Freedom to Think: Thinking Strategies to Engage Students


Student Engagement: Strengthening the Desire to LearnBy Arina Bokas

Freedom to Think: Thinking Strategies to Engage StudentsHow do students grow disengaged from school, and what can we do to engage them? There are likely not many educators who have never pondered these questions. Usually, engagement occurs as a result of content a student finds interesting, an activity that stimulates a student’s personal response, or an atmosphere that appeals to a student’s emotion.

Although situational reasons for engagement might vary from student to student, I would claim that nearly all engagement stems from one necessary condition: students engage in learning when they perceive it as meaningful to them personally. They engage when they feel connected to and affected by what they are learning. Thus, we might be better off asking ourselves what we can do to make learning relevant to our students.

There are free schools, like Summerhill, an independent boarding school in England, that are quite radical in the way they make learning relevant to students. At Summerhill, a self-governing school where adults and students have equal status, students are allowed to fill their time with freely chosen actions and are given the autonomy to decide whether or not to attend formal lessons. The school’s curriculum embraces everything that interests students without a clear line between learning inside and outside the classroom.

Although such an approach might lead to the ultimate student engagement, it cannot work in the context of many schools. In my experience, one of the most powerful tools to engage students in learning is to give them the freedom to formulate, develop, and assess their own thinking. Not only does thinking immediately put students in charge of their own learning but it also leads to self-generated engagement.

Thinking Within a Larger Context

Getting students to think within a larger context is one way to ignite student engagement. In his book Future Wise, David Perkins of the Harvard Graduate School of Education suggests that schools need to move away from the concept of “understanding of” to the concept of “understanding for.” He proposes that thinking evoked by big questions, usually in respect to the collective knowledge and understanding of society, leads to big understandings. By making connections to big understandings, students realize the larger significance of what is being taught. This can motivate them to find a connection to a topic that otherwise might not interest them.

Saratoga Independent School, a K–6 school in New York, uses a theme-based curriculum to encourage students to learn within a larger context. The curriculum “allows students of different levels to share their academic success with each other with a unified understanding of the theme. Students present findings, new knowledge and accomplishments with the entire student body and faculty, building self-confidence.” For the 2014–15 school year, the curriculum topics included relationships, environment, and change; for the 2015–16 school year, the topics include bridges to people, place, and times.

Project-Based Thinking

Another avenue to encourage students to apply and refine their thinking is involving them in project-based learning. The purpose of a project is to always tie classroom learning to its uses in the real world. Ideally, learning prompts should be brief, rather vague, and not tied to an assessment. This creates optimal learning conditions. When students feel that they can make a difference by addressing real issues, have minimum directions, and feel free to find their own way forward (as opposed to using the “teacher-preferred” way), they persistently focus on thinking, share their thoughts, and build on the thinking of their peers.

Engaging students as makers—who learn to how to apply tools and processes to realize their own ideas—often leads to an enduring engagement in learning. A study of 6th grade science classrooms across 42 schools, conducted by SRI Education, University of Colorado Boulder, and Michigan State University researchers, showed that students of both genders who participated in the project-based science curriculum outperformed students in the comparison curriculum across all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Nurturing Thinking Dispositions

 In addition to developing thinking skills, students also need to learn to recognize opportunities to engage in thinking and be inclined to respond to them. Students have to use their thinking skills frequently and in a variety of contexts. As stated by Shari Tishman and Patricia Palmer, a dispositional approach “emphasizes thinking-centered values, commitments, sensitivities and belief systems, in addition to thinking skills.”

In order to cultivate students’ sensitivity and alertness to thinking, many teachers across the globe have been introducing and practicing thinking routines (patterns of action that can be integrated in different contexts). Each routine focuses on a specific type of thinking, is used over and over again in the classroom, consists of only a few steps, is easy to learn, and is used across a variety of contexts by either individuals or groups.

“What we are finding across the divisions is that these thinking routines help learners ponder topics that might not seem to invite intricate thinking at first glance,” explained educators at Randolph School, a K–12 independent school in North Alabama. Just recently, the Journal of Educational Research and Practice at Walden University published a study of the implementation of Visible Thinking routines in ESL classrooms in Palestine. The results confirmed that developing thinking dispositions has a significant influence on student engagement. Although student engagement was initially limited, when thinking became part of the everyday classroom routine, students took more active roles and were able to express themselves using English language in most of the activities.

Students come to our schools from various walks of life. They have different interests, passions, and perceptions of what is important to them. A focus on developing thinking skills allows all students to take charge of their own learning, deepen their understanding, and become more engaged.

Log onto the ASCD website for more resources to positively influence engagement and improve achievement for all students.


Arina Bokas is a producer and a host of the Future of Learning television series on Independence TV and the editor of Kids’ Standard magazine in Clarkston, Mich. She is also a faculty member at Mott Community College in Flint, Mich. Connect with Bokas on Twitter @arinabokas.



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