act responsibly.
More than three decades ago, Raymond Nickerson, psychology professor at Tufts University in Boston, addressed the question of why we should teach thinking. Nickerson argued that the reasons for teaching thinking may vary based on our context or vocational perspectives. For instance, one might teach thinking because it leads to innovation and economic opportunity. Others view teaching thinking as foundational for self-governance and a just democracy. Teaching students to become good thinkers nurtures virtue, patience, and trustworthy character. Nickerson cautioned that schools and their communities must acknowledge that even when students become good thinkers, they will not always agree and arrive at the same conclusions. Sometimes schools resist a complex thinking curriculum because it is easier to focus on concrete fact and detail knowledge. It is easier to align a scope and sequence around content, and it is easier to benchmark progress on basic skills and recollection of information.
Experience tells us that good gifted education is not just doing what is easy. If gifted education is to be a model of world class learning, our curriculum commitments must be extraordinary. Good curriculum and instruction in gifted education should support exemplary thinking about significant content that builds expertise in production and performance domains. Below are some descriptors of good thinking that Nickerson began, and I extended. This descriptive list may highlight the considerable differences between the characteristics of good thinking and the type of thinking we may observe being regularly employed.
Good thinkers use evidence skillfully and impartially.
Good thinkers organize their thoughts and articulate them concisely and coherently.
Good thinkers distinguish between valid and invalid inferences.
Good thinkers value clarity and precision in their communication.
Good thinkers suspend judgment in the absence of sufficient evidence to support a decision.
Good thinkers know the difference between reasoning and rationalizing.
Good thinkers anticipate probable consequences of alternative actions before choosing among them.
Good thinkers understand that beliefs may be better categorized as matters of degree rather than a simple yes or no.
Good thinkers understand the value and cost of information, know how to seek information, and know when seeking more information makes sense.
Good thinkers see similarities and patterns when they are not initially apparent.
Good thinkers recognize discrepancies and the potential consequences of discrepancies.
Good thinkers know how to learn independently and equally as important, have an abiding interest to learn independently.
Good thinkers apply problem-solving techniques appropriately across domains, settings, and situations.
Good thinkers can structure informally represented problems in such a way that formal techniques or heuristics can be used to solve them.
Good thinkers listen carefully to the ideas of others.
Good thinkers seek better collective understandings rather than winning the argument or being right.
Good thinkers understand that authentic problems may have more than one possible solution, and those solutions may differ in numerous respects and may be difficult to compare in terms of a single figure of merit.
Good thinkers seek to carefully understand the problem before they begin to generate possible solutions.
Good thinkers know how to apply validated solutions to problems, and they know when problems require innovative solutions.
Good thinkers effectively remove irrelevancies from arguments and accurately restate the essence of the argument.
Good thinkers understand the differences between assumptions, conclusions, and hypotheses.
Good thinkers habitually question their own views when confronting new evidences.
Good thinkers attempt to understand the assumptions associated with their beliefs and the consequences that might follow from their beliefs.
Good thinkers assess the validity of beliefs against the intensity of which those beliefs are held.
Good thinkers can represent differing viewpoints without distortion, exaggeration, or caricaturization.
Good thinkers acknowledge that their understandings are always limited, and welcome opportunities to examine those understandings.
Good thinkers acknowledge the possibility of bias and prejudice within their beliefs and their capacity to examine evidence.
Including Good Thinking in Gifted Curriculum
Gifted education can be a model of world class learning, and intentionally developing good thinkers should be one aspect of that model. Blending principles of good thinking with high quality content that is relevant and meaningful has the potential to transform a wide spectrum of diverse potential into tangible talent. The following four steps are a good place to start building gifted curriculum rich in thinking and content.
Begin by being clear on what constitutes good thinking. It is quite difficult to develop a set of skills in students if the teachers and curriculum designers are not completely clear on what the skills look like in practice. Faculty or planning teams should talk about aspects of good thinking and define exactly what it looks like for the grade-level and/or subjects they teach.
Second, design learning activities for students where they have an opportunity to practice good thinking. Good thinking will never develop in learning tasks that focus on basic memorization or rote exercises. While those types of learning tasks are necessary at times, the thinking curriculum must be predominant and regularly engaged.
Third, talk often with students about what constitutes good thinking. Define it. Give examples of good thinking. Model good thinking, and celebrate examples of good thinking among the students. Think of the descriptions of good thinking listed above as the principles of a responsible and mature intellectual approach to life. Students ought to internalize the principles, and the teacher ought to motivate them toward an intellectual life guided by the principles.
Finally, use reflective learning techniques to help students increase metacognitive awareness of how they are learning to follow these principles. While teachers guide and direct students toward good thinking, in the end, we want the students themselves to become self-monitors of good thinking. Developing the skills and habits of good thinking will not happen overnight. It will take consistent effort and intentionality. However, as students mature through adolescence and into adulthood, the facts and details of the curriculum fade away, but the principles of good thinking will remain.
Illinois Association for Gifted Children
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