CoT Oakland!

by Lauren Childs

Our story is part opportunity, part serendipity, part  “connect-the-dots”.  Through a series of fortuitous experiences, more than half the school districts in Oakland County have engaged a grand conversation about learning and leading for Cultures of Thinking.

For me, it began with a trip to the Project Zero Classroom Summer Institute, July 2010.  The Project Zero Classroom (PZC) is designed to help educators create classrooms, instructional materials, and out-of-school learning environments that promote students’ efforts to understand important content; recognize and develop students’ multiple intellectual strengths; encourage students to think critically and creatively; and assess student work in ways that further the learning. (

That fall, as I wrapped up a morning session with a group of educators exploring the impact of their language on interactions with students, using a couple of thinking routines and observing language in classrooms via video clips, one participant eagerly shared with me, “You know, I have a friend who teaches in another district, and they are using these routines—and the whole school teaches this way. “   She was describing Way Elementary, in Bloomfield Hills, the first school in Oakland County to take up the principles, commitments, and tools of Visible Thinking.

A week later, I received a call from a teacher leader at Way Elementary.  Jenny Rossi, released from classroom responsibilities, was coordinating and leading the school’s transformation.  She invited me to join her and Adam in thinking about growing the conversation about Visible Thinking/Cultures of Thinking beyond their school, beyond their district.  They invited to this same conversation, Rod Rock, Superintendent of Clarkston Schools.  Rod brought to our meeting a wealth of direct experience with the Cultures of Thinking project’s early efforts here in the U.S.   Rod led a Saginaw ISD team that partnered with the CoT research team to engage teachers and administrators in transforming their schools. The 13 school districts in Saginaw County, through Dow Corning and Saginaw Community Foundation grants, had worked with Ron Ritchhart for four years in the Cultures of Thinking Collaborative. One of the schools involved, List Elementary in Frankenmuth, became a model school. Frankenmuth subsequently hosted Ron Ritchhart, David Perkins, Mark Church, and 150 educators from five states in a two-day Cultures of Thinking conference that included classroom visits, and Way Elementary participated. From there, the conversations between the Saginaw ISD, Way Elementary, and List Elementary continued; the ideas spread, and the Oakland County team formed.

As we shared our respective introductions to CoT, we got very excited about growing a county-wide conversation that would invite teachers and administrators into a new collaboration we believed could only deepen the instructional programs and initiatives already underway.  Our shared understanding that Cot is an instructional approach to life in classrooms, throughout a school, energized our commitment to get the conversation started.  Still, we were acutely aware that we also wanted to design our way into this collaborative learning such that we built strong leadership capacity and ensured the sustainability of the cultural transformations we understood are possible.  That ol’ caution, “go slow to go fast” was on the table again.

We started by inviting Ron to present a one-day overview to the big ideas in Cultures of Thinking.  Clarkston Schools hosted his first visit in April, 2011.  And so the journey began.

By Fall of 2011, thirteen Oakland County districts were exploring the principles and ideas of Cultures of Thinking, many were reading the book and trying out the routines.  As the conversation grew across these first districts, we (Rock, Puzio, Scher, and Childs) continued to work with Ritchhart on designing professional learning opportunities that would better ensure the leadership foundations needed for real and sustainable change to take place in our schools.

Fall of 2012 kicked off with tremendous energy when PZ Institute held a regional conference in Oakland County.  Clarkston Community Schools hosted the 3-day conference that included over 800 educators from six continents. Among these was at least one teacher from each of Oakland County’s 28 school districts. Featured speakers for the conference included Howard Gardner, David Perkins, Ron Ritchhart, Shari Tishman, Veronica Boix-Mansilla, Daniel Wilson, and Tina Blythe. Four schools in Clarkston hosted classroom visits. Educators from Oakland County and around the globe shared their perspectives, thus spreading and deepening Visible Thinking/Cultures of Thinking practices and transforming student learning.

As we look ahead to 2013-14, we are eagerly pursuing a third round of professional learning seminars with Ron Ritchhart.   And, we are growing our way into new professional learning formats to support the continuous development in schools further along in their journeys.

Here is a brief description of our current professional learning opportunities:

In the Cultures of Thinking project, we see the most gains in student performance and school transformation when the leadership at the school is in a position to make the discussion of thinking, examination of student work, and the taking of risks in trying new teaching practices central to the work of the school.


The Leadership Foundations seminars, led by Ron Ritchhart, aim at laying the groundwork for this development by building on and extending the professional learning culture that currently exists at your school. These sessions serve as an opportunity both to develop a vision of the project and to put in place structures for supporting professional conversations and teacher learning at the school, thus laying the groundwork for extending and enhancing the professional development with teachers that will begin in 2014.


The Cultures of Thinking School Leadership Cohorts meets for 2 two-day sessions as follow-up to the Leadership Foundations to expand and deepen the leadership capacity in each school. These seminars, led by Ron Ricthhart, are designed for teachers, administrators and school leaders across grade levels and subject areas who are interested in supporting and developing their students as thinkers and learners.  We focus on practical and concrete ways educators can create a culture of thinking in their schools and classrooms, foster the kinds of thinking opportunities that lead to deep understanding of content, and how to look for evidence of student thinking and understanding. Participants are introduced to a variety of thinking routines: what they are and how they can be used to create more thoughtful classrooms.



Leadership Development is an opportunity for leadership teams that participated in Leadership Foundations seminars the year before. Each seminar serves as an anchor learning experience to support leadership teams’ identified goals for school based culture development: systems, structures, norms and practices.  These three seminars, led by Ron Ritchhart, are for county educators developing Culture of Thinking in their schools to network and share their learning and leadership. Sharing sessions highlight work-in-progress and create networked learning and resource development for districts pursuing Cultures of Thinking.



Leadership Dialogues are supported opportunities for principals to meet and talk through leadership challenges, issues, and achievements related to growing sultures of thinking in their schools. Each dialogue session hosted by a CoT Principal at their school site.  The dialogue session includes a learning walk to observe student thinking among displayed artifacts —and maybe, live action in the classroom.  In support of continued shared leadership, these dialogue sessions are open to both principals and teacher leaders who are leading cultural transformation in their schools.



COT Design Studio is for teachers promoting a culture of thinking in their classrooms to work on instructional designs in the company of immediate colleagues AND colleagues from other districts.  Colleagues with experience in both CoT and CCSS are on site.  Tables are organized for grade level collaboration, as well as vertical (preK-12) conversations.  Design Studio is a response to teachers’ call for more time to think; that is, more time to talk with their colleagues/grade level partners about intentionally designing with the routines, for the cultural forces with upcoming learning goals.  They say: “my design work seems left to chance and I tend to go back to what I have always done…and I am trying to connect CoT with CCSS…I need a true workshop.”


Cultures of Thinking School Tours ( are ½ day visits with schools that are engaged in cultural transformation to  becoming a place where thinking is that value, made visible, and actively promoted as part of the regular, day-to-day experience.  A tour, hosted by the school’s principal and teacher leaders, includes:

  • Opening session
  • Learning Walk through the building
  • Classroom Observation
  • Debrief with Teacher
  • Continued Dialogue/Q and A
  • Final Wrap Up and Additional Walk Time

The tours are a great way to introduce colleagues to the ideas and principles of a Culture of Thinking.

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