Are we stealing their thinking?

I was at a PYP workshop last year and the facilitator asked each of us to bring in an empty juice tetra pack. On the first day of the workshop she showed us a picture of a wallet that could be made out of the tetra packs we had all brought in.

juice wallet

She then split us into 3 groups. Group 1 was given a 4 page, step-by-step set of instructions with diagrams. Group 2 was not given instructions, but they were allowed to use the internet as a resource. Group 3 was given nothing. They were told to figure it out with no help, no resources and no instructions. We had 10 minutes.

When the timer buzzed, guess which group had successfully made the wallets?

Group 3. With no help. No instructions. No resources.

Those of us in Group 1 had barely made a dent in the project. We were busy reading each specific instruction, and following it blindly.

Our workshop presenter then asked each group, “In the past 10 minutes, how much thinking would you say you did?” Group 3 said they were thinking hard for the whole time. Those of us in Group 1 had to admit that we hadn’t really done any real thinking at all. We didn’t need to. All we had to do was follow instructions. Read and do. Our presenter said sometimes as teachers, we overteach. We provide too much direction… too many instructions… and our students shut their thinking off, because we – as teachers – are doing their thinking for them.

This experience really hit home for me. Are we stealing their thinking? And if so, how can we give it back to them?

Here are a few moments during the past year where we have caught ourselves almost thinking for our students and how we made changes to put the thinking back in their hands:

1. Planning resources for Units of Inquiry

During a Grade 4 collaborative planning meeting we were discussing the student questions that had come up so far in the Unit of Inquiry and what resources might be able to answer them. So the 8 of us brainstormed. “We could use this book”, “We could go and interview the high school students”, “We could have the students conduct a survey at home”. Then we caught ourselves and realized that we were excluding the students from one of the most crucial parts of the inquiry process – “HOW are we going to find that out?” So we stopped then and there, and took that question back to the students and allowed them to do the thinking. The best part was, they came up with an even better list of potential resources than we did!

2. Selecting math manipulatives

I was co-teaching with a Grade 2 teacher and we were doing a Math Congress with the students. We presented them with the problem, “The answer is 50. What could the question be?” Then we showed them the math manipulatives that could be helpful. On the table we had set out base-10 blocks, hundreds charts and number lines. During our reflections, we had realized that we had stolen their thinking! Choosing appropriate math tools is one of the most important things a mathematician does, and we had done it for them. The next time we presented the students with a math problem-solving activity, we opened up a discussion first about “What math tools might help up solve this problem?” And we are glad that we did. The thinking, planning, reasoning and justifying that came out of that conversation was fantastic!

3. Discovering literacy rules

A Grade 4 teacher came to me at recess and said “One of my students has a great question! They want to know why sometimes in English when you add an ‘ed’ to the end of a word, the word it sounds like a ‘t’ and other times it sounds like a ‘d’, and other times still it sounds like ‘ed’. I want to find out the answer so I can tell him.” So the two of us started to discuss this and research the answer. Then we realized… wait a second… we’re stealing his thinking! If it’s worthwhile for us to inquire into this, then it’s definitely worthwhile for students to inquire into this! So after recess, the teacher posed the question to the class. It was wonderful to see students looking up words that end in ‘ed’ in books from the class library, then sorting them by sounds, then analyzing the pattens they noticed, then making hypotheses and sharing them with each other, then testing their theories with other examples of other, similar words! And to think… we had almost done all that thinking for them!


As teachers, it is in our nature to help. We just need to be careful of when we are helping and when we are hindering. How can we expect our students to be thinkers, if we are taking away the situations and opportunities where thinking is truly necessary?

So the next time you are doing something for your students, ask yourself…

“Is this something that the students could be doing?”

“Am I stealing their thinking?”

and most importantly…

“How can I give it back to them?”

4 thoughts on “Are we stealing their thinking?

  1. Pingback: PYP Bad Words –

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