Creating Cultures of Thinking: A book review by Bob Morris

Creating CulturesCreating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools
Ron Ritchhart
Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Brand (2016)

“Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.” Pablo Picasso

As I began to read this book, I was again reminded of an observation by John Kotter years ago during an interview that the most difficult change to make happen is to change how people think about change. That is why it is imperative to think creatively when creating a workplace culture within which creative thinking is most likely to thrive.

I agree with Ron Ritchhart that schools must be about developing students’ thinking dispositions, the need to make students’ thinking visible, and the crucial role of classroom culture in supporting and shaping learning are the three core ideas that serve as the foundation of his mission to help schools to transform themselves into cultures of thinking. However U.S. public schools are ranked in relation to those in other developed countries, the fact remains that U.S. public schools do little (if anything) to strengthen their students’ learning skills, except on an ad hoc basis

As Ritchhart explains, his book is about transforming our schools and classrooms into enriched and dynamic learning communities. “As educators, parents, and citizens we must settle for nothing less than environments that bring out the best in people, take learning to the next level, allow for great discoveries, and propel both the individual and the group forward into a lifetime of learning. This is something all teachers want and all students deserve…I believe that culture is the hidden tool for transforming out school and offering our students the best learning possible…Change the deliverable — Common Core, National Curriculum, International Baccalaureate Diploma — and you have transformed education they assume. In reality, curriculum is something that is enacted with students. It plays out with the dynamics of the school and the classroom culture. Thus culture is foundational. It will determine how any culture comes to life” or, I perfume to add, does not. Insofar as learning is concerned, too many public schools (notably those with classes in grades 5-12) are dreary mausoleums rather than dynamic laboratories.

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Richhart’s coverage in Chapters 1-4

o A New Standard for Education, and, The Forces That Shape Culture (Pages 5-10)
o Tools for Transformation (10-11)
o Thinking Differently About Outcomes (16-19)
o Culture as the Enactment of a Story (20-29)
o Crafting a Different Story for Schools (29-34)
o Focusing Students on Learning vs. the Work (43-46)
o Teaching for Understanding vs. Knowledge (47-50)
o Encouraging Deep vs. Surface Learning Strategies (50-54)
o The Language of Thinking (68-71)
o The Language of Community (71-74)
o The Language of Identity (74-75)
o The Language of Initiative (75-78)
o The Language of Mindfulness (78-80)
o The Language of Listening (82-83)
o Recognizing Time as a Statement of Your Values (96-98)
o Learning to Prioritize and Always Prioritizing Learning (98-102)
o Giving Thinking Time (102-105)
o Managing Energy, Not Time (107-110)

Richhart discusses in detail each of the eight forces that shape culture: Expectations, Language, Time, Modeling, Opportunities, Routines, and Iterations. “Awareness of the presence of the cultural forces in any group context [for better or worse] helps prospective and experienced educators alike take a more active role in shaping culture. In doing so, we move away from the view of teaching as transmission and toward the creation of a culture of thinking and learning in which curriculum comes alive. Let the transformation begin.”

I commend Richhart on his provision of a boxed mini-commentary on key issues with which he concludes each chapter. He also provides (count ‘em) eight appendices. In Appendix E, he identifies and discusses six key principles of the cultures of the Cultures of Thinking Project:

1. Sills are not sufficient; we must also have the disposition to use them.
2. The development of thinking and understanding is fundamentally a social endeavor.
3. The culture of the classroom teaches.
4. As educators, we must strive it make students’ thinking visible.
5. Good thinking utilizes a variety of resources and is facilitated by the use of external tools to “download” or “distribute” one’s thinking.
6. For classrooms to be cultures of thinking for students, schools must be cultures of thinking for teachers.

These principles are evident in the mini-case studies that Richhart includes. They demonstrate “the importance of allowing teachers to own the process of creating culture of thinking. This means listening to teachers, engaging teachers in teaching one another, and providing avenues for teacher leadership…Creating a culture of thinking must always be a goal that individuals embrace to improve their teaching and advance the learning of their students. From this place, teachers can then support, push, and nourish the efforts of their colleagues as the school collectively grows into a culture of thinking, and the lives and learning of all are truly transformed.” Idealistic? Of course. Should that vision not be?

I share Richhart’s deep concerns about the serious problems that most public schools now face. The low quality of thinking that created those problems cannot be expected to solve them. There really must be a transformation of thinking before the schools can be transformed. Only then can what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom” be overcome by much better thinking than what has been brought to bear until now.

I selected the Picasso comment because it correctly reminds us we must eliminate in order to create. Long ago, Michelangelo stared at a slab of marble, saw David within it, and began to chip away. Those of us who share Ron Richhart’s vision must join in chipping away to create a culture of thinking for as many students and teachers as we can.

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