Student Thinking at the Core

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Course Date: 12 August 2014 to 30 September 2014 (7 weeks)

Price: free

Course Summary

This course explores how teachers can capitalize on what students bring to the classroom - their ideas, perceptions, and misunderstandings - to advance the learning of all students in the class, a practice we call “leveraging student thinking”.

Estimated Workload: 3-4 hours/week

Course Instructors

Barbara Stengel

Dr. Barbara Stengel is Professor of the Practice of Education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College and a philosopher of education by preparation and temperament.  Stengel teaches courses that examine the social, philosophical, history, political and economic aspects of schooling specifically and educational efforts generally.  In her role as Director of Secondary Education, she brings a philosophical temper to practical questions about teacher education programs and policies, raising prior questions, uncovering assumptions (including her own!), clarifying language, and generally deconstructing the stories we tell ourselves about what we are doing and why.

Over the past decade, Dr. Stengel’s philosophical work has focused on the moral and relational dimensions of teaching, learning and leadership (See, for example, Moral Matters: Five Ways to Develop the Moral Life of Schools (with Alan Tom, Teachers College Press, 2006).   She has explored the language of responsibility as a useful foundational language for teaching and teacher education in that it integrates the moral (what’s worth doing) and the academic (what’s worth knowing) in pedagogical action.  Currently, she is analyzing emotion as a feature of educational interaction.   She is especially interested in the role of fear in the dynamic of learning (Does fear motivate learning?  Or impede? Or is it more complicated than that?), but also in the ways fear has infected U.S. systems of schooling since 9/11 as well as since the introduction of the Bush/Kennedy opus, No Child Left Behind.  Two essays that express Stengel’s thinking on these issues are available in  “The Complex Case of Fear and Safe Space” in Studies in Philosophy and Education and “Exploring Fear:  Rousseau, Dewey and Freire on Fear and Learning” in Educational Theory.

As the Director of Peabody’s Secondary Education Program, Stengel and her colleagues are working with a number of Nashville middle schools and high schools to create sites where the work of teaching, the professional development of teachers and the preparation of new members of the profession are seamless in what she calls “leveraged learning schools.”  Based on staffing models that challenge the one-teacher, one-classroom mold, the goal is to imagine and create institutions where everybody involved is learning and growing all the time.

Marcy Singer-Gabella

Marcy Singer-Gabella is a Professor in the Practice of Education, and Associate Chair for Teacher Education in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt University.  She teaches courses on educational foundations and teaching, and also is involved with a variety of research and development projects focused on teacher learning and development, including:

  • ATLAS, an I3 grant project led by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to design video case materials that support the ongoing learning of prospective and early career teachers. 
  • preliminary validation research on edTPA, a performance-based assessment of teacher candidates’ readiness to teach.
  • an NSF-funded Study of the development of teachers’ understandings of mathematics and science content and pedagogy, from preparation to practice.

From 1999-2007, Dr. Singer-Gabella served as Director and Principal Investigator for two urban school reform projects, Imagine College and GEAR UP Nashville, funded by grants from the Ford Foundation, the Ingram Charitable Fund, the Inner City Education Foundation, the Flora Foundation, and the US Department of Education.  These initiatives provided intensive professional development support to teachers in the areas of mathematics, standards-based planning and assessment, building classroom learning communities, and leadership; college planning, preparation, and financial assistance for middle and high school students; and health/social service outreach to over 5000 PreK-12 students and their families in two P-12 school clusters in Nashville, Tennessee. 

Before coming to Vanderbilt, Dr. Singer-Gabella taught high school social studies in New York, and then worked with the Stanford Schools Collaborative Professional Development Center in the California Bay Area.

Course Description

As good teachers know, our most important resource(s) in classroom interaction are the ideas and experiences our students bring with them. The past two decades of research on learning, and more recent framings of academic goals (especially the Common Core State Standards) bring this insight to the forefront. This short course, designed for as few as four weeks and as many as eight, asks how teachers can and do capitalize on what students bring to the classroom - their ideas, perceptions, and misunderstandings – to advance the learning of all students in the class.

Our overarching goal is to support participants in developing the knowledge and skills needed to take up student thinking in ways that enable all students to learn challenging subject matter – a practice we call “leveraging student thinking”.

Course content will focus primarily on middle grades classrooms in various disciplines, but the practice of leveraging student thinking is applicable to all subject areas and grade levels. Participants will explore the design of curricular tasks, the analysis of patterns of talk, and the use of representational tools to:

  • elicit student thinking,
  • attend to significant features of that thinking,
  • interpret students’ ideas within a developmental framework, and
  • bridge from students’ current understandings to more sophisticated understandings.

These ideas will be introduced through guided engagement with video cases. Analysis of the video cases will highlight the elements involved in leveraging student thinking, and also will illustrate the epistemic, academic, developmental and managerial “pressure points” that challenge teachers’ ability to capitalize on student thinking in constructive ways.

Throughout the course, participants will further explore and test out these ideas in their own classrooms, be they formal or informal. (A Sunday school class, a scout troop, a homeschool opportunity, or a traditional classroom environment would all be appropriate, but some kind of teaching practice is necessary to benefit from the course.)  The goal is to work on the work of teaching while teaching.

In addition, critical reflection with a group of partners is an important component of this course.  At key points, participants will be asked to document their work to share with peers for feedback. Therefore, we strongly encourage teachers to plan to work through this course in teams (of two to four people) to facilitate mutual observation, analysis and discussion. Teachers who do not have a team at the beginning of the course will be able to create a team through online forums at the beginning of the course and can exchange their teaching examples through video or narrative descriptions.


  • What resources will I need for this class?
    You will get the most out of this course if you have access to videotaping equipment (as simple as your own FlipVideo Camera) and if you engage in this course with one or more teaching colleagues. However, you can still benefit if you join us solo and if you are not able to videotape your teaching. We do, however, strongly suggest partnering up with another CoreThink participant once the course gets going.
  • How can I find a partner or partners if I join the course alone?
    We will create a bulletin board that will enable participants to "partner up" with others in similar teaching situations. This stage of the course will require a bit more work on the participants end as you search for your partner or group. 
  • Can I get professional development credit for this course?
    This is a great question but not one we can answer. Please check with your principal or other district/school official to determine whether the kind of experience this course offers can meet professional development guidelines. You may want to propose that your entire staff work through the course together!
  • Will I get a Statement of Accomplishment after completing this class?
    Yes. Students who successfully complete the class will receive a Statement of Accomplishment.


This course justifies and unpacks a teaching practice we call leveraging student thinking.  This practice (actually a constellation of practices) supports important educational goals including, but not limited to, achievement as outlined in the Common Core State Standards. The elements of leveraging are: 

  • eliciting student thinking 
  • attending to significant features of that thinking 
  • interpreting students' ideas within a developmental framework
  • bridging from students' current understandings to more sophisticated understandings
Over the course of four lessons we will explore each element listed above. We will be drawing upon both our own* and others' research,as well as the insights of practicing teachers. 

* We are grateful to the National Science Foundation for their support of the research on which this course is based and the preparation of the materials found here:  "Linking Teacher Preparation to Student Learning in Mathematics and Science", National Science Foundation, Award ID 0554486. 

Lesson 1: Eliciting Student Thinking at the Core (available on August 19)

Goal: Design a better task -- i.e., one that will more effectively get students’ thinking on the table. 

Essential Questions: 

    •    What does it mean to leverage student thinking? 
    •    Why is leveraging student thinking educative? 
    •    How can you design tasks to more effectively elicit student thinking and make students' understandings more visible?  


  • Design a task to effectively elicit student thinking.  
  • Complete survey.
Lesson 2: Anticipating and Interpreting Student Thinking (available on August 26)

Goal: Locate your students' thinking (elicited in assignment #2) within a developmental framework.  

Essential Questions: 
  • What’s the developmental trajectory that links students' current understandings of particular concepts to more sophisticated understandings? 
  • What does it mean to locate student thinking within a trajectory of development?
  • Sort the student work you collected from least to most sophisticated. On what basis are you making this judgement?

  • Conduct a clinical interview with one or more of your students about a concept in your subject area and hypothesize how those students' understanding might build over time "in the direction of what the expert already knows."* 
*See Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education. New York:  Basic Books, p. 191. See Barb's lecture in Lesson 2 to put this phrase in context) 
Lesson 3: Taking Up Learners’ Ideas as Pedagogical Resources (available on September 2)

Goal: Use talk and representational tools to “take up” student thinking in ways that advance the understandings of all students.  

Essential Questions: 
  • How do teachers use student thinking to build important ideas and understandings?
  • Analyze a video excerpt for the moves made by the teacher and students to build students' understandings.
  • Videotape/audiotape a lesson in your classroom, and, with a peer, analyze the moves you and your students make to build understanding.
Lesson 4: Putting Will and Skill Together to Leverage Student Thinking (available on September 9)

Goal: Identify personal & professional challenges of leveraging practice (based on attempting, and reflecting critically on that attempt to leverage), and sketch a plan for your development of this practice. 

Essential Questions:
  • How and why is the diversity of student ideas and understandings a resource for leveraging? In other words, how can diversity of ideas propel learning? 
  • What are the challenges or “pressure points” that impede the practice of leveraging in general?
  • What can you do to develop this practice in your teaching context?
  • Teach, videotape/audiotape, and reflect on a lesson in which you focus on building from and through students’ ideas. 
  • Develop an action plan with your partner to develop your skills in leveraging student thinking
  • Submit action plan as a peer assessment and assess the work of three of your peers. 


The course will be built around teacher participants' guided engagement with their own teaching practice (documented by video-recording, audio-recording, or post hoc note taking) in the company of teacher colleagues or on-line partners who serve as "critical friends".  Short instructor video presentations as well as panel discussions are interspersed with video clips of teaching practice to illustrate concepts and practices. Assignments will require review of one's own and one other's developing practice.  Reflective writing on the experience of engaging in the assigned practices will be peer-assessed. 

Course Workload

3-4 hours/week

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