Photo of DCPS students commenting on each other’s work from Amanda Siepiola.

Has education become too focused on test scores? Do we need an approach aimed at getting students to think analytically rather than memorize facts? A growing number of educators from a variety of DC schools think so, and they’re changing the way they teach.

For the past two years, a group of DC teachers has been meeting regularly to learn about something called Project Zero, an educational approach  research center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The group has grown rapidly, and now includes over 500 teachers from independent, parochial, charter, and traditional public schools.

This summer, over 100  175 DC-area teachers gathered for a Project Zero institute sponsored by the independent Washington International School, which uses the Project Zero approaches school-wide. The teachers learned how to use classroom techniques called thinking routines: sets of questions teachers can pose to get students to think deeply about an image or a text.

The objective of the Project Zero routines is to “make thinking visible.” One basic routine, called See-Think-Wonder, has students looking together at an image of a text or work of art. First they spend several minutes simply discussing what they observe. Then the teacher asks what they think is going on in the image.

After that, students talk about what the image makes them wonder about, based on their observations and interpretations. Along the way or at the end, the teacher or students “document” the discussion, writing down ideas. Teachers say routines like this get students to slow down, pay attention to details, and engage in analysis.

Critiques of test-focused teaching

Although Project Zero has been around since the 1960s, its approach fits in with recent critiques of test-based instruction for focusing too much on basic skills and not enough on analytical thinking.  Even Arne Duncan, who many see as the architect of a test-focused approach, recently called for de-emphasizing test results. Locally, the Fairfax County school system is formulating a plan that its superintendent says “will lessen the focus on standardized, high-stakes testing.”

A new best-selling book, Building a Better Teacher, argues that treating students as passive receptacles for knowledge only gets you so far: for true learning to take place, it argues, students have to take a more active role.

The Common Core standards, adopted by DC and 45 states, also aim to get students thinking analytically, and their emphasis on “close reading” of a text resembles the Project Zero approach.

Some of the thinking routines, like See-Think-Wonder, seem particularly well suited to studying works of art. In fact, the National Gallery of Art has used the routines in many of its education programs for over 10 years, according to Lynn Russell, head of its division of education. But teachers say the techniques can be applied to almost any subject.

Tondra Odom-Owens, a teacher at Savoy Elementary, a DC Public School with a low-income student body, says that when her students “wonder” about a work of art, they ask questions that go beyond the surface: “I wonder why he used that color, I wonder what if this was a portrait of a man.” It hasn’t been difficult for them to translate those strategies into thinking deeply and analytically about texts, she says.

And Karen Lee, who teaches government at Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School, recently used a thinking routine to get her high school students to make connections between the Langston Hughes poem “I Too” and the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. The routine, she says, “provided a framework for deep thinking.”

Effects on comprehension and test scores

I saw some thinking routines in action recently at Sacred Heart, a bilingual Catholic school in Mt. Pleasant that has a largely low-income, Hispanic student body, and where most teachers have had Project Zero training. The 7th- and 8th-grade classes I observed included sophisticated and thoughtful discussions of concepts like empathy and ambiguity.

“I think kids’ comprehension has sky-rocketed,” said the Sacred Heart teacher I observed, Kristen Kullberg. “They begin to understand that ambiguity and unanswered questions don’t need to be sources of frustration. The reality is a lot of things are ambiguous.”

While teachers say it’s too soon to know whether the approach has an effect on test scores, Kullberg says her students have developed a “culture of perseverance” that could help on tests. And Odom-Owens said she feels thinking routines will help her students understand test questions and come up with strategies to answer them. Lee says the routines also help her figure out what her students haven’t understood, so she knows where to focus.

All the teachers I spoke with say the thinking routines level the playing field, bringing lower-performing students into the discussion. Because there are no wrong answers, kids are more willing to take risks. And the lower-performing students sometimes have the most perceptive observations, winning the respect of their peers.

The Project Zero approach could help move teaching beyond the rote drilling that too often characterizes education today. But there are some caveats:

It takes training. The teachers I spoke with all said the approach fit in with their natural teaching styles. While most said they thought any teacher could use the thinking routines, it’s not just a matter of following a script. Teachers not only have to ask the right questions, they also need to be responsive to students’ answers. It helps to observe teachers who are experienced in the approach.

Schools need to be flexible about teaching methods: The routines can be adapted to work with any curriculum, but classrooms can get noisy as students move around or call out their thoughts. Odom-Owens said some DCPS teachers, especially new ones, might shy away from the approach for fear of getting a low score on the system’s teacher evaluation system.

It won’t provide everything lower-performing students need: Students deficient in vocabulary and background knowledge, as many low-income students are, will need more direct instruction to construct coherent sentences and organize their thoughts logically in writing.

But in the hands of a skilled teacher, the Project Zero thinking routines can play an important role in engaging students in learning, spurring analytical thinking, and giving them the motivation to put their insights into persuasive written form.

Tagged: education

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.