Options and Ideas: Teaching the Art of Fluent Thinking

As I navigate this complicated and ever-changing world, it often occurs to me how many times I need to remind myself to breathe deeply, be flexible, and problem solve. My heart aches for students when I see them struggle because they lack the strategies that might help them. Yes, we teach them to read, write, solve math problems, and recite The Pledge. But do they really feel confident when they are faced with issues as they leave your classroom? Do they have the tools they need to be successful?Thinking.png

Because one of our goals as educators is to create independent and lifelong learners, our students need to know how to come up with options. Fluent thinking is the ability to generate many ideas. It is simple to teach but not always easy for students to grasp without a lot of modeling and practice. Once you have introduced any creative thinking skill, it is important to hang a poster in your classroom to remind yourself and your students to use that skill. Having the reminder will help when you cross over into content. Students love to throw out their ideas and be heard. Remember not to validate one answer over another; those gifted perfectionists in your class will not participate if they think you are looking for one answer!

We have all had that student in class with whom everyone wants to work because they have so many ideas. Chances are, he or she is also very verbal and persistent and so when placed in groups, teammates agree without really contributing. The student also gets the credit when a teacher asks on whose idea the group decided. You can change that scenario by teaching the skill of fluency to everyone.

In my creativity lessons, the students and I discuss that everyone has a creative side but it may be hiding! Fluent thinking is used every day in any discipline. I explain that everything they see in the classroom was someone’s idea. (Pause and look around for dramatic effect!) We talk about how toy makers and computer wizards gather in rooms to brainstorm and build on each other’s ideas. We even talk about the paper clip!

I start by explaining that in 1899, William Middlebrook created the paper clip to keep papers together. But since then, many adaptations have happened to that small, simple clip. I share my collection of clips: large single clips, small to large metal binder clips, colored clips, clips combined with magnets, decorative clips to hold pictures, etc. Students are surprised that they came from one simple idea. Those changes to the clip came from people being fluent with their ideas. Just as the clip is a tool, so too is our brain.

We also talk about writing and how writers use fluency constantly to add characters, traits, settings, and more to their stories. Choose a picture book the class has read or listened to and brainstorm another hero or antagonist for the main character. Then students can choose their favorite idea and brainstorm qualities before they write a paragraph describing this new character. With younger children, this can be done as a class activity. It is always a good idea to do some group brainstorming because students may get ideas from others and “piggyback” to a new idea. This strategy can easily fit into any writing program.

After the skill is taught, it becomes easier to incorporate thinking fluently into your lesson plans, especially if the students have become more confident in their responses. For example, consider a Social Studies unit on the Native American experience. You might ask students to brainstorm words or concepts from prior knowledge and adapt your lessons accordingly. In this way you can ensure that each student is presented with a challenge to utilize new vocabulary and concepts.

All too often, children and adults resist offering a host of ideas or solutions. They think of one and decide that it alone might be good enough. Taking the time to jot down a more extensive list can be beneficial, for the best ideas often come from the ones last on a brainstormed list. Encourage your students to become fluent thinkers, both inside and outside your classroom!

A version of this post by Barbara Dullaghan, Bloomington Public Schools, appeared in Teaching for High Potential (February 2017).