Thinking Out Loud

By Debra Shore — November 01, 1992 19 min read

The “tragedy of American childhood today,” says University of Arizona professor Stanley Pogrow, is that “we’re raising a generation of kids whose parents haven’t talked to them.” He checks off a variety of reasons for why this is so: fewer two-parent families, more families in which both parents work, welfare policies, and television. The result, Pogrow argues, is that children today have virtually stopped talking with adults—stopped taking part, that is, in extended discussions that require them to defend their ideas and to explain their reasoning. And this is the tragedy: Lacking that experience as a central part of their lives, children, especially disadvantaged children, don’t understand how to understand. And understanding, Pogrow argues, is an absolutely essential predicate to critical thinking.

Pogrow (pronounced PAW-grow) came to these conclusions after observing thousands of children during his years as a public school teacher, university professor and researcher, and educational consultant. The more he saw, the more convinced he became that traditional remedial education wasn’t working and wouldn’t work. So, nearly a decade ago, Pogrow and a team of educators combined their observations, instincts, and knowledge of children into HOTS (short for Higher Order Thinking Skills), now a widely acclaimed program designed to teach critical-thinking skills to at-risk children.

An alternative to the standard Chapter 1 drill-and-practice remedial pull-out program, HOTS challenges children to think. In fact, HOTS may be the first compensatory program for students in grades 4-7 that is not remedial in nature. It replaces drill-and-practice exercises with systematically designed higher-order thinking activities; computers and steno pads take the place of workbooks. The program is designed to foster dialogue and discussion, enticing children with computer games and programs and encouraging them to test their ideas and express their thoughts.

HOTS replicates the Socratic setting, with students clustered around a master teacher. But, unlike students in many traditional classrooms, children in HOTS classrooms gather not to receive knowledge delivered to them as if they were passive vessels but to talk with each other and a trained adult about ideas and issues and to grapple with probing questions. The flowing robes may be missing, but the approach is as effective today as it was 2,400 years ago when Socrates used it: Get students talking, and through talking you get them thinking.

Stanley Pogrow grew up in Manhattan, the son of a teacher and an accountant. His own ability to think and to debate ideas was fostered both at home and at school. “My parents made us sit around the table and talk,” he recalls. At school, young Pogrow was encouraged to challenge his teachers and to defend his ideas. “You matched wits with your teachers,” he remembers. “That was part of the day.”

Pogrow, who is now 49, majored in mathematics at City College of New York, earned a master’s in business there, and then taught math for seven years in the New York City public schools. (“I may be the only person who got an MBA and decided to stay in education during the boom years of the ‘70s and ‘80s,” he says, laughing at himself.) Pogrow’s initiation as a teacher lacked a certain Socratic serenity and clarity: He started his career in Hell’s Kitchen, a tough neighborhood on Manhattan’s West Side. “They had just gotten rid of four teachers, and in my first 10 minutes, a kid threw a tomato at me,” Pogrow remembers. “It hit the blackboard in front of me and sprayed me. So I learned: Don’t turn your back on the class.”

Despairing after three weeks of “ducking spitballs,” Pogrow was ready to quit. But, walking down the hall one day, he saw a class of incorrigible students sitting and listening in rapt attention to another teacher. “I was stunned,” he says, “and that’s what kept me in teaching. I stopped seeing it as the fault of the kids and thought more that I wasn’t doing the right thing. The difference between me and the other teacher was so dramatic. I learned an important lesson: No matter how impossible a kid or a situation can seem, there is potentially a strategy which can totally reverse the situation.”

After seven years, Pogrow left teaching to pursue a doctorate in educational administration at Stanford University. “My primary interest has always been educationally disadvantaged students,” he says. “How to turn the situation around for them—that’s always been my passion. I believe a society like ours will be strong only to the extent that we can dramatically expand opportunities to the disadvantaged.”

In 1980, after teaching at several other universities, Pogrow joined the faculty of the school of education at the University of Arizona, in Tucson. “I thought being a professor and presenting new ideas to people would be a way to bring about change in schools and school systems,” Pogrow says. But he became disillusioned. “I discovered I was too far removed from the school and the classroom to really know how to change it.”

At 37, Pogrow had reached his first midlife crisis. He searched for examples of successful, innovative programs that had changed schools. “I looked around and there just didn’t seem to be anything powerful there,” he says. For a while, Pogrow became a “techno-hound,” exploring the educational potential of the emerging computer technology. As a consultant, he developed plans for using technology in the classroom, but again he became discouraged when he found that schools were focusing too much on the computers and not enough on his educational recommendations.

“Everybody was worried about making kids computer literate,” he recalls. “Computer literacy is just a hoax. It’s a false movement because they were making the wrong equity argument and solving the wrong philosophical issue.” Pogrow took to the hustings, railing in speeches against the false idol of computer literacy: “I said we had to think about how to develop the thinking skills of kids.”

It wasn’t long before Pogrow’s preaching put him in a situation in which he was called on to put his words into practice for students. The Chapter 1 coordinator for the Norwalk-La Mirada School District, about 20 miles southeast of Los Angeles, asked him, “How’d you like to design a thinking-skills program for us?”

Thus was HOTS conceived, in the summer of 1983, by a seminal team of four: the district’s Chapter 1 coordinator, a classroom teacher, a principal, and Pogrow. “We sat down in a room in the summer and said, `What should we do with the kids?” Pogrow recalls. “And that was the start of HOTS.

“I quickly discovered that most of my ideas weren’t very good,” Pogrow admits. “Basically, I really didn’t know how to do it. I called people around the country, and they didn’t know how to do it either. We made a lot of mistakes. Even so, the kids responded much better than before and did much better. Socially and emotionally, their eyes were alive instead of dead.”

The HOTS program, as created by Pogrow and his team, is highly structured. A group of no more than 15 students meets with a teacher for 35 minutes a day, four days a week, for two years. Participating teachers undergo a week of intensive training and then follow a detailed daily lesson plan—carefully scripted “learning dramas” prepared by Pogrow and his colleagues—loaded with probing questions.

Rita Stenning, a 13-year teaching veteran, is a HOTS teacher at James Hart Middle School in Homewood, Ill. Her seven 7th graders, now in their second year of the program, sit in a semicircle facing Stenning and a computer monitor. Discussing last week’s visit to the library, Stenning asks, “What do I mean by summarizing?” And then, following one student’s answer, she asks another, “What did she tell us, Eric?”

“What’s the advantage of summarizing something you’ve read?” Stenning asks the students, then waits for replies.

“You might understand it better,” a student answers.

“OK, that’s a good thought,” Stenning responds.

Stenning’s questioning continues: “How does identifying main ideas help you summarize? How does being a good investigator make you good at summarizing? What did you do when we investigated in here, when we were doing Murder by the Dozen [a software program]? Could you use any of that when you went in to do your research in the library? How did you know what was important?” And so on.

“When I started teaching,” Stenning comments later, “there was one right answer, and either you got it right or you didn’t. The difference for me with HOTS is not so much the types of questions I asked before as the types of answers I expect in return. They’re no longer free to give a one-word answer. If they do, I’ll say, ‘Oh, well what did you read that would support that?’”

Says Donna Uebler, a teacher and popular HOTS trainer from Chillicothe, Ill.: “I have a slogan, `Just a minute, let me think.’ It makes the children stop and think and not be haphazard answerers because that’s what they’ve been trained to be. They’re not used to reflecting at all, and that’s a habit HOTS tries to break.”

At first, some students find the constant probing very threatening. But the fear doesn’t usually last long, according to Stenning. She says she is always reassured “to see the kids start coming out and not only giving answers but also realizing they have to support their answers. And they’ll tell each other, `You know she’s not going to accept that. You have to give more.”

Pogrow doesn’t worry about putting too much pressure on the children. “Do you want to know how to enhance the self-concept of a child?” he asks. “It’s to have them fail initially at something that is very difficult but interesting to them and then have them ultimately succeed. We call that `controlled floundering.”

But why use a script? Doesn’t that stifle a teacher’s creativity and autonomy? “Not at all,” replies HOTS teacher Pam Bosselmann. “You have to sell the idea that it’s like a play. This is the way it’s written, and you make it come alive. It takes the energy off of thinking what you’re going to say and lets you put energy into making it fun.”

“I’m not concentrating on isolated skills,” adds Uebler. “I’m challenging children to be creative with their thinking. The curriculum has goals and objectives, but it allows me to be creative. If I’m creative, my children have to be creative.”

Uebler likes to use costumes to help make her pedagogical points, and she encourages the teachers in her HOTS training sessions to do the same. For a lesson on writing about the unexpected, one teacher-in-training arrived wearing sunglasses, a bathing cap, and a swimsuit over her jeans and T-shirt. Another wrapped herself in plastic. “They were showing themselves to be the unexpected,” says Uebler, laughing.

“Drama is the most under-used technique in American education,” Pogrow says, “and it’s one of the most powerful.” Addressing an imaginary group of teachers, he asks: “How many of you have made a fool of yourselves recently in order to make a point? How many of you have come dressed in costume?”

A dyed-in-the-denim New Yorker, Pogrow’s costume invariably consists of blue jeans and tennis shoes, the near-universal uniform on the University of Arizona campus. When pressed into formality, he dons a sport coat. He wears glasses, has light brown hair, and speaks eagerly, if not with complete grammatical precision.

If the driving metaphor behind the development of HOTS was that of dinner-table conversation between children and parents, a second crucial metaphor guiding Pogrow’s thought was to view the mind as a muscle. “If you want a muscle to grow in certain ways,” Pogrow explains, “you externally have it do things that mimic what you want to build up internally.” In his subsequent study of the brain’s architecture, Pogrow realized the importance of linkages: “I said, `Let’s talk to kids the same way that the brain is organized.’ So we developed a curriculum that links ideas very extensively across all the different activities in the curriculum.”

HOTS stresses four key thinking skills:

  • Metacognition—the ability to reflect on the cognitive processes, procedures, and knowledge that are brought to the performance of a task.
  • Inference from context—the ability to use clues (textual and otherwise) to persevere and fill in the missing information needed for comprehension.
  • Decontextualization—the ability to apply information learned in one context to another and to integrate new information independent of the specific context in which it was learned.
  • Information synthesis—the ability to scan and appropriately link information from a variety of sources to solve a problem.

To build up and then continue to massage these thinking skills, the HOTS curriculum works with 13 “linkage” concepts, such as similarities and differences, traits, perspectives, capabilities, rules, and predictions. In working with perspective, for example, HOTS uses a computer program called Ride the Wind that allows students to fly a hot-air balloon (which, incidentally, is the HOTS symbol). Students grapple with altitude, how it affects the balloon’s direction and speed, and the difference between real direction—such as “up”—and direction on a computer screen. They must also develop a strategy for landing the balloon and contend with obstacles such as the sudden arrival of a flock of ducks. Again, the games and attendant discussions are designed to get children solving problems and talking about their strategies.

Pogrow found that computers are extremely useful in this work because they provide private learning environments for students to test their ideas. Moreover, at-risk students do not associate computers with previous learning failures in the classroom. Also, a computer can respond to students’ ideas as fast as they can think. Consequently, Pogrow has adapted a variety of software programs—with catchy names such as Bank Street Writer, Oregon Trail, Dazzle Draw, and Voyage of the Mimi—to use in the HOTS curriculum.

HOTS teachers report that the training and subsequent adjustment to a new teaching style is difficult; they say it can take a year or more to become skilled and comfortable with the program’s Socratic technique. But most agree that the overall experience is completely exhilarating. “I have never been more challenged in a teaching situation,” says 12-year veteran teacher Pam Bosselmann, “because I never know what’s going to happen.”

“Before I learned about HOTS,” says Donna Uebler, describing her Chapter 1 classes, “I had the mindset that I was dealing with remedial kids, and therefore I felt I had to work on skills to bring them `up’ to the level of other children. I did some drill-and-practice, though I hated it. We did a lot of reading of books, but it wasn’t exciting. With the advent of HOTS, the program, itself, is so intellectually stimulating that I’m constantly reevaluating my teaching. I am much more patient because I’ve had to learn to wait for answers and give children the time to think. I don’t allow `I don’t know’ anymore, so they have to respond to me. Now, I’m challenging children to be creative with their thinking.”

Pogrow’s HOTS program spread slowly, expanding from one school to four in its second year. “We began to try some slightly different things for the second year,” Pogrow says, “and in the summer a few people called me up and said they’d heard about what we were doing and wanted to try it.”

Then the U.S. Education Department’s office of technology sent out a request for proposals for out- standing teacher demonstration projects. Pogrow responded, and HOTS received a grant of $165,000, later supplemented by a $151,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. Pogrow and his team continued to experiment, relying on a great deal of local knowledge and teacher expertise.

Pogrow had long been interested in the dissemination of innovation. He had spent a year as a visiting scholar at the National Science Foundation studying the topic, but he found that the available literature was largely after-the-fact. HOTS offered Pogrow a chance to study the dissemination of his own innovation as it unfolded. “I discovered a way to tap into schools, not by being a consultant or making speeches,” he says, “but by having an actual intervention that you could put into place.

“There are a lot of good programs out there, and some of them are because of an excellent teacher. But there are very few programs that work beyond a few sites. There’s almost no research on large-scale interventions in the American education system.”

For the first four or five years, Pogrow was reluctant to make any claims of success, although students’ scores were rising and teachers were enthusiastic. Then in 1987, the California School Boards Association voted HOTS the “Most Innovative K-8 Program in California,” and a HOTS project in Arizona was designated an exemplary Chapter 1 site by the U.S. Department of Education. Without any sales or marketing push, HOTS had been adopted by schools in 16 states by 1988.

Also that year, an evaluation conducted for the Program Effectiveness Panel of the Education Department’s National Diffusion Network found that HOTS students made greater gains in reading and math than students in traditional compensatory programs—both in national comparisons and control-group studies. Gains on standardized tests, measured fall to spring of the first year, were up 13.8 percentiles in reading (compared with a national Chapter 1 average gain of 10.7 percentiles) and 17 percentiles in math (compared with 15 percentiles nationally).

The differences between HOTS students and other Chapter 1 students were even greater when measured in spring-tospring tests. HOTS students gained 7.2 percentiles in reading (compared with a national Chapter 1 average gain of 5 per- centiles) and 11 percentiles in math (compared with 6.6 percentiles nationally). The study also found that HOTS students performed significantly better on measures of thinking and even outperformed students in the control group on a criterion-referenced reading and math test. The National Diffusion Network subsequently declared HOTS an exemplary program.

Convinced that his approach was effective, Pogrow began to study the particular conditions that made it work. When, he wondered, does HOTS work, and why? When doesn’t it work, and why not?

“We began to generate new theories of learning that were very different from the accepted wisdom in the field,” he says. “Each year we learn tremendous amounts about kids and learning, and almost all of it goes against the conventional wisdom generated in the research community.

“We built our development around watching kids and listening to teachers and some simple metaphors, and we developed this thing that worked. The metaphor drove us because we felt that parents and children talking about ideas was what developed the ability to think.

“I haven’t discovered anything that good teachers haven’t instinctively known. I’ve just created a mechanism for helping them do it, and they’ve helped me develop how to do it well. With the right metaphors and good teachers, you can do anything.”

Indeed, despite the lack of a major marketing effort, the project has grown phenomenally. Pogrow has received additional funding from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and some material support from Apple Computer. This year, HOTS will be taught in approximately 1,800 schools in 48 states. (Hawaii and Florida are the lone holdouts.)

“He really is discovering some very fundamental things on his own,” says Ron Brandt, executive editor of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. “He’s had some real insights into the human brain and how it operates.” Brandt, who is familiar with many thinking-skills programs, admits that Pogrow is “too much of a maverick” for his work to be widely accepted in academic circles. Instead, Pogrow has focused his efforts on getting HOTS into classrooms and on incorporating the knowledge and suggestions of classroom teachers. He has spent little time or energy seeking acceptance from academia.

“Stan is a kind of a loner,” Brandt says. “I don’t know how many people know about his work. But I can tell you this: Completing exercises in a workbook doesn’t teach the mind to think.”

Despite the rapid rise of his HOTS balloon, Pogrow himself has had an intermittently bumpy ride. He was twice denied tenure at the University of Arizona, and he was turned down for a promotion two years ago. The president of the university intervened to provide him with another shot at tenure (which he now has), and his present dean, Pogrow reports, is more supportive.

Some of Pogrow’s problems may have resulted from his views of the educational establishment. “Colleges of education have become vestigial organs,” he says. “They’re not important for anything other than letting people acquire units to be certified. I’d organize [a college of education] along the lines of theater departments: part would be learning theory and part would be production, where faculty and students would work together in producing curriculum modules and test them on students and compare notes on what they think they’ve learned and discovered.”

These days, Pogrow is immersed in writing curricula for HOTS-Math, a two-year thinking-skills approach to prealgebra for grades 6-8, supported by a sizable grant from the National Science Foundation. Pogrow envisions students moving from two years of HOTS in grades 4-5 into HOTS-Math. Not surprisingly, Pogrow plans to incorporate drama and to induce students into speculating about situations.

“The piece de resistance is how we’re approaching math word problems,” Pogrow says excitedly. “There’s a space creature inside the computer, and the kids will try to communicate with the creature. If it’s a valid problem—one the creature can understand—it gives them a solution. But if it doesn’t, they have to figure out why the creature didn’t like the problem and what to do to fix it. ... We’re trying to build in a sense of drama and dramatic structures in our lessons.”

Pogrow avoids the popular television-bashing many of his colleagues engage in. Instead, he recognizes that television has led children to expect dramatic frameworks around information. In his view, HOTS exemplifies the combination of drama and knowledge. “The kids respond phenomenally,” Pogrow adds. “I think the challenge of the ‘90s is how to make what we present more dramatic and more interesting.”

But, for Pogrow, drama is only part of the HOTS formula. Getting kids to talk, to grapple with difficult questions—that’s the goal. “Everybody’s into ‘alternative assessment’ and ‘restructuring,’” Pogrow says. “The needs for kids are very simple. Let’s sit down with kids and talk with them.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Thinking Out Loud