Adding Thinking to the School Day

10/05/2010 01:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If your intention is to have students manifest their potential, you need to do more than stuff their heads with facts on the one hand, or provide them with unstructured freedom on the other. You need to provide students with appropriate guidance that motivates them to think and motivates them to create -- an environment that supports their intellectual and creative efforts.

Debates about educational reform invariably polarize participants. Is school meant to provide a liberal education or ready students for careers? Is testing useful or counterproductive? Is there a classical canon to be taught or is that canon sexist, racist and otherwise inappropriate? Do students need to learn more math and science, even if art classes must be sacrificed, or is a healthy dose of the arts too valuable to lose? And so on.

Even when there is agreement, there is always the problem of funding the proposed change. Maybe everyone agrees that a given magnet school or charter school is a great idea. That school still must be funded. Maybe everyone agrees that providing several language classes, rather than just one, is a fine idea. Those classes still must be funded. Maybe everyone agrees that providing more science labs is a good thing. Those labs still must be funded. Budgetary concerns can bring even consensus to its knees.

Into this breach, we have a small but valuable suggestion to make. Between us, my wife and I have 45 years of classroom teaching and school administrative experience. In addition, I've worked -- first as a therapist and for the last 15 years as a creativity coach -- with thousands of creative and performing artists. Out of those experiences, we have a simple, doable suggestion to make with regard to radically reimagining the education of children. Let's let our children actually think for 45 minutes a day.

Let's call these 45 minutes "the thinking module," though it can be called anything you like -- the thinking period, the idea block, the creativity class, and so on. This thinking module can be incorporated into a public school day, a private school day, a home schooling day, or a family day. Yes, something has to be sacrificed to obtain 45 minutes out a finite day, but creating thinking modules is such a valuable, low-cost, nonideological idea that the sacrifices involved are well worth the benefits.

What happens during those 45 minutes? Students are invited to think big. They aren't taught critical thinking skills or the principles of formal logic. They aren't asked to create compelling arguments or innovate or brainstorm or problem-solve. Rather, they are invited to think big. The relentless focus is on thinking big. As side benefits, they learn critical thinking skills, how to create compelling arguments, and so on. But those benefits accrue because they've been actually thinking and not because they have been taught certain principles or strategies.

The facilitator of the thinking module does not need to know anything about "divided middles" or "syllogistic reasoning" or "remote associates." Rather, she needs to be comfortable with -- or, to begin with, at least able to fake being comfortable with -- providing students with genuine permission to think. This involves helping them propose big questions worth answering, helping them embrace complexity and helping them honor not knowing. She should expect to feel a little nervous facilitating this module, as there is no curriculum to teach or information to impart. After a little while she will come to understand her job and be thrilled by the results.

What would actually go on? The facilitator might pose a large question, have students write for 20 minutes in response to the question and then ask for volunteers to read their responses. There is a beauty and a power in spending 45 minutes this way. For fourth graders, a big question might be, "When is it okay to lie?" For seventh graders, a big question might be, "How do you decide if you should or shouldn't support a war that your country is engaged in?" For ninth graders, a big question might be "How do you decide if space exploration is or isn't an important societal goal?" For 12th graders, a big question might be, "Is happiness the opposite of sadness?"

After each student reads his or her response, the facilitator need do nothing more than say, "Thank you." She may want to do more because the student's response gives her the opportunity to chat about some thinking skill or principle -- for example, that new evidence may cause you to change your mind -- but that "more" is not required or needed. This simple procedure of putting a big question on the table and reporting on your thoughts without fear of criticism or judgment are the essential ingredients of an effective thinking module.

If you like this idea of a "thinking module," propose it. Bring the idea to the principal of your child's school. Lobby for it. It is a cost-effective, apolitical, easy-to-implement strategy with the power to transform our students, at least for one hour of the day, from drudges to thinkers. Don't our children deserve that hour?