Cultures of Thinking and Action – Mindset 1: Schools Must be Cultures of Thinking for Teachers

In his latest book, Dr. Ron Ritchhart gives educators the tools to go beyond understanding what a culture of thinking looks and acts like, to creating them – in our classrooms and in our professional teaching environments. Ritchhart writes that the book, “first and foremost, it is about the “why?” of our teaching… meant to spark self-examination and collective reflection with both oneself and with colleagues.” While reading Cultures of Thinking in Action: 10 Mindsets to Transform our Teaching and Students, educators are challenged to take part in self-reflection, asking ourselves questions like: 

  • Who am I as a teacher?
  • What do I believe about teaching and learning?
  • How do those beliefs impact my teaching and my classroom?
  • How do those beliefs inform and propel my actions as an educator?

When we take the time to think critically about our own beliefs and teaching practices, and if we have the courage to challenge our assumptions, we can build cultures of thinking in our schools together. To begin, schools must move from professional development based on informational learning to transformational learning models. The difference, according to Dr. Ritchhart, is moving from a focus on learning about something to professional development that challenges teachers to transform our beliefs about what teaching and learning is truly about. 

Building a Culture of Thinking in Our Schools Starts with Changing our Mindset  

With frameworks, practices, and an understanding of what a culture of thinking really looks like, teachers can give our students the tools to use their own critical thinking skills to uncover new ways of understanding the world around them. But building a culture of thinking requires more than just updating processes and tools. To succeed, it must be built on shared values and beliefs within our school community about what education truly is and what our roles are as teachers. In Cultures of Thinking in Action, Dr. Ritchhart identifies the motivations behind creating a culture of thinking, and outlines ten foundational mindsets educators must embrace to begin the process of building their own

These mindsets represent the beliefs educators hold about their profession. They impact how successful we can be in building a culture of thinking with our colleagues and our students. The first mindset highlighted in the book is: For Schools to Be Cultures of Thinking for Students, Schools Must be Cultures of Thinking for Teachers. “This is the launching pad from which all substantive efforts to create cultures of thinking in schools must proceed,” writes Dr. Ritchhart. Recognizing the difference between informational learning and transformational learning is key to understanding this mindset.

What is Informational Learning?

According to Dr. Ritchhart’s research, one of the first institutional beliefs that schools must re-evaluate before building a culture of thinking is informational learning. This learning model focuses on increasing knowledge and skills. As a professional development tool, it is recognizable as the type of workshops teachers attend all the time. For example, a workshop on new evaluation techniques that attendees are urged to put in place quickly, with no future training or discussion on why these techniques belong in their school. This highlights a key problem with this type of training – the lack of follow-up and in-depth discussion of why, what didn’t work, and how we can continue to improve on our results.  

Extensive research on professional development that focuses on skills rather than the “why” of teaching, shows that the new tools and practices covered often don’t make it into the classroom, in fact only about 10% (Knight 2007). Why then, do we continue to provide them so often? One reason may be the belief in “plugging gaps” and that “more is better.” When a deficiency is identified, leaders have traditionally responded by providing teachers with more practical tools, more skills building opportunities, etc., rather than engaging them to think deeper about why the deficiency is occurring. 

What is Transformational Learning?

In contrast, transformational learning occurs when teaching professionals are challenged to re-evaluate our fundamental beliefs and practices. Rather than just adding to our skills and knowledge, this type of professional development requires deeper learning, substantive changes, and collective action over time. It asks us to embrace the complexity of our profession, including that education researchers are uncovering new ways to improve learning outcomes. It requires teachers to work together to explore new ideas and question the status quo, including many of the long ingrained teaching practices that are prevalent in our schools. Transformation comes from expanding or modifying our idea of what education is and how it happens, something that adding information alone cannot accomplish. The impact of transformational learning on teacher practice is an uptake of 85% vs 10% in the informational model (Knight 2007).

When teachers work together with the support of administrators, we can ask tough questions about what teaching and learning should look like in our schools, build on our current knowledge, and learn from new diverse perspectives and experiences. Making the big changes required to build a culture of thinking in a school takes time and a commitment to try new things. It requires a considerable amount of time and space for self reflection and collaboration between colleagues. To begin, schools must work to build an environment that builds trust so that true dialogue can occur, even when it’s hard. Traditionally, this occurs when teachers can move from defending our own practices to working together to question the status quo and find new ways to improve together. This requires building a true capacity for collaboration, in-depth discussion, and long-term self reflection. 

Figure 1.1 Cultures of Thinking in Action (1)

Building a Culture of Thinking in Your School 

Dr. Ritchhart writes, “When we develop cultures of thinking for teachers, we create fertile ground for professional growth and change.” In this type of environment, teachers must feel supported in their ability to take risks. They need colleagues who share their vision to bounce creative ideas off and they need to know that their leaders will support them with permission to try new things. The teaching profession can feel very isolating and anxiety provoking if we don’t have colleagues who share our vision. 

When thinking about how to start building a culture of thinking in your school, ask yourself: 

  • When was the last time you worked with colleagues to ask big questions about your practice? 
  • What processes does your school have in place to promote and sustain authentic collaboration?
  • Do you feel comfortable questioning current teaching practices? 
  • Are you supported by colleagues and leaders when trying new things in your classroom? 
  • How am I growing as a professional this year? 

Creativity is contagious, and one way to start building a culture of thinking in your school is by modeling inquisitive thinking, collaboration, and trying new things with your colleagues – just like you do for your students. As educators, we understand the importance of collaborative learning, so why don’t we do more of it ourselves as professionals? One reason is time. We often feel like we just don’t have enough of it, and the time that we do have we want to spend focused on our students. But Dr. Ritchhart reminds us with this first mindset, that we can’t be successful in creating a culture of thinking on our own without support from our colleagues and administrators.

Creating a culture of thinking within our schools can start as a grassroots effort that spreads organically. Taking the first step may seem overwhelming. Start with finding one person who you feel safe collaborating with. Look for someone you can bounce creative ideas off of, ask tough questions, and share what you’ve learned when trying something new. Ask a colleague if you can observe them in action, or if they could observe your teaching practices and share what they see. 

Promoting Inquiry-based Conversations

An important part of building a culture of thinking is promoting inquiry-based conversations and constructive dialogue with our peers. Dr. Ritchhart calls this type of professional collaboration “hard collegiality.” Think about the type of conversations you have with your colleagues. If it’s along the lines of “Hello,” “Goodbye,” and “Keep up the good work!” that’s “soft collegiality.” These professional relationships are based on avoiding uncomfortable conversations for fear of potential confrontation so interactions don’t go below the surface. We’re not learning how things are really going in their classroom. Instead, we’re being polite while trying not to rock the boat. Colleagues do this for many reasons, including because we don’t feel it's our business or perhaps we don’t feel safe sharing our own challenges. 

Building a culture of thinking in your school requires hard collegiality. As colleagues, we have to get out of our comfort zone and ask authentic questions. We have to share our own experiences, the good and the bad, to build a learning community that values trust and collaboration. We have to feel comfortable within the political environment of our workplace to push back on administrators and colleagues about the importance of trying new things. Building a more collaborative culture in our schools requires trust, a commitment to the transformative learning model for professional development, and the time and space for inquisitive conversation and long-term evaluation. This embrace of hard collegiality brings deep and meaningful progress on many levels.

The Importance of Safety in Creating Cultures of Thinking

When we think about ways to improve student engagement and learning outcomes, playing it safe is not in the best interests of our students. But the politics of educational environments, especially when we feel judged on the results of standardized testing, can be a barrier to taking risks. What could make you feel safe enough to try something new? For some, this could be finding a colleague to bounce ideas off of, communicating clearly with administrators that you’re going to try something new, or observing other teachers to see different practices in action. 

Just like we work to build a safe environment in our classroom where students can experiment and think creatively, safety is an important pillar within our professional environment. Creating a culture of thinking for teachers requires the possibility of authentic and open dialogue, where teachers feel comfortable questioning the status quo. It requires administrators to provide and sustain safe opportunities for colleagues to regularly come together and ask what’s working, share what’s not working, and collaborate on trying new things, evaluating the results, and continuing to improve learning outcomes together. 

How Administrators Can Help Build a Culture of Thinking

How can administrators engage teachers in actively looking at their practices, questioning their assumptions, collaborating, and celebrating their results together? As teachers, we know the importance of modeling active listening and being open to considering diverse opinions. Creating a culture of thinking in our schools works the same way. If teachers ask tough questions and get shot down, they’re not going to feel comfortable sharing new ideas in the future. 

For some teachers, communicating clearly with their leaders beforehand helps them feel safe and set expectations for others in trying something new. This could sound something like, “Things could look chaotic in my classroom while I pilot this new curriculum. The students will be taking the lead in their own science investigations, and I’m not sure yet what that’s going to look like.” It's important for administrators to show that they are open to change, and for them to step into our classrooms willing to listen and learn. 

Here are some questions Dr. Ritchhart shares in the book to help administrators reflect on how to build a culture of thinking:

  • What are we currently doing to create a culture of thinking for teachers?
  • What does collaboration look like here? What are examples of it in action? 
  • What practices at our school may be barriers to achieving this?
  • How am I modeling being a risk-taker, innovator, and learner? 
  • When have I last openly reflected on my mistakes and/or new learnings? 
  • When, where, and how are teachers observing their colleagues? How might they be supported to go deeper in their discussions afterwards? 

Administrators play an important role in building a school community where teachers are excited to share with their leaders when they are trying something new. Rewarding curiosity, building a common language to talk about transformative learning, allowing diverse perspectives to flourish, and challenging teachers to push themselves and question their beliefs about the profession are all ways leaders can help.

Collaboration in Action: Lessons Learned from COVID-19 Shutdowns

An example we can look at of the effects of building a culture that promotes collaboration between colleagues occurred during school shutdowns in response to the pandemic. With no advanced notice, teachers across the country changed their teaching practices to support a new virtual school environment. As a result, many schools saw big changes to their culture and professional communities occur overnight. 

When schools moved to virtual learning, teachers of all levels experienced something brand new together. Figuring out how to tackle big challenges with online learning was something that they could all work on together, providing an opportunity for collaboration for professionals of all levels. As a result, these teachers made changes to their practices on the go. We were all beginning at a new starting point together, making this type of collaboration feel safer for everyone.  

Building virtual learning communities together required teachers to adapt to new technology, practices, and learning models. Teachers modeled learning from our mistakes and within unprecedented times, it felt easier to ask for feedback from our colleagues. Unfortunately, not everyone had the same type of collaborative experience. Schools with a culture of thinking already in place had more tools to respond to the crisis through collaboration and a comfort level in trying new things. These are experiences and lessons learned that we can continue to build on today. 

The Impact of Building a Culture of Thinking in Our Schools

Dr. Ritchhart writes, "When a culture of thinking exists for teachers, morale improves and teachers report higher job satisfaction, which contributes to increased gains in student achievement. Unfortunately, this kind of meaningful sustained collaboration among teachers is too rarely found in schools." When thinking about the book’s first mindset: For Schools to Be Cultures of Thinking for Students, Schools Must be Cultures of Thinking for Teachers, we are reminded that when a culture of thinking exists at the school level, it is reflected by its teachers in their classrooms as well. 

One thing that we can all do is be more open to diverse perspectives and to re-evaluating our own assumptions. Transformation comes from expanding our vision for student learning and the ways in which it can happen. Collaboration and collective learning are essential to building a culture of thinking in our schools and in our classrooms. Sometimes it takes someone who has a perspective that is different from our own to help us move away from our old assumptions and try something new. For leaders, this type of authentic learning within our professional community requires providing the time and creating a safe space for those intensive follow-up interactions to flourish. 

As you can see, transformational learning and building a culture of thinking in our schools is hard work. It requires trust, risk-taking collaboration, and a commitment to changing our mindset.


“Growing up, I wanted to be an inventor, solving problems that would help people have better lives. Every day at KnowAtom is an opportunity to invent solutions that give thousands of students and teachers a better experience doing science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM). Providing educators with professional satisfaction and students with the opportunity to understand the world we live in is my way of helping people have better lives.”