Don’t say “Think”!

Pic 1It may seem counter intuitive, but the word “think” is something that should only rarely be used in a classroom. The reason: students don’t know how to think, and you can’t teach them to do it!

The word “Think” is a very vague one. It describes a wide range of cognitive actions. Consider some of the things you might do when you’re asked to “think”. You might: predict, reflect, analyse, plan, question, judge, use a graphic organizer, or anyone of literally thousands of cognitive actions.

When you ask students to “think” you shouldn’t be surprised when they all do very different things! One student might plan, while another student might reflect on how hard the task seems. Both of which might be different to generating alternatives which is what you wanted them to do.

My suggestion: Don’t say think, say what you mean!

In striving to (almost) eliminate the word “think” from you classroom discourse, you are really forcing yourself to Think and Communicate with Clarity and Precision. By being clear about the type of cognition you’d like students to engage in you do two very important things:

1) you make it clear in your own mind what sort of cognitive skill is required and

2) by doing this you put yourself in a position where you are obligated to teach the thinking as a skill.

The only exception to this rule is when you are asking this sort of question: “What sort of thinking do you predict might be necessary to solve this problem”. In this case you’re asking students to draw on their repertoire of cognitive strategies to identify the most important for the task.

Trevor Buchanan, Principal at Mt Mee State School near Brisbane wrote to me after a workshop I gave on this idea and said:

The staff have commented on the word Thinking and how difficult this is to change in our daily conversations with students eg. the kids tracked me one day and before we reached 9:15, I had used the word 3 times.   At the end of the day I had used the word 22 times, however by the end of the day I was immediately and consciously correcting the use of the word (the kids still counted these events, even if I only got the word half out).  I have had some significant success when I have really planned the wording to replace “Think”.   This has resulted in some immediate turn-around in the products of students in the class.”

So next time someone asks you if students think in your class you can respond with, “Of course not! They are too busy questioning, describing, analysing, judging, hypothesising, predicting, generating, using their 6 Hats, performing PMI’s, drawing mindmaps and so much more!



  • Trish Goodwin

    It is the hardest word to eliminate from your vocabulary when you teach. This is a work in progress and I look forward to challenging the entire staff to eliminate it too and become more specific about what types of thinking they want the students to do and explicitly teach that.

  • Todd Campbell

    I respectfully disagree that student don’t know how to think. All the other verbs you mention involve thinking, therefore they are thinking, even if they don’t know it. Tell them to “think” is a valid request. Teaching them to think deeper is what we need to do.

    • James Anderson

      Hi Todd, thanks for your comment. The point I was trying to make is not that students don’t know how to “think”. You’re right, they clearly are able to engage in many different sorts of thinking. My point was that they don’t know which kind of thinking they should be engaging in when they are simply asked to “think”.
      The word “think” is imprecise and vague. To be more effective in our teaching we need to be clear and precise in naming and describing the TYPE of thinking required.

  • Inés

    Telling a student to “think” and not which kind of thinking they are supposed to do is like telling a 2 year old to “tidy up” not giving them further information as to keep all the teddies in the red box and the building blocks in the blue one, isn’t it?

  • Tami-Jo Richter

    I think being explicit about the skills you want students to use is absolutely imperative- ask them to compare and contrast but then show them how to. When planning learning engagements teachers need to think about the language they are using and what it is they are asking the students to and using the thinking verbs is a good place to start.

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