Review: Teaching for Thinking Forum

“Five percent of the people think;
ten percent of the people think they think;
and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.”
-Attributed to Thomas A. Edison

The teaching profession, I have often heard, and am discovering for myself, is often about the networking you have done and the connections you have forged through a professional learning network (PLN), both online and offline.Or, to put it in the vernacular, it is all about who you know. The only reason I heard about the Teaching for Thinking Forum, that was hosted last night by St Leo’s Catholic College in Wahroonga, was that my sister-in-law is a teacher there and shared the flyer on her Facebook wall, which is yet another indicator for the need for teachers to have a professional presence online, but I digress.

This particular conference was aimed at showing how a culture of thinking can be and has been applied, and the beneficence of stretching our students to think in genuine ways, and the beneficence of us, as teachers, allowing time and appreciating our the output of our student’s thinking. To this end, the four speakers targeted different aspects of thinking and how they have been implemented in their schools.

The night was arranged with two speakers on either side of a fifteen minute networking and refreshment break. At the conclusion of the forum, there was a further opportunity for networking and conversation with many attendees going for dinner together at a nearby eatery.

The first speaker, and for me personally, the most engaging and motivating speaker was Dominic Hearne, the Head of Learning Enrichment and the Head of Religious Education at Waverley College. under the heading A model of / for Gifted and Talented Education (as used at Waverley College). Dominic outlined a BOSTES approved series of courses that that they developed and targeted towards those students who sat in the 80% – 95% range across key learning areas as a way of extending those students and providing opportunities for them to be challenged.

Dominic’s first point was a discussion of the models of extension that are traditionally utilised which tend to fall into one of two buckets. The first bucket that Dominic identified was where those students are withdrawn from the regular classroom context and provided with either one-to-one or small-group learning situations where they are extended and stretched in their particular learning area. It was pointed out that this can create further difficulties in itself, as the student is then required to catch-up on the learning they were not present for as a result of their extension opportunities. This can have the flow-on effect of creating additional stress for the student, which is of course not a desirable outcome.

The alternative that is often implemented is team-teaching, whereby a second teacher enters the classroom and provides one-to-one instruction that is aimed at extending the student. This however has its own pitfalls. In the early stages of such a practice, it can often be a source of much distraction to other students, as the new sounds, the discussion of the teacher and the student being extended, in provide an undercurrent of noise to the primary teacher delivering instruction to the majority of the class.

Dominic indicated that Waverley College wanted to combine the beneficial aspects of both practices, and developed two courses which they have been approved by BOSTES. ‘Learning Enrichment’ is now compulsory for Years Seven and Eight, and ‘Human Society and Applied Philosophy’ is now an elective for Years Nine and Ten.

Pure philosophy scares the [students]. Learning Enrichment dresses it up in respectability”
Dominic Hearne

Taking a step backwards, Dominic indicated that when they, as a school, identified that they wished to provide stretch learning opportunities for those students who were between the average and the top end of the academic bell-curve, the first thing that was done was the removal of the term Gifted and Talented as there is an extraordinary amount of baggage and expectation attached to that label. The use of Learning Enrichment as an alternative is not simply a case of ‘the same thing dressed differently’ but is an opportunity to widen the catchment net and enable those students who may not ordinarily be considered for a Gifted and Talented program, to be considered for this ‘Learning Enrichment’ opportunity.

The entry course, Learning Enrichment, delivers explicit teaching in critical thinking skills, and forward-maps the current learning to the future, explicitly, so that students understand why they are undertaking the project. The statement is put to them that they are the future leaders, and that in ten years they will have graduated, not only from high school, but from university. This creates, immediately, high expectations, by saying to the students that you will graduate from university, rather than you might graduate from university. In addition to this, all members of the school executive are expected to engage with the delivery of this course as a matter of fact.

“If students are not engaging with the [higher order thinking skills from] Bloom’s Taxonomy, that indicates a problem with the pedagogy, not with the student.”
-Dominic Hearne

The first unit, Dominic related to us, was an examination of epistemology, delivered as if it were a one hundred level undergraduate course, and done so without apology. Other units included were Problem Solving Skills, which was largely based on the concepts of the Future Problem Solving Program, in which students were expected to identify and solve a problem that was present within the school. This has result in presentations to the school business manager of how solar power can be utilised to save money, a presentation that included costings, and which has since acted upon with one building’s roof now being covered with solar panels.

Dominic gave us an example of how the Applied Philosophy course is delivered to Year Nine and Ten students, by asking us as an audience a question he asks those students: what are the life lessons we can learn from Bugs Bunny? If it has been a while since you have watched a Bugs Bunny cartoon, here is a clip from YouTube from the fiftieth anniversary of Bugs Bunny featuring highlights of fifty years of Bugs Bunny in three and a half minutes:

The question was hat are the life lessons we can learn from Bugs Bunny? Some of the responses that were offered up included that Bugs is always right, that animals can talk, that having a speech impediment is normal (think about how many of the core Looney Tunes characters have one), that cross dressing is normal (think about how many times you have seen Bugs or any of the others cross-dressing), that all skunks are French and are lechers and that death is not real. The point of the exercise is that the life lessons we learn from watching Bugs is that we create, in our minds, a universe which we accept without question. I remember watching Michael Jordan in the movie Space Jam, and not even blinking when Michael Jordan fell from the sky into the Looney Tunes world without getting hurt, because that is the world which my mind has constructed and accepted based upon years of watching cartoons.

This line of thinking then gets applied to our own world, and leads the way into questioning our assumptions and beliefs, and to becoming critical thinkers, and is an exercise I would like to undertake with some of my Stage Three students to get them thinking about critical thinking and questioning assumptions.

Other units throughout the program include a study of the Art of War and the Ethics of peace, an examination of St Augustine’s concept of a Just War leading into an examination of what happens when the war stops, and questioning why are some wars not really wars, why does the war on terror, need the ‘on terror’ designation and what that mean for the supposed war, and what happens when the Peacekeeping forces and humanitarian agencies enter after a war has concluded.

“Gifted and Talented is perjorative and we wanted to avoid that due to the loading and expectations already found. Learning Enrichment widens the net.”
Dominic Hearne

The last aspect of the course was the literary study. To be quite honest, this literary study sounds more difficult than what I was required to do in order to attain Honours Class I at university. Students are required to submit a three thousand word literary study, that is not about the story, but that is about the subtext of the story and the social, political and economic times in which the story was written, and in which the story is set. The student is then required to conduct a viva-voce, consisting of a fifteen minute presentation of their thesis and a fifteen minute defense thereof. This creates a mindset and a skillset in the students where they are required to thoroughly know and understand and be able to apply their knowledge and the concepts within their thesis, in order to adequately defend it from the questioning of their peers. It forces students to be able to organise their writing and their notes, and finally it forces them to be able to think on their feet. All of these are skills they will need to succeed in academia, both at the senior High School level and at the tertiary level, and are skills that will be useful in later life. It also creates a mindset for the students upon entering university that a fifteen-hundred word essay is nothing to sweat over, which puts them ahead of their peers.

I took a lot from Dominic’s presentation, and much of what he talked about is very similar to what I hope to achieve with my primary students during the research project. Dominic kindly provided a copy of the Human Society and Applied Philosophy course outline to the audience, which I will be reading with great interest. I spoke briefly with Dominic afterwards, and will be contacting him to arrange a suitable time to visit the college and observe a lesson, and speak further to determine ways in which I can adapt the pedagogy and the concepts of the course to be suitable for my Stage Two and Stage Three students.

If you are teaching explicit philosophy or applied philosophy, I would very much like to hear from you in regards to the pedagogical strategies you are using to allow the students to understand the complex concepts contained therein, and then apply them critically.

My next article, on Tuesday (delayed due to the long weekend here in NSW), will focus on the second speaker, Simon Brooks, the Head of Teaching and Learning at Masada College and his presentation entitled Cultures of Thinking – An Introduction to the Why and How.

Until then, thank you for reading, and my thanks again, to St Leos Catholic College for organising and hosting such a wonderfully inspiring and challenging conference, and to the speakers for giving up their time.

EDIT: Jump to Part Two of the Review: Teaching for Thinking Forum series.

7 thoughts on “Review: Teaching for Thinking Forum

  1. Great blog Brendan. The structure and sequence Dominic offered was very inspiring. What struck me – is the passion he has for his and his students’ learning. Something you can’t buy! Looking forward to your future blogs.


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