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Big Rock Number 2: Reasoning with Evidence

Why might highly effective teachers in a culture of thinking make Reasoning with Evidence a BIG ROCK in their schools and classrooms?

This Blog entry is part three of an eight-part series exploring 7 Big Rocks for Educators keen to build a culture of thinking in their classrooms.

When I reflect on 2016, one of the most thrilling lessons I’ve observed was a Year 10 Science class on Mendelian inheritance and Punnett squares taught by a wonderful Science teacher called Jenny Stephens. Now I must admit, when I turned up to observe Jenny’s class that day I really couldn’t remember much about Punnett squares, and neither did the students, I suspect . . . But by the end of the 50-minute lesson it was a different story altogether. Not only had the students and I experienced significant growth in our understanding, we were really engaged in our learning, and excited to discover more.

This is how it happened.

At the start of the lesson, Jenny projected a single image onto the board, an image which remained there for most of the lesson. Here’s the image for you:

For the rest of the lesson, Jenny facilitated the See Think Wonder routine. But the great thing was that the children didn’t even know they were ‘doing’ See Think Wonder. At no point did Jenny feel the need to announce, “Today, students, we’re doing See Think Wonder.” Instead, it was the thinking behind the routine that became front and central.

To begin with, Jenny invited her students to pay close attention to the diagram, describing what they saw and paying close attention to detail. She didn’t hurry them – she let them go at their own pace – noticing, naming, identifying.

Then, when they were ready, Jenny moved them on. “Now that you’ve looked closely, I’d like you to start trying to explain what’s going on here,” she said. “What do you think about what you’ve seen? Have you got any theories or hypotheses about what’s going on? And what evidence have you got to support that?”

This is where the lesson really started to come alive.

“It’s got something to do with recessive genes,” reasoned one student. “Recessive genes,” repeated Jenny, “what makes you say that?” “Well….” said the student, and went on to explain her thinking. Another student joined in. “I agree,” he said, “and I think the capital Y is the code for green, whilst the lower-case y is the code for yellow.” Quick as lightning, another student jumped in. “What makes you say that?” he said, “surely it would make more sense to use G for green and Y for yellow.” The second student took a second to think. “No, I think it’s like that other example we looked at, when capital B was for brown eyes and lower case b for blue.” Another pause. “I’m thinking that the two green beans outside the squares in the second generation are offspring from the first generation,” offered another student. “Why do you think that?” said Jenny. “Well…” said the student . . .

And that is only a brief extract from the learning conversations that took place that period. Later, of course, Jenny moved into the final phase of the routine by asking students what questions they still had, what they were still wondering. But the thing that really struck me was how much students were enjoying their hypothesising, loving the intellectual rigour of Reasoning with Evidence. If students didn’t ‘self-justify’, Jenny never missed an opportunity to press for justification, often employing the thinking routine ‘What makes you say that?’ to do so. Ultimately, when the bell rang and children were free to go to lunch, none of them went. Instead, they opted to stay behind and pepper Jenny with questions and theories, another indication of how engaged they were in the experience of learning.

One thing is very clear to me. Jenny doesn’t believe that her job as a Science teacher is about copying and pasting everything she already knows about Mendelian inheritance and Punnett squares into the minds of her students. That’s not to say that in future lessons she didn’t go on to introduce discipline-specific terminology such as dominant and recessive alleles, genotypes and phenotypes, now that she’d paved the way and awoken their curiosity. But this lesson, she chose to make time for thinking. For Jenny, Reasoning with Evidence was a BIG ROCK that day . . . and it was making time for this BIG ROCK that led to such active engagement and deep learning. As Jenny herself has told me, “I’ve found that students grasp the complex concepts of my subject area much faster and far more meaningfully in a single lesson of SeeThinkWondering than in two solid weeks of old fashioned content delivery.”

I’ve seen many other lessons this year where Reasoning with Evidence was clearly a BIG ROCK for the teacher.

For example, one particular Maths lesson springs to mind, where students and teacher were working together on a single complex problem involving bearings, trigonometry, simultaneous equations and algebra. In order to solve the problem, the class needed to think their way through four distinct phases, and at each phase, the teacher paused to press for Reasoning with Evidence. “What do you think we might try here?” he asked. “Why do you think we should do that?” Or sometimes, “OK – I’m going to show you how I might solve this part, but then I’d like you to tell me why you think I choose to do it this way.” It was the constant expectation for Reasoning with Evidence that led to students in that class to develop deep understanding about this complex application of trigonometry.

When teachers make Reasoning with Evidence a BIG ROCK . . . when they place this thinking move front and central in the learning opportunities they create, they choose to become masters of time rather than its victim (Ritchhart, 2015), and build a culture of thinking in service of engagement, independence and deep understanding.

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