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Thinking schools: From Mississippi to Malaysia, a mold-breaking model is helping kids learn to think
kids learning
A thinking school teaches students to visualize their ideas with images on maps, rather than immediately resorting to abstract words in sentences and paragraphs. - photo by Deseret News

When Hurricane Katrina wiped out the schools in Pass Christian, Mississippi, in 2005, nearly all the textbooks and chalkboards were gone. A rural and impoverished community on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, the town awoke from the hurricane nightmare to find that only one of its four schools was salvageable.
It was a dismal scene. FEMA brought in temporary trailers to use as classrooms, and they piled students from all four schools into one school lot. They lost a whole month of class time, and even then there were wounds to heal.
"We came on to campus, shell-shocked with students' emotional and physical needs that took priority over education,” said Meredith Bang, director of curriculum and instruction with the Pass Christian School District.
But despite the chaos, that very year Pass Christian’s schools were again at or near the top of the state's test scores — as they had been before the storm.
Bang attributes much of this resilience to a revolutionary learning model that many educators think could dramatically change how teachers teach and students learn.
Pass Christian is a “thinking school.” In its most basic form, a thinking school teaches students to visualize their ideas with images on “maps,” rather than immediately resorting to abstract words in sentences and paragraphs. There is much more that goes into a complete school transformation, but the maps are at the core of the model.
The idea is that most people naturally think with images, and that those thought processes can be visually mapped. The maps also serve as a common language to help kids to question, communicate, create and collaborate — rather than absorb and regurgitate.
Those who work with the them see the maps as part of a 21st century learning model that helps prepare students for a volatile economy, a new landscape where problem-solving is more important than fixed skills.
The thinking schools model began its evolution in California but now has firm footholds in the U.S., New Zealand, Norway and the U.K. And just this year, the maps took center stage in Malaysia, where the government is pushing an iThink program into 10,000 schools.
A visual revolution
The seeds of this visual learning revolution were planted by David Hyerle, an innovative educational consultant who taught in Oakland, California, public schools before earning his doctorate in education at U.C. Berkeley in 1993.
Hyerle’s maps, first appearing in print in 1988, build on the notion that people think spatially, and that the core types of cognition are best seen that way. Characteristics cluster around an object, categories jut out like branches on a tree, and cause-and-effect relations seem to demand arrows between adjoining boxes, and so on.
None of Hyerle’s visualizations is completely new. Most people have used the overlapping circles known as a Venn diagram, and using branches for relationships and arrows for process flow are common brainstorming tactics. What is new is Hyerle’s notion that key thought patterns can be expressed in simple maps — and, most importantly, that these maps can dramatically change how even the youngest children learn.
Visual thought
A teacher using the maps will often draw a circle on the board and ask the students to put everything they collectively know about a topic inside the circle, draw a frame around that, and put the sources where the students got their knowledge around the frame.
They may draw a tree structure to illustrate categories, or boxes with arrows to illustrate a sequence or process. Others maps are used for cause and effect reasoning, or to clarifying analogies.
Students will often sketch their own maps as they work through a science or history lesson. Then they compare their maps in pairs or groups — adding this, disputing that, learning about differing frames and viewpoints.
This is called metacognition: thinking about thinking. It’s getting outside yourself long enough to see and critique your own viewpoint, a critical part of the self-regulation and integration of knowledge known as “executive functioning.”
Ideally, Hyerle said, metacognition allows students to learn not only to think about their thought techniques, but they also learn to analyze the “frames” they bring to a situation — see their own sources and discover blind spots and barriers they need to overcome.
“That’s where they get a deeper level of reflectiveness, self-understanding and empathy,” Hyerle said. “If students are just responding to the teacher, doing a worksheet, or doing a test, there is no executive functioning.”
Meanwhile, the teacher walks from group to group, assessing at a glance how rich a student’s understanding of a topic is, and which misconceptions need correction.
Educators who use the approach say the maps quickly become second nature in the classroom — transparent, like a language in themselves.
Hyerle’s maps caught hold in unexpected places. After he first published the concept in 1988, an elite girls prep school in Auckland, New Zealand, completely rebuilt itself around the maps, with impressive results.
The effort caught the attention of a pair of education innovators in the United Kingdom, who around 2005 began adapting the New Zealand experiment. They developed guidelines for “thinking schools,” a whole school transformation inspired by the New Zealand model.
Inspired by the New Zealand girls school, Richard Cummins began working with Bob Burden, a professor at the University of Exeter, combining Hyerle’s maps with related curriculum focused on mental habits and problem solving skills.
“In the past, most schools dabbled,” said Cummins, who is now CEO of Thinking Schools International, where he works with David Hyerle. “They would send somebody to take a course. That person comes back, shares the information with some people, and then some people might use it. But there’s no coherence.”
So Cummins and Burden built an accreditation process, administered out of the University of Exeter. By the time of Burden’s death last year, they had formally accredited 55 British schools, with many more using the program informally.
Rote learners
It was the work in the U.K. that caught attention of the Malaysian government, which this school year is jump-starting the thinking schools model in 10,000 public schools.
For years, foreign and domestic companies have complained about the quality of Malaysia’s workforce, a problem traced to the Malay educational system, which relies heavily on memorization and rote learning.
“Even I used to think that learning was happening when the teacher is at the board writing stuff and the students are quietly copying it down," said Lionel Jackson, senior vice president for education at Malaysia's National Innovation Agency, a key government agency reinventing the country’s schools.
"We only really understood how wrong we were when we visited the thinking schools in the U.K.,” Jackson said. After that visit, the Malaysians invited Hyerle and Cummins out for a tour, where they visited 15 schools and observed 59 lessons.
“We could have been in one classroom in one school for one period and not have to go anywhere else to see what was happening," Hyerle said. "It was entirely rote learning.”
“I never saw a child put a hand up and ask a question,” Cummins said. They put their hands up to answer questions, but never to ask. How weird is that? It’s like a parallel universe, really.”
iThink in Malaysia
The resulting collaboration led to Malaysia’s new iThink program, which piloted with 1,000 schools over the last few years and this year is being pushed to the country’s 9,000 schools in an online training format.
It’s still early to know for sure how the Malaysian experiment will play out. Overcoming cultural and professional inertia across 10,000 schools is no easy task.
The biggest challenge, Jackson said, is to get teachers to stop dispensing knowledge and embrace what he calls “academic noise,” the rumble in a classroom where kids use maps and other tools to compare and collaborate.
“Our lives are all about providing answers, but actually we should be providing questions and then getting students to think about their own thinking,” Jackson said. “It’s a long journey that we’ve just started. But we are beginning to see some change happening.”
A common language
Whether in Malaysia or the U.S., the journey from rote learning to 21st century thinking is a similar path, more a matter of degree than kind, argues Donna DeSiato, superintendent of the East Syracuse Minoa schools in upstate New York.
American schools were heavily shaped by the industrial age, she says, with learning focused on mass production and efficiency, rather than innovation and discovery.
“We badly need to push the pause button, stop and ask what education should look like today,” DeSiato says.
DeSiato hit that pause button in 2005, in a search that led the 3,800 student district to embrace Hyerle’s maps over the past 10 years as part of a larger strategic initiative that closely parallels the work coming out of the U.K.
DeSiato says that the maps are just one part of a rich mix of learning innovations, which include Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits” and Art Costa’s “Habits of the Mind.” But the maps are posted in every classroom.
Measuring results is no easy matter, DeSiato concedes, especially given that New York state has changed its testing system so often over the past several years that no real baseline is possible.
However, DeSiato said that they see the results everywhere around them, including in ecstatic feedback her schools received on their communication skills at a recent regional competition.
The maps themselves have become thoroughly infused in ESM schools. The schools even train parents with the maps, and they use them in all curriculum areas. The maps have become transparent in the classroom, DeSiato says, a clear window between their thinking and the subject matter.
“Even art teachers use the maps to organize their art projects,” DeSiato said. “They have given us a common language and vocabulary.”
DeSiato’s favorite story about the maps took place outside of school, in a jury room of a local courthouse, where Judy Morgan, then the district’s curriculum director, sat with 12 jurors facing a complex task of determining guilt or innocence.
With tension running high in the jury room, Morgan went to the whiteboard and structured the conversation using a tree map, breaking down the facts, allowing everyone to pool their perspectives. The result was an immediate change in tone, and a fairly quick but confident verdict.
“There are few clear answers to the complex questions our students will have to face,” DeSiato said. “Most problems they will face are interdisciplinary, complex and require clear independent and interdependent thinking.”