Book Review - Creating Cultures of Thinking, Ron Ritchhart (2015)

‘Any curriculum, good or bad, will sink or float on the culture of the classroom in which it is enacted.’

With so many nations and schools in the process of curriculum development and reform at present, this phrase from the blurb of the latest offering by Ron Ritchhart, lead researcher at Project Zero at Harvard University, drew me in like a magnet. This claim reminds us that governments, policy makers and administrators often see curriculum as the tool for transformation, assuming that teachers merely ‘deliver’ curriculum to their students. Change the ‘deliverable’ curriculum and that will transform education.

These efforts generally neglect the vital role classroom and school culture play in promoting thinking and learning. Curriculum is something that is enacted with learners, it plays out in the dynamics of the school and classroom culture. Therefore culture will determine how any curriculum comes to life. The central idea of this book and much of Ritchhart’s research is that culture is vitally important not only to realise goals, but is also a powerful shaper of students’ development as thinkers and learners.

Ritchhart invites us to consider the key question, ‘What do we want the children in our schools to be like as adults?’ and explains that, from personal experience, whoever and wherever you ask this question, the range of responses is often remarkably similar. Ritchhart titles the habits of mind and dispositions with which people usually respond ‘the residuals of education’. That is, what is left over 3, 5, 10 years after the learner has taken their exams and departed the education system? Yet, it is important to recognise that residuals such as curiosity, empathy, and ethical cannot be directly taught or assessed by examinations.

Ritchhart then builds upon the seminal work of Lev Vygotsky in making the case for ‘enculturation’ as the key to the development of these habits of mind and dispositions. Enculturation is defined as ‘a process of gradually internalising the messages and values that we repeatedly experience through our interaction with the social environment’. An understanding of this brings the question, ‘What kind of intellectual life are we surrounding our learners with?’ to the surface.

Ritchhart demystifies the process of creating dynamic learning communities by identifying and unpacking the eight forces we must cultivate and leverage to build cultures of thinking. He explains they are forces because, like gravity, they are always there – they are not something to  be implemented.

Throughout the book, Ritchhart provides case studies, practical guidelines, self-assessments, and sample projects. A fully recommended read for anybody looking to build a culture of thinking in their school.

Paul Tyack
Consultant, Thinking Matters

To find out more about Project Zero’s research –

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