Last school year, our principal invited me to take part in instructional rounds — an observation-based approach to better understand the learning occurring in our Title I elementary school. The reason? To determine why our school was having difficulty meeting various benchmarks on the end-of-year assessments.

The goal of rounds is to identify a problem of practice through brief observations of teachers, collect anecdotal evidence, and review this evidence to determine solution-oriented next steps.

It did not take long analyzing the evidence to clarify our problem of practice: a lack of higher-level thinking skills. Similar to schools studied in Ed Trust’s Checking In report on classroom assignments, our school was relying on the basic application of skills — matching, recalling, defining, explaining, and comparing — and still expecting students to meet rigorous standards. It wasn’t happening.

Ed Trust’s report found that only 4 percent of assignments pushed students to think at higher levels and less than 1 percent required extended thinking. My school was having this same struggle.

Reminding ourselves that students from low-income households are capable of higher-level thinking was the first step toward addressing this, and creating assignments that demand those higher levels was the next. Here are four principles to keep in mind when crafting assignments to support students in higher-level thinking:

  • Deeper thinking takes time: Yes, exit tickets and quick reviews are helpful. But extended thinking is a process. Giving students the opportunity to make decisions and work toward an intricate goal by crafting assignments that take multiple class periods increases cognitive demand and better prepares them for college and career. Ed Trust’s research shows we’re not alone; 86 percent of assignments in the analysis limited student thinking to recall, reproduction, and basic application rather than extended thinking.
  • Allow for wrestling: Not the physical kind, but the mental struggles of prioritizing items, imagining a final product, and minimizing conflict. This isn’t easy! Teachers often resort to answering questions or filling in the blanks when students falter. Students need to leave the teacher scaffold structure and be allowed to make mistakes and take risks to truly engage in their work.
  • Prioritize questions: Educators can easily get into a lecture-style classroom that is less conducive to higher-level, thought-provoking discussions. Moving away from this over-scaffolding of information means asking more open-ended questions. Many teachers ask questions but then only provide 5 seconds for students to respond. Providing think-time is key when asking questions and giving assignments.
  • Expect the best: Too often, questions and assignments are limited to classification, comparison, or definition. This is especially true in low-income schools, where teachers may have lower expectations for success. We cannot spoon-feed our students. Instead, ask students to discover, justify, and design. Or, when asking a lower-level question, follow it up with a second question: How do you know?

At our school, we are still working toward the inclusion of higher-level thinking skills in every lesson and every assignment — including on the first day of school. This year, when I read a story on the first day of kindergarten, I asked the 5-year-olds a very specific question: What do you predict will happen next? In one simple query, I expected students to recall what has happened so far and apply this information to make an inference. The question took time. I let students wrestle for a moment, and I expected their best.

And you know what? They had great answers.

Matthew Stensrud was a communications intern with Ed Trust in summer 2016. This fall, he begins his seventh year teaching music at an elementary school in Virginia.

Photo credit: r. nial bradshaw