The essay The Thinking Curriculum (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, n.d.) discusses the characteristics of a thinking curriculum:
Processes may be realized differently in different content areas. They answer the question, 'What sort of thinking do historians (or mathematicians, scientists, etc.) engage in as they practice their craft?' For example, scientists hypothesize about the nature of the natural world in such a way that they can test their hypotheses. Historians may also hypothesize, but cannot test their hypotheses as do scientists; rather, they depend on primary and secondary source materials to 'test' their ideas. Content is inherent in these examples--the processes that scientists and historians use clearly depend on the content with which they are dealing. Students, then, learn content and construct meaning as they employ generic and content-specific strategies. They acquire content as they plan, evaluate, solve problems, make decisions, construct or critique arguments, compose essays, and so on. In short, students acquire knowledge in carrying out tasks requiring higher-order thinking--they practice a craft, so to speak, as they acquire knowledge.
This approach to curriculum stands in contrast to traditional curricula. Traditional curricula, from kindergarten through high school, expect students to master 'knowledge' in school; and knowledge is usually seen as lists of facts and definitions. A traditional curriculum does not expect students to use the knowledge until they leave school. On the other hand, students engaged in a thinking curriculum acquire content as they plan, evaluate, solve problems, make decisions, construct or critique arguments, compose essays, and so on. At the same time, the content students learn has the power to promote these higher-level processes. In short, the essence of a thinking curriculum is the dual agenda. Four characteristics emerge from this agenda. These are elaborated below.
Important concepts and strategies need to be identified, organized, prioritized, and taught in depth. This characteristic of a thinking curriculum helps clarify what it means to be knowledgeable. A thinking curriculum does not strive to produce 'walking encyclopedias,' stuffed with facts, figures, definitions, and formulas. Truly knowledgeable students may possess such information, but more importantly, they possess key concepts and tools for making, using, and communicating knowledge in a field. Knowledgeable students have learned how to learn, how to organize information, and how to distinguish between important and less important pieces of information. In sum, they have a working knowledge of a field--a tool chest for the ongoing discovery and construction of meaning--rather than a junkyard of isolated facts.
Thus, in a thinking curriculum, students develop a deep understanding of essential concepts and processes for dealing with those concepts, similar to the understanding that experts use in tackling complex tasks in their disciplines. For example, students use original sources to construct historical accounts; they design experiments to answer their questions about natural phenomena; they use mathematics to model real-world events and systems; and they write for real audiences. The thinking curriculum gives students the tools--the perspectives and methodologies and concepts they need to carry out these authentic tasks.
Rather than focusing on simple and discrete skills, students should engage in complex and holistic thinking. This type of thinking reflects what individuals performing tasks outside of school do. As Resnick & Klopfer (1989) observed, out-of-school thinking about complex tasks is: (1) situated in meaningful processes of making decisions, solving problems, evaluating situations, and so on, (2) shared among individuals also involved in carrying out the task, (3) aided by the use of tools, such as reference books, calculators, and other technology, and (4) connected to real-world objects, events, and situations. In addition, out-of-school thinking is often interdisciplinary, cutting across many school subjects.
Other desired attributes of real-world thinking as well as a thinking curriculum are: orientations to problem solving and critical and creative thinking; dispositions toward learning, including a sense of efficacy, a desire to ponder and learn, and persistence; and understanding and valuing multiple perspectives, especially different cultural perspectives. In a thinking curriculum, thinking processes with such attributes are carried out in collaboration with students, teachers, parents, and community members using tools and resources to perform real-world tasks. Thus, content and process objectives can be achieved when learning tasks stimulate complex thinking and involve true collaboration among students.
This aspect of a thinking curriculum is both difficult to understand and express. The major point is that students should always be engaged with a whole task. We should not ask them to learn and practice one element of a task at a time and then to integrate these pieces into a whole performance. Such integration will seldom happen as easily as we might hope. Some educators may mistakenly believe that young children and low-achieving students especially must begin with the parts and gradually orchestrate these parts into wholes.
An example should help clarify this characteristic of a thinking curriculum. Summarizing is a common skill learned in school. In conventional curricula, young students frequently are expected to learn how to summarize by first learning each 'step' in the summarizing process. They are taught these steps one at a time. Ample time is given to practice the first step; for example, categorizing items or activities described in a text under a more inclusive label. Indeed, they may complete numerous worksheets on categorizing. Then, the teacher may teach them a second 'step'; for example, deleting redundant information. Again, the students practice. This approach continues until students have been taught all the steps or subprocesses thought to be involved in summarizing. In short, curriculum tends to routinize the task. Finally, students are asked to put all these subskills together. Unfortunately, many students cannot do this--they are stuck at the subskill level, each of which they might perform beautifully, but which they cannot integrate into a smooth process of summarizing.
In contrast, in a thinking curriculum, summarizing would be conceived and taught as a holistic process. Rather than fragmenting the process, it would be taught in a context or environment in which students can succeed. For young children, this might mean asking them first to summarize relatively short paragraphs that deal with information with which they are very familiar. The teacher may also ask students to work collaboratively to summarize information at this initial learning stage. As students gain skill and confidence in summarizing, the teacher would ask them to summarize longer paragraphs, perhaps containing less familiar information. In summary, a thinking curriculum always treats tasks as indivisible wholes; variations that acknowledge the novice status of the learner are changes the teacher can make in the environment.
Abundant research (e.g., Palinscar & Brown, 1984) indicates that all students--including young children and low-achieving students--can succeed with such a holistic approach. For instance, low-achievers typically perform at a much higher level than when taught skills in a fragmented manner. In addition, holistic learning is much more likely to be interesting to students and to promote a sense of control over their own learning.
Thus, a thinking curriculum is not chopped up into isolated skills and facts; rather, it involves the holistic performance of meaningful, complex tasks in increasingly challenging environments. A thinking curriculum promotes a sense of efficacy and confidence in students. Materials and content are structured so that students gradually regulate their own learning and so that learning is always meaningful and makes sense. These goals--self-regulation and meaningful learning--are promoted in a variety of ways in thinking curricula. For example, a thinking curriculum encourages students to clarify their purposes in performing a task, to assess what they already know, and to predict what is to be learned. It helps them highlight what is most important and thereby fosters feelings of control over subject matter. It explores students' attitudes about themselves as learners and about learning in the content areas. It provides opportunities for students to assess difficulties they have in learning and consider strategies they could use to overcome learning difficulties. It stresses continuing to work in the face of ambiguity, solving problems despite unexpected difficulties, and looking at problems as challenges to learn more and better. By being engaged in curriculum in this manner, students come to see themselves as successful, capable learners.
Educators can begin to create a thinking curriculum by first considering the experiences and knowledge that students bring to school and then expanding upon and refining these experiences and knowledge by connecting them to new learning. The content and processes learned then build on students' family, community, and cultural experiences. The knowledge students acquire is meaningful and applied. In addition, students are motivated to learn when curriculum considers their experiences and the issues and problems with which they are concerned as well as their patterns of processing knowledge. The content in a thinking curriculum is relevant to important issues and tasks in the lives of students.
When students can relate school learning to important real-life issues, they are more likely to seek and value the perspectives of others--peers, teachers, parents, community members, and experts. In so doing, they develop interpersonal competencies for creating and participating in dialogue with individuals who have different perspectives and backgrounds. Thus, they not only connect content to their own backgrounds, but they also learn how different people interpret and organize content based on their different perspectives. As a result, a thinking curriculum builds multicultural understanding while encouraging the philosophical understanding of different kinds of knowledge and the limitations inherent in attending to only one perspective on a subject. Students will thus be better prepared to participate in an increasingly global society. Understanding and valuing multicultural perspectives emerges from dialogue in a classroom that is a community of open and sustained inquiry."