Addressing the need for our 21st century children to be equipped with the thinking skills essential for not only success but survival is an issue New Zealand schools are confronting. At Waikato Diocesan School for Girls we wanted to model the values we see in thinking - curiosity, wondering, challenging, applying - and include all sectors of our school in the experience.
From this objective emerged the Thinker in Residence initiative: an entire week for the entire school - teachers, students and parents - to think about thinking. In February 2008 the initiative was launched, and we welcomed our inaugural Thinker in Residence, Dr Jamie McKenzie. Dr. McKenzie is an international educationalist, writer and speaker from Bellingham, Washington in the USA. Based at Waikato Diocesan School for Girls for a week, he was able to immerse himself in the school culture, from a welcoming powhiri on the Monday to a spiritual "leavers' ceremony" and blessing on the Friday. He was here to provide insights, reflections and challenges specific to our community.
Throughout the week Dr. McKenzie worked with teachers within various contexts, including an afternoon introductory workshop, a professional learning community discussion, a district-wide full-day teacher seminar, and many individual meetings. His over-riding premise for our staff was that "a good school would ask all of its students to become thinkers." That this sentiment is reflected in the new New Zealand Curriculum as one of five key competencies, and that a government would require of its citizens to "ask questions and challenge the basis of assumptions and perceptions" (Ministry of Education, 2007) is something that Dr. McKenzie finds extraordinarily forward thinking.
Teachers continued their reflections on "thinking about thinking" within their professional learning communities, grappling with possible contexts, and potential barriers, for applying this competency. As one teacher said, "I want the students to sit down to a new question and answer it because they can think about it, not because they know the prescribed answer". This dichotomy between rich teaching and learning experiences and the demands of assessment was shared in several contexts. One teacher asked, "how can we value originality and creativity if it doesn"t fit in the box for 'excellence?'" To such obstacles Dr. McKenzie reminded us of the need to value - and give feedback on - the "spirit" of learning, as well as the formal tasks. As a school we have enunciated what we value in learning, and must remember to give feedback to students on how they are developing in these values.
We can do this by a process of scaffolding our students towards being the kinds of thinkers we want and need them to be. Teachers can re-examine the kinds of assignments and questions we ask. We can expect the thinking classroom to be challenging, and help our students to be resilient and take risks. We can place more value and emphasis on the learning task than the assessment. While we have a set of values to express the "spirit of learning," can we so easily express - and give feedback on - the "spirit of teaching?" Teachers who worked individually with Dr. McKenzie reported a refreshed perspective on aspects of their practice, especially around the tasks and questions they set.
When Dr. McKenzie met with the school community - parents and interested members of the public - in another seminar during the Thinker in Residence week, he took them through some of the content and concepts he had covered with students - their daughters. He implored parents to allow them to think creatively in order to "inoculate them against manipulation", showing them how in so many cases the media is "photoshopping reality". When asked what - or how - to motivate teenagers to question, Dr. McKenzie expressed his view that teenagers must learn to think in order to simply survive, as there are so many forces compelling them not to think - and these forces are killing our young people. That a motivation to question comes from their family morals and personal passions was a strong message for our community.
During the course of the week Waikato Diocesan School for Girls students encountered their Thinker in Residence, as he was invited to visit classrooms and engage with students, and he spent time around the campus in a visible and approachable way. There were also several seminar events scheduled for various groups of students, and for one school-wide senior student seminar we were joined by other "thinking" schools who travelled from far afield to enhance their student voice on thinking. Students reported that their interactions with Dr. McKenzie "stimulating and thought-provoking", especially since they were "able to argue a point with him, and to have a discussion where going off on tangents was encouraged!" Dr. McKenzie"s context for his student seminars was to explore the concept of "beauty", and he did so with a fast-paced mix of multi-media and Internet tools. Students were encouraged to engage, question and challenge throughout, and their perceptions were often fresh, insightful and powerful. One student emailed, "Thank you for inviting the thinker. I really enjoyed talking to him and afterwards I couldn't stop thinking about what we had talked about".
As one student said, "In terms of changing my perspective on being a thinker, I think I can really say is that I had never thought of anyone being a 'thinker' before! We can see when somebody is good at thinking outside the square, but had never considered before that it is something that we can improve on." Another commented that, while her peers enjoy thinking about certain issues and gathering knowledge about current events, "it is not often that we get a chance to really discuss them with somebody who is more interested in the fact that we are discussing them at all than what our personal views on the issues themselves are".
The challenge now is for the teachers, students and parents to maintain the momentum, and to do what it takes to become a truly thinking school. With a combination of time to think about thinking and some practical tools for doing so, for the whole school community, the Thinker in Residence initiative has shown that Waikato Diocesan School for Girls is a school determined to pay more than lip service to this vital element of the new New Zealand Curriculum. It is the role of our school to, as Dr. McKenzie said, "model the useful thinking, and equip the girls to keep thinking".
Ministry of Education. (2007). The New Zealand Curriculum. Wellington: Learning Media.