21st century skills
Review of Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools, by Ron Ritchhart
Among the more vexing trends in education is our current fixation on developing “21st Century Skills.” The lists of skills vary a bit, but they typically include competence in at least some of the following areas: critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication. Perhaps it is the “21st century” designation itself that is most annoying; it has never been clear to me what makes these skills unique to our new millennium. Wasn’t communication important in the 20th century, too? (And the 17th?) And when this movement goes the way of all flesh, as such things do in our line of work, will schools stop emphasizing these skills and move on to…something else that starts with a “C”?
But there is no denying the importance of these skills, no matter the century, and as aims for education they certainly seem to have taken root – especially “critical thinking,” that most intellectually muscular of talents. In fact, one could argue that given current events, the ability to think critically is more urgent now than ever before.
When I visit schools, I always ask members of the community what makes their school distinctive. Apart from the close relationships between teachers and students, the response I hear most frequently is, “We teach students how to think.” Of course at some level everyone already knows how to think; if not, we couldn’t get out of bed each morning. When pressed, they often refine it to “We teach critical thinking,” which sounds important but is similarly inexact.
Generally, what we mean by teaching “critical thinking” is that we teach students to be discerning, to weigh competing claims and to determine their merit, to synthesize, to reason and make effective decisions. In addition, when we teach students how to think, we also try to teach them how to think about themselves as well – how to be thoughtful, introspective, and self-evaluative. Becoming your best self requires a lot of critical thinking skill, too.
Unfortunately, most teachers I know (and I include myself here) have at best fuzzy notions about how they teach thinking skills – and even less of an idea of how to measure their success in doing so. We hope that the educational environment – caring teachers, time-honored curricula, and motivated peers – will work some kind of alchemy and that critical thinking will simply happen as a result. Specifics (and a game plan) are in short supply.
I’ve made my feelings clear about educational literature in past reviews (i.e., I think a lot of it is garbage), so it is with humility that I say that reading Ron Ritchhart’s outstanding book Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools was indeed a transformational experience for me. It gave shape and structure to how to teach critical thinking that before I had only vague notions about.
Ritchhart hypothesizes that we can create environments of thinking by being more intentional about the forces that shape educational culture in schools. He identifies these forces as
He then discusses in great detail how teachers and administrators might alter the learning environments in each area at both the classroom and school level to create cultures of thinking. For instance, in his chapter on language, Ritchhart outlines how the language we use in the classroom can have a direct impact on our students’ development of critical thinking skills. He advocates for a variety of changes: analyzing and altering the language a teacher uses in the service of learning (down to the last pronoun), increasing wait time when responding to students, changing the ways we ask questions, and modeling the language of thinking, to name but a few. Ritchhart delineates these alterations and their outcomes in a more nuanced way than I have space and time to review here. Suffice it to say that the effect can be significant, and I have dozens of pages dog-eared and ideas scribbled in the margins for how to change my own teaching.
Reading this book made my brain hurt (but in a good way). In every chapter, I found myself asking, “Do I do this? Why not? Could I? Yes!” Weighing my own teaching against Ritchhart’s best practices was an exercise in embarrassment; in his ideal classroom, teachers are purposeful about every word, every minute, and every activity, each of which is harnessed in the service of creating cultures of thinking. “People often mention that in a culture of thinking, there is a sense of purpose to the learning,” he writes. “This…imbues the group’s efforts with personal and collective meaning” (4). It was also daunting – Ritchhart’s methods ask a lot of teachers in terms of time, energy, and focus. The first way to ensure your students are thinking critically, he says, is to think critically yourself about your own teaching…and then work, work, work.
This book forced me to stop and contemplate the muddled mess of my teaching – and to begin to formulate a plan to fix it. Creating Cultures of Thinking is my new guidebook for becoming the teacher my students deserve. I highly recommend it.
A version of this review can be found here.