A Culture of Thinking for Teachers

Shortly after leaving high school as a student, I was bantering with some friends about our teachers and someone remarked about Stan, a gnarly old poetry teacher. The comment was that Stan had “really taught them how to think”. As I considered a career in education, I reflected that it would be pretty cool to be remembered for teaching someone “how to think”.

Fast-forward about ten years into my teaching career, I attended a conference on the Australian Gold Coast, with keynotes from David Perkins, Ron Ritchhart, and Mark Church. As they addressed the assembled crowd about visible thinking and teaching for understanding, I felt goose bumps. I felt like I had found my people. Since that moment I have immersed myself in Project Zero and I even lived in the US for a year to study at Harvard. Project Zero is globally renowned for research in thinking, understanding, and creativity. I now instruct in Project Zero online courses and collaborate with various Project Zero researchers. Project Zero research has influenced my work and identity in profound ways. Central to all of this has been Ron Ritchhart’s research into thinking and I have recently completed a Churchill Fellowship studying his Cultures of Thinking approach/framework.

Three core ideas are the foundation of Ron’s work:

  • Schools must be about developing students’ thinking dispositions
  • We need to make students’ thinking visible
  • Classroom culture plays a crucial role in supporting and shaping learning.

Ron argues that a quality education is one where students are engaged and active thinkers, able to communicate, innovate, collaborate, and problem-solve. These ‘dispositions’ describe our patterns of interaction with the world. Dispositions are part of our individual character. They cannot be directly taught or tested; only enculturated. He envisages schooling as an enculturative process that cultivates dispositions of thinking. Lev Vygotsy (1979) stated, “Children grow into the intellectual life of those around them”. This perfectly encapsulates the concept of enculturation. It is how we internalise the ideas and the beliefs that we frequently interact with.

Learning happens when students connect with ideas, when they ask questions, and create meaning with our guidance and support. A culture of thinking sends a message to students that thinking is valued and infused in the fabric of the classroom. Ritchhart argues that we must work to change the messages being sent by timetables, exams, university entrance requirements, 50-minute periods, and parental expectations, to “…enculturate students into a new story of learning where thinking is valued, visible, and actively promoted as part of the ongoing, day-to-day experience of all group members” (Ritchhart, 2016).

Ron identifies eight cultural forces that represent the tools or levers for transforming school and classroom culture. Classroom culture sends messages about what learning is and how it happens. Understanding this process and how teachers might more directly influence it, as well as having the language to talk about classroom culture, helps to demystifying teaching. Awareness of the presence of the cultural forces in any group context helps educators take a more active role in shaping culture.

My Fellowship focused on teachers, school leaders, and researchers who have an excellent understanding of the Cultures of Thinking approach and who have been utilising it for some time. My interest was not so much in understanding and explaining the approach/framework, but in exploring the leadership of difficult pedagogical change in schools. What works, what does not work, and what does effective leadership for complex school pedagogical change look like?

Leading complex pedagogical change in schools requires patience for the slow and messy nature of the work; respectful and trusting relationships with people; listening with curiosity and authenticity; and respect for context and history. My key takeaway is that paying close attention to the design of the learning culture for teachers might be the most important step we can take to build a culture of thinking for our students. If we want a culture of thinking for students, then we need a culture of thinking for teachers. When teachers are involved in active discussion, problem-solving, learning from colleagues, questioning practices, trying things and reflecting, then student learning improves. Developing a community in which rich discussions about teaching, learning, and thinking are a fundamental part of teachers’ ongoing experience provides the foundation for nurturing students’ thinking and learning.

Teachers are driven by their instincts, beliefs, and mindsets. The only way that we can understand what teachers do is to understand their beliefs and values. Most professional development is about giving teachers new ideas to implement. However, giving teachers new ideas without first understanding their beliefs and mindsets is a waste of time.

It is not about applying a formula; it is about engaging in a conversation.

The following sections summarise some of the takeaways from my Churchill Fellowship – each supported by a relevant quote from an interviewee – how the Cultures of Thinking approach changes teaching and schools, how to lead this sort of change in schools, how hesitant teachers can be supported, what the biggest mistakes are, the hidden ingredients of success, and some key takeaways.

What does a Cultures of Thinking approach look like?

When teachers adopt a culture of thinking, they become more attentive to thinking and more precise in the way that they think. They become better listeners, and this leads to them becoming more responsive and flexible in how they teach. The language they use about teaching and learning changes, and the physical classroom environment displays what students are thinking about. Elise Heil (Principal of Sacred Heart School in Washington DC) captures the shift teachers make from delivering content to facilitating thinking through a less controlling approach:

“It’s the shift from teacher as giver of information to teacher as facilitator. Teachers now listen more than they speak. It’s made teaching more interesting and more enjoyable. Teachers don’t feel like they constantly have to perform. They don’t have to plan every minute detail. Teachers are more relaxed and happier. We have to unlearn the desire for control.”

When Cultures of Thinking becomes a part of a whole-school approach, we see the power of shared language and common terminology. Student-teacher relationships change and there is a transformation in student agency, which leads to a more positive tone within the school. Teachers’ perspectives on their role change; they become students of their students. There is public documentation and open sharing of student learning on classroom walls, and student thinking moves into hallways and other places. There is a notable decrease in stress. People become calmer and happier; best described as a “culture of kindness”. Kristen Kullberg (Making and Design Initiatives Coordinator at Washington International School) reinforces that this is not another PD fad; it is a fundamental mindset shift within a school, about transferring agency to students:

“This is not a boxed curriculum. This isn’t another PD fad. You can’t mask authentic thinking, you can only invite it into the light. It shifted the agency from top-down to student.”

Leading the change in schools

My real interest was in how to lead this sort of change in schools. Every single school context is widely different. Leaders should step back, observe the culture and listen. It is slow work, needing patience. The most common response from interviewees was that “It takes time.” Leaders should start small and not play into the quick fix. It is an ongoing drip-feed which creates a ripple effect. Build trust and slowly build circles of influence. The entry point for where people are at is different, go into the zone of proximal development, build capacity, and introduce a common language. Use teacher champions; recognise that teachers are experts and professionals who want to develop their practice. It is about asking the right questions. Be comfortable with the fact that not everyone will join you. Jim Reese (Director of the Professional Development Collaborative, Washington International School) reinforces the importance of being flexible, earning trust, and providing various ways for teachers to participate:

“You have to be flexible with participation. You have got to do a lot of forgiving of teachers in terms of their busy lives. Cultivate trust, build relationships. Once they dip their toe in the water, hold them accountable. Build up a stable of really good practitioners. Give people different options for how they participate.”

For classrooms to be cultures of thinking for students, school must be cultures of thinking for teachers. Build teacher leaders, involve them in planning, and provide ongoing opportunities to get into each other’s classrooms. Bring it back to the teachers and have them lead the charge. Play to intrinsic motivation, go slowly, see the bigger picture, and make it fun. Get it in your mission and budget. You are investing in a culture of thinking. Institutionalise it, make part of the DNA of the school. Carole Geneix (Director of Teaching and Learning, Washington International School) sees it as a process of empowerment and unveiling talent, noting that providing teachers with choices assists:

“You have to empower all the people around you. See talent as opportunities. Offer options. It doesn’t appeal to everyone. Choice is really important.”

Supporting hesitant teachers

It is crucial to meet hesitant or resistant teachers where they are. We can do this by showing non-judgemental interest in their practice and “listening them into clarity”. Instead of trying to give them the answer, try to help them find the answer themselves by asking lots of questions. Where do they feel that little niggling feeling? What question are they asking that this might be the answer to? What do they want their learners to be like? Give them agency and get them to share their practice in order to help you understand. Look for the toughest critics and build relationships by showing genuine passion for their art. This approach cannot be forced, so cast the net towards the ones who are interested. Make it an invitation, an open circle. Joel Bevans (Vice Principal, Canadian International School, Singapore) emphasises the importance of building strong relational connections, listening, persisting, and staying positive:

“Listen. Put the coaching hat on. Coaching conversations are really important. How do you listen and give a little nudge? It comes down to relationships. You can’t have these coaching conversations unless you really know who they are. It is a slow burner process. Keep on trying and keep on smiling.”

Biggest mistakes

The biggest mistake that leaders tend to make when attempting to develop this culture is to give up if it does not work the first time. It is an ongoing investment, a multi-year commitment. It will evolve and develop, it requires patience, and it will take time. It is not a panacea or a quick fix. It is not a one-off; you are not going to get it the first time. It is sensible to pick just one idea and focus on it until it becomes a habit. Lauren Childs (Clinical Faculty, Oakland University, Michigan) notes that we are not talking about implementation, we are talking about a cultural mind-shift:

“This is not just a program. Program implementation is so ingrained. It is a cultural shift not the implementation of a program.

Hidden ingredients

Ron recommended that I ask a question about the hidden ingredients of leading this work. This question elicited two key ingredients, the secret sauce if you like. These two keys are: being truly intellectually curious, and making people feel seen and heard. Nathalie Ryan (Senior Educator, Department of Gallery and Studio Learning, National Gallery of Art) beautifully captures the essence of this as she describes the role of education as a civic effort which goes beyond passing tests:

“Have a genuine desire to listen and learn, to see your role as not the authority. Be truly curious about your learners, really care. Desire to listen and connect in an authentic way. See education as truly part of a civic effort. It is beyond passing a test; it’s about creating humans; it is more lifelong. When someone sees you as a human, that is really empowering as learner.”

Best takeaways

Jessica Ross (Senior Practitioner Specialist, Project Zero) spoke about keeping the focus on thinking and learning as the main game in schools as opposed to everything else that can crowd the agenda:

“It is about cognition and thinking and learning. Schools can lose sight of this. There is always more to do – healthcare, physical care. But cognition, thinking and learning is what we should be expert in.’

Brian Cook (Social Studies Department Head, Dana Hall School, Boston) used the helpful metaphor of nurturing an eco-system rather than following a script:

“It is about nurturing an eco-system rather than sticking to a script. It takes time and it is messy and that is part of the process. You have to be OK with making mistakes. That is OK when the senior administration is on-board.” 

Tina Blythe (Project Director, Project Zero and Senior Manager Special Projects) spoke about trusting colleagues and valuing relationship because it is only in relationship to others that we can see our own biases:

“Trust your learners. Trust your colleagues. Value relationship. It all comes down to relationship. It is only in relationship with others that I can really hear another perspective. It’s almost impossible for me to see my own biases. Others can help me see them. That is why we set up groups.”

Elise Heil (Principal of Sacred Heart School in Washington DC) emphasised the importance of modelling from leaders and prioritising adult learning:

“As a school leader, I’m most proud that I can use these routines myself with parents. Being able to model and facilitate is crucial. If this is something that the school leadership values, then they have to use the routines. They can’t just tell others to use them. If you are doing systemic large-scale change, you have to be focused on the adult learners first, not the children.”


It turns out that that we can’t teach people to think after all, but we can enculturate the dispositions which enable thinking. Educators who succeed in developing a culture of thinking value the process of learning over the product of learning; they seek deeper learning rather than just the acquisition of knowledge. Leadership of this pedagogical approach requires patience, and valuing, respecting, and trusting people. Leadership matters immensely and models that this is not “flavour of the month”, it is who we are, and it is what we are about. It requires an invitational approach. An invitation is extraordinarily powerful. Invite people into change instead of telling them what they need to change.



Ritchhart, R., 2015. Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 forces we must master to truly transform our classrooms. San Francisco, CA, Jossey-Bass.

Vygotsky, L., 1978. Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

3 thoughts on “A Culture of Thinking for Teachers

  1. Thank you for sharing Cameron.

    Personally, I wonder what a culture of thinking might look like outside of the classroom? I think I appreciate what this looks like within the classroom and understand how we might foster a culture of thinking and inquiry outside of the classroom, but what does a ‘culture of thinking’ look like when it comes to mandated and mundane professional development? As someone who supports schools with things like timetables and reporting, what does a culture of thinking look like there?

  2. Great ideas and for real critical thinking is scarce in many learning insitutions

  3. Great article and useful model. I agree with Aaron here – we must apply this thinking about culture beyond the four walls of the classroom and include the broader ecosystem within which students learn – including their homes and community spaces. This is particularly timely in a hybrid world where the physical classroom becomes just one part of the ecosystem for learners – and teachers.

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