Think Like A Disciplinarian (sometimes abbreviated as TLAD) is a part of the Depth and Complexity framework that focuses on teaching students to look at a problem through an expert’s lens.
But, I actually prefer to call this technique ‘Think Like An Expert‘ because most people will interpret “disciplinarian” to mean “someone who likes to punish people a lot.”
Yeah. The word “disciplinarian” is probably not something you want all over your classroom. (Seriously, I had a student teacher once who meekly asked, “Why does this school emphasize discipline so much?” I can only imagine how many other people wondered that but never asked.)
Just use the very clear and unambiguous word “Expert.” 😆
Hard To Find Good Examples
Like so much of Depth and Complexity, the creators published nothing about actually implementing “Think Like A.” So, it’s hard to find high-quality examples. It is, however, very easy to find low-quality examples. Just Google “think like a disciplinarian” and scroll around.
So let’s start with what Thinking Like an Expert is NOT.
- It’s not a career fair. We’re not just telling students what a particular expert does. So beware posters that are just definitions of a career.
- It’s not about promoting “a growth mindset.” Beware posters that just say, “Mathematicians learn from their mistakes!” That’s not thinking like an expert.
- It’s not about enforcing school work habits. Beware posters that say, “mathematicians always underline important information in their word problems.”
Thinking Like an Expert should prompt students to consider: how does this expert think about the tricky problems in their field?
What Is That Tricky Problem?
So, naturally, I need to know the big, tricky problems that a particular expert faces. The dilemmas. The controversial issues. And I’ve found that these are much easier to spot when I drill down and get specific with the field.
Think about how very different these questions are:
- What tricky problems does “a teacher” face?
- What tricky problems does a 4th-grade instrumental music teacher deal with?
- What tricky problems does a high school PE teacher have to tackle?
Do you see how much more interesting the problems are when you get specific? How much easier it will be to guide students through a particular way of thinking? Always push for a more specific expert!
- 🚫 What are the tricky problems a “mathematician” faces?
- ✅ What are the dilemmas a statistician deals with?
- ✅ What are the controversial issues an economist has to handle?
It’s SO much easier to explain the problems a statistician faces than a generic “mathematician.” That’s because, well, there’s no such career as “mathematician.” People who study math go into specialized fields with clear problems to solve.
Get specific with your experts and you’ll get much better student thinking.
Not Scientist, Not Author, Not Engineer
Likewise, “Think Like A Scientist” is way too broad. No one is a generic “scientist.” Instead, drill down to a specific field. Think like an astronomer or a seismologist or marine biologist.
Along the same lines, don’t ask kids to “Think Like An Author” because different types of writers think in completely different ways. What’s right for a local newspaper writer is completely wrong for a poet or a mystery novelist or a biographer. Get specific!
My own 6th-grade team ran an Egg Drop each year. We wanted it to be more than a “fun activity.” Once we added specific expert roles, it dramatically increased the quality of students’ products. We weren’t merely “engineers.” We were aerospace engineers, materials engineers, and structural engineers.
Go beyond broad, generic fields when picking an expert and you’ll find it much easier to step into their shoes.
No. Even MORE Specific!
When we thought like philosophers, we actually thought like individual people. We learned about the specific beliefs of Socrates, Aristotle, Confucius, and Descartes. You can read about that here! The results were way more interesting than if we merely “thought like philosophers.” Each philosopher is SO different. They totally disagree with each other, which (of course) sets the stage for beautiful, deep thinking.
Likewise, thinking from a particular author’s perspective yields more meaningful results than merely “thinking like an author.”
- Ask students to think like Hemingway and they’ll produce short, direct, simple writing.
- Ask them to think like Dickens and you’ll see flowery, stylish, and long sentences.
I have a Byrdseed.TV lesson about thinking like Hemingway vs Dickens here.
Your Questions Must Go Somewhere
The same problem that plagues much of depth and complexity also rears its head with Think Like A Disciplinarian: low level questions.
Consider a “Think Like An Economist” worksheet with these questions:
- What is the 🏛️ big idea of an economist?
- What are the 🚦 rules an economist follows?
- What ⚖️ problems does an economist face?
- What 👄 language does an economist use?
Every question is at the bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy. They are “list” questions that don’t even require complete sentences to answer!
Now, it’s OK to ask a low-level question as long as you build on it. Climb up Bloom’s Taxonomy! Build a sequence of questions, not four one-offs. If a student lists the rules an economist follows, what is the next question you will ask about rules?
Here’s an opening sequence from my lesson on Thinking Like An Economist:
- Pick a situation like Goldilocks, the rainforest, or
- What is “wealth” in this situation?
- Is the wealth unequal? Is it being spread out in a new way? How?
- What problems is this situation causing?
By the end of this sequence, students have discovered a problem caused by wealth. They’ll be ready to move to a new sequence.
- Perhaps they’ll find a parallel problem in another situation.
- Maybe they’ll compare and contrast and decide which problem is worse.
- Maybe they’ll create a possible solution to the problem and then note the problems that may arise from that solution.
To wrap up, my biggest improvements with think like a disciplinarian came from:
- Realizing that “disciplinarian” is a pretty bad word to use at school
- Staying focused on “the tricky problems” of a field
- Getting more and more specific with the expert’s field
- Asking a sequence of questions that move students higher up Bloom’s taxonomy, not a bunch of low-level one-off questions.
And, friend, I do hope that this helps you teach your students to think more like experts.
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