Learning to Think: Part One – All Students Can Learn to be Mindful
By: Courtney Kowalczyk, M.Ed.
Summer is quickly coming to an end, and school has begun for many children. School buses are busily picking up students and dropping them off during the morning and evening commutes. With the beginning of a new school year, I thought it would be helpful to look into the realm of education and the way our students think and learn.
For most students in the general education population today, the focus of education is on their ability to think and use problem solving skills. We are seeing more and more schools moved towards integrated curricula that teach children math, reading, and writing skills in a more dynamic fashion. A majority of these curricula pose real world problems that students work through and solve as they learn concepts along the way. For many children, this type of curricula proves to be beneficial; for others however, it can be very challenging. For example, children who struggle with reading typically have greater difficulty using curricula formatted in this fashion, since most of it is comprised of written language that needs to be read, dissected, and understood in order to progress through the problem at hand. For these individuals, accommodations to the curricula are usually made to make it easier for the child to understand and process.
When thinking about children with more significant disabilities like cognitive impairments, neurological issues, or Autism, we typically see educators using curricula of a more static nature. These types of curricula tend to be more repetitive. I wonder though: How are these types of materials preparing children for the real world, given that these students typically have the greatest amount of difficulty in the realm of problem solving and creative thinking?
As a teacher of children with severe multiple disabilities, I found myself in an interesting predicament several years back. How was I going to prepare my students to be active participants in the community? Reading books and doing worksheets was not going to cut it. My students needed to learn how to think and be mindful of their surroundings. I decided to take a developmental approach to their learning, and to provide as many opportunities during the day for my students to think and process information. I threw out all of the extras I had plugged into our day, and gave myself and my staff the time that was needed to help our students become mindful. One of the greatest challenges that I faced was getting out of the rut of doing the same thing day in and day out. I had to do so much more thinking in order to plan activities that would allow my students the opportunity to do their own thinking as well. Here are the first few of several modifications and suggestions that I will be sharing with you over the next few months:
- Stop asking so many questions! I found myself constantly asking my students questions like “What color is this?” I used such questions to gauge their understanding of what I was teaching; but, I found that they were responding to my static questions in their own static way. Static questions, do not offer opportunities for idea sharing or comparing and contrasting. With this knowledge in mind, think about the questions that you ask. Can you change those questions to more open-ended statements? Instead of “What color is this?”, you could say to a student “I forget the name of this color.” With a more open-ended statement like this, you will be opening the door for more dynamic dialogue and social interaction.
- Slow down and let your students think! With the demands on today’s teachers, it is tough to consider slowing down—especially when you have so much to cover in such a short period of time. I must say, however, that they old saying is true: “Slow down to speed up”. By giving your students time to process information, you allow them to think and problem solve on their own. If they can make their own discovery about a topic area, it will be so much more meaningful to them than if they had been told what to do or how to fix the problem. All children have the ability to think and conduct problem solving on their own at their appropriate learning level; but they need to be allowed to have the time to do it, and they need to feel supported in the learning process.
By allowing my students to think about the topic we were studying and providing them more opportunities for open-ended dialogue, I found that my students were learning and thinking about so many different things in their environment. It was wonderful to discover how much of an impact I could make on the learning process of my students and their quality of life now and in the future. See what amazing things can happen when you make little changes like these!