George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

The Think-Aloud Strategy: An Oldie But Goodie

August 1, 2013
Photo credit: harriswalkerphotography via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Sometimes you need to be really far away to get perspective and be reminded of what you already know. As I write this, the eight thousand miles between myself and the schools I work in are illuminating the inside out, backward, and upside down nature of our education system. I'm am talking about the spliced into 55-minute periods, standardized testing, and the disconnection from authentic application and what makes life meaningful. I know, not all schools in the US are like this, but too many are.

I'm in Bali and for the last two weeks have been observing how Balinese children learn music, dance, and other arts. I've never been to a place where the arts were more integrated into daily life. In Ubud, the "cultural center of Bali," it's hard to walk down a street or spend a day without hearing or seeing some kind of artistic expression.

Much of this is connected to religious practices and takes place at the many temples on the island. This I expected. What surprises me is how children throw themselves onto every stage, into the laps of musicians, into the workshops of the carvers and painters and weavers. But perhaps "throws" is the wrong word -- I start to notice that they are pulled onto stages and laps and workshops.

Real-World Application

Early in our trip we wanted to learn something about Balinese gamelan and signed up for a day-long course. Our instructors spoke very little English. They taught by demonstrating, and motioning to us to copy them, and then by holding our hands and moving the hammer-like gavels over the xylophone. We didn't need much language and without it, I paid closer attention to the rhythms, the beats, and the sequences of notes.

Throughout our class other Balinese played along, helping to create the beautiful sounds of a Gamelan ensemble. Amongst these players was a boy of three or four who wandered up and plunked himself down first at an instrument that was full of symbols and then at a small, gong. He played, and then danced, and then pulled out a flute, played that, and then sat next to my son and tried to teach him percussive rhythms.

I wondered whose child he was as he moved from lap to lap, each Balinese adult laughing with him, encouraging him, clapping for him after he danced, and giving him instruction on his music as well.

I was captivated watching this little boy and my own son who was learning by doing -- and for a purpose and authentic application. I want this kind of learning to be a daily reality for the students in the schools where I work.

In the Classroom

Let me take a big leap now into what this reflection might mean for those who are still working within the 55-minute period. While this is far from what I envision schools to be, I know we can start taking steps towards integrating this concept, starting with a strategy as simple as the "think-aloud."

When I first started teaching English Language Arts to middle school students, a wise mentor encouraged me to share my writing practice with my students. "ELA teachers must be readers and writers themselves," she said, "so that they can make their process transparent to their students." She explained how to use the strategy think-aloud as students wrote first drafts.

I began to do them regularly in class as a way to determine a focus for my writing, how I revised it, and how I organized my thoughts. I did the same for reading, narrating the metacognitive processes I used to make sense of texts. I was surprised by how captivated my students were with these mini-lessons; those of us who teach middle-schoolers know that it's hard to captivate this audience! Then I saw the evidence show up in their writing; when we had a conference about a piece they were working on, they'd narrate their thoughts and use phrases I'd used, such as, "here, I want my audience to feel... ."

Why It Works

Now I recognize this strategy as one that parallels what I have been seeing in Bali. It's the old apprentice model, of course, but it can be adapted to our educational context today. This strategy can be applied to any content. It's about making our thinking transparent for kids, the steps we take to figure something out, and the ways in which our actions flow from this thinking. In this way, we are modeling what children need to do, not just telling them what to do.

Using a think-aloud strategy in all content areas, for all ages, is one step towards recovering an apprenticeship style of learning, something that has a legacy of great success and efficacy. Have you used a think-aloud lately? Please share with us in the comment section below.

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