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The Learning Success Blog

Creating Cultures of Thinking: Dr Ron Ritchhart - Harvard University

Posted by Colin Klupiec on April 2, 2016 at 6:22 PM

Ron_Ritchhart.pngDr Ron Ritchhart’s work on Creating Cultures of Thinking has helped transform the process of learning in classrooms around the world.

Creating Cultures of Thinking has developed from Ron Ritchhart's work as a part of Project Zero at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education.

Project Zero is a 50 year old organisation that began with just a few researchers, and now has over 30 employees.

Ron spoke with The Learning Capacity podcast and talked about his book, Creating Cultures of Thinking: the 8 forces we must master to truly transform our schools. It’s challenging, and in some places confronting, but the stories he tells are quite compelling.

Listen to this Learning Capacity podcast episode:

Topics covered

  1. Cultures of Thinking
  2. 8 Cultural Forces
  3. Harvard University's Project Zero

People mentioned

  1. Dr Ron Ritchhart
  2. Professor Howard Gardner
  3. Professor David Perkins
  4. Dr Daniel Wilson
  5. Dr Shari Tishman
  6. Sir Ken Robinson

Resources/books/articles mentioned

1.Creating Cultures of Thinking: the 8 forces we must master to truly transform our schools

Other Links

  1. Harvard Graduate School of Education

Previous podcast episodes on SoundCloud

If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:

 Episode 36 of The Learning Capacity Podcast

Creating Cultures of Thinking with Dr Ron Ritchhart from Harvard University

Colin Klupiec: I'm Colin Klupiec, and you're listening to the Learning Capacity podcast. This podcast is brought to you by LearnFast, providers of neuroscience-based learning remediation and learning enhancement programs since 1999. To find out more about Learn Fast and individually tailored learning programs for your child, visit learnfasthome.com.au.

On this podcast, we talk with researchers, scientists, educators, and educational thought drivers about leading issues in education. In this episode, we talked with Dr Ron Ritchhart, whose work is a part of Project Zero at Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Project Zero is a 50 year old organization that began with just a few researchers and now boasts over 30 employees. Ron Ritchhart's work on cultures of thinking has helped transform the process of learning in classrooms around the world.

And today, we talk specifically about his book Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools. It's a challenging read, and in some places, confronting, but the stories he tells are quite compelling. Ron Ritchhart, thanks for joining us.

Dr Ron Ritchhart: I'm glad to be here, Colin.

Colin: We're here to talk today about your work with cultures of thinking, and in particular, I want to make reference to your book Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools. It's a great title, by the way. Your work on cultures of thinking is listed as a part of Project Zero at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Just briefly, for our listeners, how did that begin and how did that emerge into what it is today?

Project Zero focusses on learning, not schooling

Ron: Well, Project Zero is one of the oldest researcher development groups in education in the world. We're about to celebrate our 50th anniversary. Most people are familiar with Howard Gardner and David Perkins, who were two of the first original co-directors of Project Zero.

The guiding force behind it has always been a really deep interest in issues of learning, of understanding, of creativity, of intelligence, and how those things are promoted and how they live in the world in all kinds of different contexts.

So one of the really exciting things about our research group, which is quite diverse, is that we really do focus on learning rather than schooling. Allows us to really focus on how people learn in all kinds of different contexts.

So although we do work in schools, and a lot of my research is very classroom-based and school-based, we aren't limited to how we help kids do school better. We focus more on how do we help learn better, how do we help develop intelligence, how do we help develop thinking dispositions, creativity, agency, all those kinds of things.

So at any one time, there are probably about anywhere from 15 to 25 different projects going on, but they all kind of unite together with that common interest in learning.

Colin: I find that an interesting perspective actually, because we often talk about how to improve our schools, how to fix education, but we don't often talk about, at least not in my experience, we don't use the language of improving learning. So I find that perspective very interesting.

Coming to the eight forces, you list eight forces, which I'll just mention them quickly: Expectations, language, time, modeling, opportunities, routines, interactions, and environmental.

The first force - expectations

All very large topics in their own right. By way of introduction, I'll start with a comment from the first force, expectations, and then move on to a couple of others. Now, you talk about, or you mentioned not so much having expectations of our students, but expectations for our students. This resonated strongly because, in my experience, you'll see the language of "expectations of" everywhere.

You'll see it on signs on the wall, you'll hear teachers say "Our expectations of you today are," or "My expectation of your effort in this task is." But you don't often hear people say, "My expectations for your future," or "My expectations for what you might do down the track."

It's a subtle but it's a very important difference of language. It's almost as if it's become more about us than it is about them. My question to you is, to what extent does this difference set the tone for our classrooms and schools?

Ron: Well, I absolutely agree with what you just said, Colin, which has been my experience as well, that when I first began talking with people about expectations, I found that there was a lot of confusion, because people did in fact think about those are just their expectations of students.

One thing that I'd like to say about our expectations of another human being, whether it be of our students or our spouse or anyone else, is expectations of other people are cheap because they don't cost us anything. So it's easy to put things forth as things that we would like our students to give to us, that we would like to see from them.

But that isn't really what guides a classroom, or really helps in terms of its culture. It's not that those are inappropriate. Just even hearing the difference between having an expectation of independence, meaning we just want students to come in and be independent, to act independently, versus an expectation for independence. Which that means, for us as educators, part of the obligation is on us to create the conditions, to create the supports, to nurture that development.

It means we certainly do want our students to be independent but that we are collaborators in that. So, I absolutely think that this is really, and I chose to put that cultural force first in the book precisely for the reason, because I feel that it is so foundational that these are the guiding things for us as teachers.

And around the world, we've focused teachers on the new curriculum coming in, the national curriculum, and we've kind of sent teachers the message that it's all about the delivery of the curriculum, it's all about the preparation for the test.

A different way of looking at what we do is, those expectations we have for our students are the big picture. That's what we are guiding them in, that's what we are allowing them to kind of grow into. That we are thinking beyond the immediate, beyond just the delivery of our curriculum, but really guiding our students.

So I would absolutely agree that expectations for our students are the guiding force for us in the classroom.

The second force - language

Colin: I think that ties in fairly strongly with the second force. Now, it's not my intention to actually go through them in order, but it just so happens that this is the way I've picked it out.

But moving to language, I think it's a good time to mention a particular quote that you've got in your book, and I really like this quote.

It goes like this: "And that is the thing about language, it is at once ubiquitous, surrounding us constantly, yet we hardly take note of its subtleties and power. And due to its constant presence, it is shaping our behavior, interactions, thinking, attention, and feelings in ways that we might not be consciously aware of."

Now, I read that and I thought, yeah, okay, with so many competing inputs from the media, we've got advertising, we've got popular culture, how do we go about raising awareness of the importance of language; this thing that we take for granted? And I might add, in particular, language development. How do we do that?

Ron: What I found is that people and the teachers are particularly fascinated by the research on language, and the way that language suddenly influences us. And that just isn't in the classroom. But that it's in life, in the whole idea of branding, the whole idea of what are the messages, how do we connect with people? That language is sending all kinds of cues constantly.

I was at a school once where the administrative level or the leadership level referred to themselves as management. That sends a very...just that term, how we use to describe what we do, if you think about yourself as a manager, if you think about yourself as management, that's sending messages that's going to guide us.

And I think that people recognize the power and the kind of subtlety of how we are using language.So there is a very high interest in it.

At the same time, what I mentioned there is that because it operates on so many different levels, and because we are constantly using language, it can be sometimes difficult to monitor that language, to be aware of what we are doing.

And one of the things that I found has really helped in terms of developing that awareness is that many of the schools that I work with, we set up observational triads in which people go into one another's classrooms just to observe the language, the dialogue, the discourse, the questioning that's going on.

And you become more aware of that, that when you're more aware of it in other situations, then you become more aware of it in your own situation as well. So that's one of the things that really helps, I think, to develop that awareness. I also use a lot of video tapes, and we're looking at a video tape and we're watching a classroom, just to pay attention to the language.

For instance, a teacher used what I call the language of community, talking about what "we" are going to learn, "our" understanding.

So it's something as simple and as subtle as just our use of pronouns sending messages that we are including ourselves in the group, that we see the class as a community, that we see the understanding as a collective endeavor rather than an individual endeavor.

So, being aware of all of those different kinds of subtleties are very powerful and they do slowly begin to creep into our own way of speaking and our own use of language as well.

Colin: What about the actual way that we talk? I work in an environment where...I'm new to this area. I've only been here for two years. I came from a different part of Australia, a different city, and the dialect here is quite different. So I like to describe it as a broad Australian accent. And so my accent, or the way I speak, it sounds different.

Does the way we talk, as in the accent and how we actually enunciate words, does that make a difference too?

Ron: I'm not familiar with a lot of research on that. Because certainly people do pick up different patterns of speech, and the regional dialects that the people have within a country, and then of course, across different countries.

So there are those things, and I do have to admit that most of the research that I draw and have conducted myself has been only within English, that there are subtleties and things in different language.

Although, when I speak with groups in other countries, there seems to be a real resonance as well with a lot of these language moves as well.

But in terms of the dialect, people tend to adjust to that pretty quickly. So even though your patterns of speech may be slightly different from your students', gradually, their ears accustom to your way of speaking. So it's more thinking about the words we use, because they are triggers for us.

We often speak in metaphors. So, again, when you label something management, you're putting that frame around something. When we talk about school as work, we're using a metaphor of the work place for what students are doing, which, to my mind, also becomes problematic.

And I talk a lot in the book about using that metaphor of work versus learning and how that can detract students from that focus on learning, because then they just focus on doing the work, it's all about getting the points, getting the score, the compliance, rather than to focus on learning.

And of course, there is a lot of activity to learn. It's not that you don't do things, but that difference between work and learning is largely one of purpose. Years ago in educational research, one of the things that was talked about a lot was time on task. Well, think about just that labeling, about how that time on task, what it focuses our attention on.

So it's not focused on the learning, it's focused again on just a very industrial "are we using time in this very efficient way," and sometimes learning actually isn't very efficient.

The language of listening

Colin: You mentioned a wide body of research around language, and indeed there is. You mentioned several ways in the book that we can use language to create a culture of thinking, such as the language of thinking itself, the language of community, the language of identity initiative, mindfulness, appraise, and feedback. Two of them I'd like to focus on.

First one is the language of listening. It seems as if we're always asking students to listen. I mean, "Can you listen up, please? Can I have your attention? You need to listen to this. If there's anything you're going to listen to today, then you got to listen to this." And you say that teachers, particularly beginning teachers, struggle to listen back, yet they're always the ones who are asking people to listen.

The reason why this is important, as you say, is that it's a powerful way in which we can show respect for another person's thinking. Why do we not spend more time on this?

Ron: I absolutely agree that we need to spend more time. I think one of the things that I've picked up being in classrooms and thinking about the culture, is that a lot of the things that we do ask students to do, like listen, like discuss, like collaborate, we don't teach them how to do those.

Then we wind up being disappointed when a few students seem to do that very well, but most students don't, and some students do it horribly.

And we really have to recognize that these are learned skills.How do we help students to learn to listen, to discuss ideas, to respond to one another, to have that kind of dialogue. So I absolutely agree that those things need to be taught, and we don't spend enough time doing those.

The other thing about the language of listening, in addition to being taught, is the language of listening is one of the things that we model, that barely we'll listen better than the teacher listens.

So if we are models of listening, then we show our students what listening looks like, and we provide that model for them to begin to emulate so that they can listen more effectively.

On the surface, you could assume that a language of listening is about being silent, but it isn't about being silent; it is about attending to what a person says, rather than...one of the problems and one of the reasons why people tend not to listen, is in that silence when the other person is speaking, we aren't really listening. We're being silent but we're actually thinking about what we're going to say next, and that interrupts us from the listening.

So one of the key moves for us, as listeners, is often to put that need to interject, that need for us to talk, on the sideline and really be able to listen, rather than merely thinking about what we're going to say.

In the previous book I wrote on Making Thinking Visible, one of the routines in there is the micro-lab protocol. Which is a technique for actually teaching students how to listen in small groups and giving them the tools and the time to begin to do that.

Colin: I think this is incredibly important, and I would support anything that tries to get people to listen better, because listening and speaking and responding, and I guess this is where you're talking about the absence of silence in listening rather than just being silent, those things are a foundational part of human existence. If we couldn't communicate and listen to each other and interact, I think we'd struggle to survive.

And given that language underpins every subject we study, this needs to be something that really does come out and into the forefront of what we do.

So I think that's probably why this could be so difficult, because it actually requires work. You can't just take it for granted. I mean, what I'm hearing from you is that you can't just take it for granted that because someone's sitting in front of you they're actually listening to what you're saying.

Ron: That's right. And I think the other thing, for teachers, the elements of work is that when we focus on listening, there's also a shift in terms of the focus of the classroom, that typically classrooms are focused on the teacher. So we are able to command attention, we are able to grab the floor any time we want. So we are the speakers, and many teachers are very used to being the speakers. They run the show.

But the problem with that is, the more that we are that dominating presence in a classroom, that means the less students are stepping forward. So we also have to lessen our ego as teachers, instead of wanting to be front and center.

Which doesn't mean that we don't have an incredibly important role in guiding and directing, because listening actually gives us a ton of information that we need to then use and put into effect, but it means we are allowing our students to step forward rather than us being the dominant voice in the classroom.

The force of time - be masters not victims of time

Colin:  Coming now to the force of time, the opening statement in the chapter reads: "learning to be its master rather than its victim." Again, this resonated strongly. I suspect you've met quite a few victims.

Ron: Well, it's one of the things that whenever you talk with a group of teachers about anything, one of the first things is, "Yes, but there's no time." And so, it's true enough. I taught for many years, so I have that experience. However, we do need to recognize that lack of time isn't something that is unique to teaching. As human beings, we have a limited amount of time, so time is a precious commodity, in all situations.

So yes, it's absolutely limited in the classroom, and we have to think about that. But it's limited in life, and so we just have to recognize this as part of a human condition. And I think the more that we say, "Yes, but there's no time," "Yes, but there's no time," the more we're actually indicating that we are the victims rather than the masters of our time.

Colin: I couldn't help having the Pink Floyd song "Time" just sort of singing away in the back of my mind as I read through this chapter, because the first line of the song says, "Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day." And I couldn't help thinking, wow, teachers are really busy and they say that they don't have the time. Yet I can imagine that many students are ticking away the moments of a dull day.

So you've got these two sides of the same coin, that time is dragging on for the student, they're looking at the clock, thinking "Why isn't this lesson finished?" and the teacher is thinking "I've got all these things to do before the end of the day, and I just don't have any time."

And you tell a story of an Australian teacher, Nathan, from the book, who works in the high stakes environment, teaching senior students in preparation for their end of schooling exams. I'm familiar with that high stakes environment.

Yet he seems to be calm. He's relaxed, he's got plenty of time. Now, I'm sure there's a lot going on behind that, but for teachers who just can't believe that such a thing could exist, how do we start a conversation with them about this idea in an effective way?

Investing time to make time

Ron: Well, I think one place to start, and I think that one of the things that Nathan does and I think many effective teachers do, is they have to look at time as an investment. And so, particularly at the beginning of a school year, sometimes at the beginning of a class, sometimes at the beginning of a unit, you think about what are the things, in the long run, will save you time? How do you go slow in order to go fast?

So having strong relationships with students, building that, focusing students on understanding, developing routines and structures and support for students to do the kind of deep learning that you want them to, really modeling the kinds of discourse in conversation you want in the classroom. 

So spending that kind of investment that sets students up and to set a classroom up to be more effective and more efficient in the long run. And that's one of the things I found over and over again in highly effective teachers, is that they do spend a lot of time investing their time in order to save time later by building that capacity with students.

Colin: I can imagine that having this conversation with a teacher, or any professional, because you did say that time or the lack of time or the finite nature of time is not unique to teaching, that everyone's got the same 24-hour clock.

I think it might be the concept that would cause somewhat of a brain freeze with many people, particularly those people who really struggle to come to grips with the idea of investing to make time.

Because investing requires giving something up or putting something aside, so it implies work.

I've had conversations in the lunchroom about this sort of thing. And yet it rarely goes down well.  So it's almost as if I've gone through the glass wall. I've broken the sound barrier. I'm on the other side. And if I was to try and communicate the value of investing back to these people, coming back to the idea of language, what sort of language should I be using with these people?

Ron: I think whenever it's talking about the language of foundation, that when you are investing time, you are laying a foundation. And one of the things that you're doing also, going back to the expectations, is, you're investing your time in order to set up more student independence, that you are nurturing them into that independence.

One of the ways that we can invest time is that when we are setting students up to be more efficient, more independent, then more is going to happen.

One of the things that I think can be problematic for teachers is that if you don't take on that investment, then it's easy just to blame the students. "Well, I was doing my part, but the students just weren't."

And so it becomes their fault rather than "Are we really setting them up for the success?" I do think the language of investment, the language of foundations is really important for us to think about.

The force of environment

Colin: I guess it's important to try and communicate a certain sense of value, as in this is not just an investment so that someone else will get a payoff; everyone gets a payoff. And if everyone is less of a victim of time and more a master of it, then we all get on better. I think it's very much a two-way thing.

Look, there's one other thing that I'd really like to talk about as well, before I ask how do we make a start with this. But that was the force of environment, going all the way to the end of the list now.

I love the comment that you've pointed out by Sir Ken Robinson about creating new habits but also habitats. And the reason why this is also resonating strongly with me at the moment is that my son has just started kindergarten and we had an information evening earlier in the week. And it struck me again as to how the environment for him is so different to environments for senior students.

The environment is vibrant, it's colorful, and it's beautiful. And one thing stood out in that there was a shelf which had a lot of cylindrical containers, and in each one of these containers there were upturned sharpened pencils. Some were just graphite, some were colored, but there was a sea of pencils, and it was just so beautiful.

I just went over to it and I just had to pick up a pencil and draw something. If the difference between a sterile environment and a vibrant environment is so obvious, it's so easy to see - you look in one classroom, it's sterile; you look in another classroom, it's vibrant - why is this not more obvious to us, and why don't we do something about it?

Ron: I would agree with you on the difference. I would add one book into the story that you told about your son's classroom there in kindergarten, and that is that many secondary teachers will dismiss that and say, "Well, yes, that's appropriate for primary." Then of course, we get more serious. In the book that I would add is, well look at what businesses do.

There's a huge interest in organizations and in businesses and thinking about the environments in which people work, that how do we allow people, particularly when that work is meant to be creative and learning is a creative process, that when we want people to collaborate, any organization that cares about that, you will find them caring about the environment.

So then I think when we've sandwiched the secondary senior classrooms in between this rich primary environment, and a rich adult environment, then it's really more stark in saying, "Well, why is it that we have said, at this age level, that it doesn't matter, when it matters before and it matters afterwards?"

So it isn't that you've become more serious, because you could say, well, adult life is much more serious, much more higher stakes, and they're attending to those things.

So, luckily, I think that this is beginning to change slowly, not fast enough. But there is a lot of movement in terms of architecture, revamping schools.

Actually, quite a lot of this is going on in many Australian schools, as well really thinking about how is it that we make classrooms more transparent. How is it we not necessarily create open classrooms, but we put in glass walls that make the learning more visible, that we create more of a sense of community happening there.

One other connection I would make to your story, you mentioned the pencils there, is the idea of it's a provocation. It provoked you to pick up and to do something. And I think that that's also a very useful language for us to take into secondary, and say, "What is it that we want to begin to provoke our students with?

How is it that we create those opportunities for conversations, for ideas to take hold and be a spark?" So, luckily, I think that things are beginning to move, but they do, particularly in secondary schools, need to move even further.

Colin: It's become more striking to me because I wonder where the people who are further down the track, or those managers that we talked about previously, might have lost sight or forgotten or maybe it was just too long ago, that we say, to come back to the words that you were using, "That's okay for primary. But as they get older, we have to get more serious."

I would argue, well, hang on a second. My son has just started school. How much more high stakes can you get? This is a major, major transformation. It's a major milestone in his life, it's a foundational thing; you want him to start well.

I would argue that it's correct in reverse what we actually have. Because we talk about high stakes exams at the end, but what about that high stakes beginning? If you get off to a bad start, you're really in trouble.

Ron: That's right.

How can teachers make a start on cultures of thinking in their classroom

Colin: Let's just imagine that we've got thousands of listeners out there who are saying, "Yep, okay. I've heard this conversation. I don't know everything about it, but I've heard enough to know that developing a culture of thinking sounds like a really great idea, and I totally subscribe to the idea myself."

But we've got people who are maybe just being exposed to it for the first time. They haven't seen your book, and it's not the language that's commonly used around the work place. They feel completely alone, but they really want to make a start. I'm going to imagine that there are lots of these people out there. How does a person do that? Is it as simple as making a choice?

Ron: On one hand, it's certainly recognizing if a teacher at the beginning hasn't thought much about this. One of the cases that I make about the importance of culture is that, traditionally, we've put all the emphasis on the curriculum, particularly on policy makers, focus on just changing the curriculum every 10 years or so.

And university folks often put a lot of emphasis on instruction. Curriculum and instruction are really important. But I think the third leg of that stool, which is often missing, is the culture.

And we don't give teachers, teachers in training, teachers in service, the tools for really understanding how that culture is built. We kind of leave it up to chance. My research has been, well, how is it that we demystify this process of building culture, so that people really do have the tools?

So you mentioned these cultural forces, and so becoming aware of those, and one of the things that is creating that culture then, is when those eight cultural forces get pulled into alignment so that the messages that are being sent are consistent across all of those.

So it's not enough to merely change your language. If you're using a language of community, you're trying to create that community, are you also creating opportunities for community? Is your environment also organized in the order for that to take hold?

So it's when those eight cultural forces are cohesive, that's when a really strong culture exists. So I think familiarizing yourself with these eight cultural forces. You can start with any one, but beginning to think about, well, what message am I sending through that particular cultural force? Is that aligned with what I value, with what I'm trying to create for my students? And then you gradually move on.

I think that one of the most powerful things also is for any teacher to find a colleague or two to begin this process with, because it isn't the straightforward pragmatic approach that we are so used to in education. It's not "Here's the list. Just go and do this." That it is a constant cycle of refinement.

And in that sense, then teachers are always growing. And for me, that is what makes teaching such an exciting endeavor, is because we are always growing. We are always doing better as we know better, that we are creating a much more powerful learning culture for our students.

Colin: Now, you've got a couple of events coming up in Australia in February, March, and one in Melbourne, one in Sydney. This is going to be the general theme of what you're talking about? Can you be more specific about those events?

Ron: Well, Project Zero, over the past 20 years, we've done summer institutes in Cambridge, Massachusetts. About five years ago, we began to do some traveling conferences. And originally, we did those in the United sates, but then more recently, we've expanded and done those in Europe.

This will be our first two in Australia. So, many of the principlal researchers at Project Zero, Howard Gardner and David Perkins, Daniel Wilson, Shari Tishman, many of those are coming out.

So, my project, the Culture of Thinking work, represents one slice of Project Zero. This will be a two or a three-day opportunity to really hear from those researchers, both in more traditional keynote addresses to the whole group, but then also more importantly in much smaller two-hour settings that are much more workshop interactive, the chance to be in a small group with one of the researchers, really discussing, explore ideas in a really hands-on interactive way.

So it's a real open invitation to a lot of Project Zero ideas.

Colin: Well, it sounds like it's going to be very beneficial for a lot of people. And one again, I thank you for your work in this area. I think it's very inspiring. Dr Ron Ritchhart, thanks so much for your time.

Ron: Thank you, Colin.

Colin: You've been listening to the Learning Capacity podcast, brought to you by Learn Fast. To find out more about upcoming Project Zero events in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia in March 2016, visit casieonline.org/events/pzed.  

If you'd like to comment on this podcast, send us an email to feedback@learnfastgroup.com.au. I'm Colin Klupiec. Until next time, bye for now.

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