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  • Writer's pictureSimon Brooks

7 Big Rocks for Educators keen to build a culture of thinking

Have you ever seen the 2011 dystopian science-fiction thriller film, ‘In Time’? If not, I recommend that you invest some time in doing so. The premise of the film is interesting. Set in the context of a bleak, dog-eat-dog futuristic world, the film depicts a society where time has become the universal currency for all human beings. When people turn 25, they stop aging and their clock begins counting down from 1 year. People are not paid in dollars, but in time. Time can be inherited, won or stolen. Purchases are made by paying with time, be it food, rent, entertainment, travel, or even a cup of coffee.

If a person’s life-clock reaches zero, they ‘time out’ and die. Life becomes a scramble for time, and there is never enough of it. There is no time for walking, only for running. No time for reflecting, only for doing.

Sometimes, being a teacher feels a bit like this. It’s so easy to become a slave to the syllabus, dancing to the tune of curriculum dot points, teaching to the high-stakes tests that we just can’t ignore. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” many teachers think, “to slow down, think deeply, and press for rich understanding . . . but there just isn’t enough time.”

In his book ‘Creating Cultures of Thinking’, Ron Ritchhart acknowledges that ‘These pressures are real’, but goes on to write that ‘The key takeaway here is that our choices, even if we aren’t happy with them, are sending messages to our students about what is deemed important and worthwhile in the classroom’ (Ritchhart, 2015, p.98). Time is a cultural force from which it is impossible to escape. We cannot say, “I choose for the cultural force of time not to exist in my classroom.” We exist within time, and in every lesson, every minute, every second, we make choices about how time is to be allocated in our schools and classrooms. If we allocate time to discussion, students receive the message that thinking is important in this place. If we choose to allocate most of our time to ‘coverage of curriculum’, then students receive the message that coverage is more important than thinking. And is that a message we want to send?

However, in his book, ‘Creating Cultures of Thinking’, Ron Ritchhart goes on to present some compelling ideas around how we as teachers might take charge of time, and learn to become its master rather than its victim.

Wouldn’t that be something . . .

Central to this idea is the work of Stephen Covey, and specifically the third of his seven habits of highly effective people – Put First Things First. In order to explain this habit, Covey makes use of a powerful analogy - Big Rocks. If you’d like to learn more, I recommend you invest another twelve minutes of your valuable time in watching the following video, where you’ll see Covey in full workshop-facilitation mode, demonstrating masterfully how the concept of Big Rocks works.

In essence, the idea is this. You and I are standing next to a table, and on this table is an empty glass jar, a large bag of sand, and several big rocks. Your goal is to get all of the sand and all of the rocks into the glass jar, with nothing poking out over the top. I pour the sand into the jar, which becomes about two-thirds full. “Your job,” I say, “is to try to get those big rocks in too.”

You begin to try. The first big rock goes in OK. So does the second. But then you start meeting problems. The third rock just won’t quite go. You use the third big rock to hammer down that second rock just a little further. You hammer some more. Finally, there’s space. The third rock goes in. But what about the fourth, the fifth, the sixth and so on?

In this analogy, the jar represents our lives and the time we have available. The sand represents all of those little things that compete for our attention on a daily basis. And the Big Rocks are those important things that are not necessarily urgent, but are still very important. Time with family. Learning. Sport and exercise. Reading. Socialising with friends. Date night.

If we first fill up our jar of life with the little things then, well . . . there just isn’t enough room for the Big Rocks anymore. Those important but not urgent things just won’t fit. “I just have to get that report finished for my boss today,” we might be thinking. “And I must get to all of those emails in my inbox. And what about organising that car service – I just keep putting that off.” Before we know it, the glass is full to the brim with sand. And there’s just no time left for inviting our friends around for dinner.

According to Covey, there is another way. Rather than pouring in the sand first, and trying to cram the Big Rocks on top, what would it be like if we put in the Big Rocks first, and let the sand fill in the gaps? Take a look at the end of video to see what might happen if we adopt this approach. What would be the effect for you if you attended first to scheduling in the Big Rocks of your life?

So – what’s the relevance of this to education, teaching and learning.

Well, as teachers, it’s just as easy for us to become consumed by the ‘small stuff’ of school life. ‘Covering content’, marking tests, planning lessons, meeting parents, playground duties, completing paperwork . . . these things are the sand, the ‘small stuff’. But let me make this clear. I’m not saying these things aren’t important. Of course they’re important. It’s just that if we allow these things to consume us, if we live in the world of ‘urgent and important’, then it becomes incredibly difficult for us ever to create a space where we might get to the Big Rocks - the stuff that’s not urgent, but equally as important as the sand, and perhaps more important.

How might we move forward with this? What are our Big Rocks? And how might we identify them?

Well . . . before we can get to identifying our Big Rocks, we must first attend to the idea of recognising time as a statement of our values (Ritchhart, 2015). If we believe that teaching is about transmitting what is in our heads and textbooks into the minds of the children we teach, then we will give time to this. But if we believe that teaching is about enabling students to learn for themselves, then this is how we will choose to allocate time. The first thing for us to do is address our pedagogical identity. What is our definition of teaching? What is understanding? What does true learning look like?

And . . . if our conclusion is that ‘Learning is a consequence of thinking’ (Ritchhart and Perkins, 2008), then what next? What might be our Big Rocks if we’re to realise this vision? What are the important but not urgent things that we want to schedule FIRST into our students’ learning experience? We know that these Big Rocks need to be priority number one – they need to be scheduled in first – or else there simply won’t be enough room for them when the glass jar starts filling up with sand. What might be the Big Rocks in our culture of thinking?

Well . . . in this blog entry I’d like to offer a list of seven. Seven Big Rocks for educators keen to build a culture of thinking. They’re not the only Big Rocks I could pick. It’s not a definitive list, and they’re in no particular order. But they’re a good place to start. If teachers place these Big Rocks front and central in their practice as educators, this will go a long way towards building a thriving, engaging, thought-full, minds-on culture of thinking.

There they are.

But I’m not going to write any more about them just yet.

I’m going to let you ‘live in the muddle’.

This blog entry is the first in a series of eight. Following this, I’ll take a look at each of these seven big rocks in turn, exploring in more detail what the big rock might look like in action, and how we might weave it into the fabric of ‘the way we do things around here’ (Deal and Kennedy, 1983).

Let’s not be the victims of time. Let’s not scrabble around in a world dominated by the ‘important and urgent’, never getting to what really matters to us. Let’s not live in a world of scarcity and victimhood, like the fictional citizens we see in the film, ‘In Time’. Let’s not be victims of time. Let’s learn how to become its master.

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