Helping Students Learn to Think Well

Posted by Debbie Gibbs on 8/28/14 10:15 PM

I didn’t learn the day-to-day essentials of my job while I was at university; so much has changed in my profession! Technology has spurred a revolution in most fields, probably even in yours. Perhaps, like me, you have needed to continue your formal or informal learning.

I wonder: how do I assess my higher education, which so quickly became obsolete? Given the swift pace of change in our world, that fact alone doesn’t qualify mine as a bad education. But, is that even the right issue to question? Maybe the REAL question is this: 

What is important to teach students in the first place? 

With today’s unprecedented access to information, it is clear that a 21st-century education should focus on helping students learn to think well.

Lowell’s curriculum is designed to help young children think conceptually, critically, analytically, creatively, and practically. In fact, our approach to teaching and learning ensures that children—whether they are writing, dancing, or interacting with their teachers and peers—constantly need to ‘think’ their way through their work.

It sounds logical, doesn’t it? Long after graduation, former students can "Google" the numbers of branches of government or the name of the smallest particle in the universe. What they really need to learn is how to process this information efficiently and critically.This is what Lowell considers educational rigor in the best sense of the word.

What does learning to think well look like?

Here are some Lowell-specific examples:
  • Conflict Resolution Sparks Analytical and Creative Thinking
    Beginning in our Pre-Primary School, conflicts are recognized as opportunities for analytical thinking. Through carefully chosen questions, a teacher encourages dialogue between children to help them analyze their feelings, those of others, and the context of their conflict.
  • Projects Challenge Students to Apply What They Have Learned
    First grade students study animals and the concept of adaptation. We then ask children to take their thinking to the next level. The unit culminates in a challenge: create an imaginary animal that is well adapted to a particular environment. This example of making a complex topic accessible to students and then asking students to apply what they've learned to a novel situation is repeated throughout the Lowell curriculum.
  • A Process Approach Helps Students Think Through Their Writing
    Writing draws upon all kinds of thinking. Students must learn not only the practical uses of commas and periods, but also the role of voice, word choice, pacing, order, and sentence structure. Throughout the grades, children approach writing as a process—from idea to final product. Very deliberately, teachers lead children through this process, which is well thought out and required, but not prescriptive to the point where it eliminates the need for critical and creative thinking. Rather than a recipe, it is a map with various possible routes which are navigated by the student who is clearly in the driver's seat.
  • Learning Math Concepts, Not Just Facts, Promotes Critical Thinking
    Math builds on itself. We teach practical ways to solve problems, but we also underscore the need to fully understand underlying math concepts. We do not want children to simply memorize that 6 x 8 = 48. We want them to visualize that this could be an array of 6 x 8 or 8 x 6, or a rectangle that is 6 squares by 8 squares with an area of 48. This leads to a much fuller understanding of the multiplication fact.
  • An Integrated Curriculum Helps Students Build a Conceptual Framework
    Each grade is oriented around a specific theme and its related, essential questions. The integrated exploration of these concepts across the curriculum, including physical education and the arts, allows for a breadth and depth of understanding only possible when students make connections in their learning. Over time, these themes help students construct a conceptual framework upon which they can fasten their growing knowledge. 
  • Lowell Instills the Habit of Thinking
    While studying traditional topics common in all schools—such as ancient civilizations, algebraic equations, five-paragraph essays, and musical composition—Lowell students go several steps deeper. They gradually develop the skills along with the disposition, to think conceptually, creatively, analytically, and practically. Lowell’s rigorous curriculum makes “thinking well” a way of life.

Looking for a school for your child?

Lowell School is an independent school in the Colonial Village neighborhood of Washington, DC, that offers Pre-Primary, Primary, and Middle School programs. It offers a rigorous and hands-on curriculum that nurtures each child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn, and supports the development of individual voice and self-reliance. For more information, please call 202-577-2000, email, or follow Lowell on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Topics: Teaching & Learning

Debbie Gibbs

Written by Debbie Gibbs

Debbie Gibbs is a former head of Lowell School. She earned her BA in theater arts from Pomona College, her BS in elementary education from the University of Minnesota, and her MA in educational technology from the University of San Francisco. Her career as a school administrator began when she became interim assistant director at The Blake Schools in Minneapolis, MN. She went on to become the head of upper school and assistant head for academic affairs at Marin Country Day School in California. She became Lowell's fourth head of school in 2007. She has served on the Board of the Association of Independent Maryland Schools (AIMS) and the editorial board of Independent School Magazine, a publication of the National Association of Independent Schools.