Educating Girls

23 March 2020

A Culture of Thinking

A Culture of Thinking

‘There can be no significant innovation in education that does not have at its centre the attitudes of teachers, and it is an illusion to think otherwise. The beliefs, feelings, and assumptions of teachers are the air of a learning environment; they determine the quality of life within it.’ Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity



This year we welcomed Ron Ritchhart to Ruyton, working closely with our teaching staff over the course of the year. In his opening session, Ron reminded us of the words of Vygotsky, ‘Children grow into the intellectual life around them.’ Ron explains this as surrounding children with the kind of intellectual life, mental activity, and processes of learning to which we want them to grow accustomed. He believes it suggests learning to learn is an apprenticeship in which we don’t so much learn from others as we learn with others in the midst of authentic activities. Culture can lift people to operate at the highest level of their intellectual and emotional potential where individuals and the group thrive. Each contributing more and simultaneously supporting the success of their colleagues. As this is the learning culture we seek, we must then ask ourselves about the kind of intellectual life with which we are surrounding our children in our homes, schools and classrooms.

Cultures are maintained through the messages that are sent and received about what behaviour is expected. The messages sent in a culture demonstrate what is valued, what is important, what people do to fit in, to be accepted, to be recognised or rewarded. Culture is demonstrated through what people do rather than what they say. A culture of thinking is a learning environment where thinking is valued, visible and actively promoted. It is a culture that actively encourages students and staff to delve more into their learning and make their thinking visible, creating a shared commitment to learning.

Everyone in a culture of thinking is a learner; whether they be expert or novice. In such a culture, thinking routines provide a scaffold to empower us to move from learning the correct answer to thinking about, understanding and questioning what is actually being presented. Ron posed the question to our staff, ‘What do we want the students we teach to be like when they are adults?’ The qualities emphasised were those attributes that: drive learning (such as curiosity and questioning); facilitate innovation (such as creativity, problem solving, risk taking and imagination); help us to work with and get along with others (such as collaboration, empathy and good listening); help us to deal with complexity (analysis, critical thinking and making connections); situate us collectively in the world (global citizen, member of a community, aware of their impact on the world). These qualities are often classified as dispositions - enduring characteristics that serve to motivate behaviour. Ritchhart noted that these dispositions can also be seen as the ‘residuals of education’ - what is left after all the things practised and memorised for tests are long forgotten.

Dispositions cannot be directly taught or directly tested; they are developed over time, nurtured across a variety of circumstances so they become ingrained and are likely to emerge when the situation calls for them. They are enculturated; learned through immersion in culture.

At Ruyton we are examining our story of learning together as learners; rethinking the purpose and vision of education to best empower our young women for their future. It requires us to examine closely the way we operate and function to deliver that vision, to ensure better learning and greater student engagement. It requires the crafting of new messages. Over the course of the year as we continue to work with Ron and embark on this journey together, members of our teaching staff from Early Learning, Junior School and Senior School will share stories of learning to our parent community. These stories will highlight how we foster a culture of thinking at Ruyton to promote deep understanding and sustain a lifetime of inquiry to shape the development of our girls as powerful thinkers and learners.

Ron Ritchhart is a senior Research Associate with Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he directs the worldwide Cultures of Thinking project. He is also a fellow at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics Teaching. Ron is the author of Creating Cultures of Thinking, Making Thinking Visible, and Intellectual Character.

Linda Douglas

Ruyton Girls' School
March 2020