Thinking Opportunities

Planning new units and daily lessons for classes is one of my favorite parts of teaching. I appreciate getting the chance to think creatively on a daily basis. I enjoy thinking about how my teaching should reflect the needs and aspirations of my students. I feel comfortable in my ability to plan. Through my individual decision making and through collaboration with my peers, I feel that I can find meaningful ways for my students to engage with the lesson, content, and curriculum.

Lately, I have had a sinking feeling in my gut. I have felt that even if I put together well thought out lesson plans in accordance to topics and standards, I feel that I am falling short on giving students the opportunity to think deeply about the topics that we are covering. My lessons and unit plans are tailored to content…and lots of it. I am planning to have students engage with content while thinking and making their own meaning at a warp speed. So even if my colleagues and I plan out the unit of our lives, if that unit is concentrated on content rather than thinking, creating, and connecting, we are not setting up our students to be adults ready to succeed in the real world. We are only setting them up to be strong memorizers who have only learned to think about issues on a shallow level and keep their knowledge confined to that unit of study.

I am much more interested in working towards an educational future that I think is better for students rather than lamenting where we are now. To help push myself forward — and maybe some other educators — here are some thought provoking ideas and resources that I have come across that can help create an education where students are given the time and focus to critically think, reflect and engage with ideas and processes that they will be able to apply throughout their academic, professional and civic lives.


Students need to be given the chance to think. They should be expected to think all of the time. When we focus too heavily on content, we the teachers become the thinkers. We think about how to transfer all we know to them and they sit back and remember facts. So here is my idea: Let’s allow kids to think more about less. Let’s allow student thinking drive our design, not content. We as teachers can ask what will students think and grapple with, not what facts will they learn.

David Perkins outlines in his book Future Wise how we can plan for big understandings. For big understandings (and thus big thinking) we need to plan units that are:

  1. Big in insight: The understanding helps to reveal how our physical, social, artistic, and other worlds work.
  2. Big in action: The understanding empower us to take effective action professionally, socially, politically, or in other ways.
  3. Big in ethics: The understanding urges us toward more ethical, humane, caring mind-sets and conduct.
  4. Big in opportunity: The understanding is likely to come up in significant ways in varied circumstances.

When we plan for big understandings we are planning for students to think, ponder, and explore. The nature of all of Perkin’s “bigs” will push students to think about themselves, their ability to enact change in the world and to solve problems. The four “bigs” take learning from passive to active. By being a thoughtful participant in their learning process students increase their ability to build empathy, understand perspectives, make meaning of abstract ideas, and solve problems.

In order for students to connect with the “big” understandings shared by David Perkins, students need to develop the skills and complex thinking traits associated with a discipline. When we plan with an intention of not passing along content, but of passing along a set of thinking skills, we give students tools to use as they grapple with ideas. In our planning we need to give students the opportunity to practice and develop the skills that will allow them to unlock their understandings. I teach Social Studies and I think that we can have students work with primary sources or be responsible for interviewing people that have experienced a significant historical event. When a student is taught how they can utilize skills to create and construct their own understanding allows the the richness of thinking and learning process to shine for the students. Organization such as the Stanford History Education Group provide resources that help teachers begin to teach subject area thinking skills to their students. By mastering subject specific thinking skills, once again, students school and learning experience goes from passive to active as now they are taking control and forming their own meaning, connections, and understandings. 


The world is complex and ever changing. When many of our students leave high school they will be of voting age. They will be able to be active participants in civic society all over the world. Yet, I can’t help but wonder how many schools prepare students to be active, knowledgeable, contributing members of a global society. I would encourage each teacher all of the time to teach with social justice issues at the center of their curriculum. By teaching with Social Justice in mind we can help students make connections between what we teach, the world around them, and how the two connect. Without planning for letting students make connections and build empathy we could set them up for a future of selfishness or complacency. We educators can promote equality, peace, and sustainable development if we plan with the idea in mind that our lessons and units can inspire students to take action regarding a real world issue that is happening right now. By making the explicit connections we can show how potentially abstract ideas in school can make concrete impacts in the real world. Students will see that their knowledge and ideas are powerful. It is through feeling empowered to take action that we can engage students in their learning experience. We can educators can find inspiration not only from other schools but from real students as well. We can help to make connections so as to keep students connected to what is happening in the real world.

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