The mind need not be a black box

Psychologists have a lot of sophisticated tools for studying human cognition, but there is one simple practical tool I use with students that researchers don’t often use: asking someone what they are thinking. It seems obvious, but it isn’t. It’s not often that teachers ask students to speak out loud about their cognitive process, what I call making thinking visible. When a fourth grader is adding fractions and a teacher wants to know how the student got a particular answer the teacher usually looks at the student’s paper, which is only one indication of what is going on in the student’s head. A potentially more revealing indicator is a student’s description of the train of thoughts she follows while doing the problem (“Well, first I looked at the two numbers on the bottom and saw three didn’t divide into eight so then I decided to double the eight to see…”). A particularly interesting cognitive task to have someone articulate out loud is the act of reading. What actually goes on inside someone’s head when making sense of written words? Do you know how you create meaning out of a sentence, especially one you have to puzzle over? Consider this poem by Emily Dickinson.

Soul, wilt thou toss again?
By just such a hazard
Hundreds have lost, indeed,
But tens have won an all.

Angels’ breathless ballot
Lingers to record thee
Imps in eager caucus
Raffle for thy soul.

If I give this elusive poem to a junior English student and ask her to express out loud what she thinks in the moment, I can get an approximate idea of how she is constructing her interpretation. She might say something like this: “When I read the first line I figure the poem will be about the soul because she’s addressing the soul. The line seems to make sense except maybe the word toss. I’m thinking maybe her soul is troubled and I have the image of someone in bed tossing and turning during the night. Now in the second line I’m having a little trouble. The word hazard doesn’t seem to fit. Hazard is like a dangerous obstacle. Does the soul face an obstacle? I’m going to go to the next line to find out more…”
Instead of just finding out what her interpretation is I am looking at the mental steps she uses to get there. In working with this student the focus shifts from the object of interpretation to the process of interpretation. We can develop her literary interpretation skills in a minute way. I might ask her questions to help further uncover her thinking, for example saying “I’m wondering why you decided to linger over the first lines instead of reading the whole poem through and then returning to those first lines.” We engage in a dialogue about her cognitive process. Along the way, the student learns about much more than just a 19th century American poet. She learns about her own learning. And by essentially researching how she reads and problem solves, she can begin to develop and remediate her thinking. This approach is particularly helpful for dealing with complex skills: reading, writing, creative problem solving.