Challenging At-Risk Students:
Findings from the HOTS Program

by Dr. Stanley Pogrow. Phi Delta Kappan. January 1990

It is possible to design sophisticated interventions that will enhance the short-and long-term learning of at risk students, Mr. Pogrow contends. Have we the political and administrative will to do so?

Johnny used to have big eyes that always seemed alive with a sense of wonder. He was shy and seemed eager to please. His teachers liked him, but he didn't seem to know very much. So he was put into a Chapter I program. The extra drill seemed to help for a while, and at the end of second grade Johnny was removed from the program.

Unfortunately, by the time he reached fourth grade Johnny didn't seem to remember the number facts and word-attack skills that he had been taught earlier. When he was put back into Chapter I. He seemed overwhelmed by all the new things he had to remember. His fifth grade Chapter I and classroom teachers noted at the start of the school year that he had forgotten such basic things as the months of the year. They also observed that he was becoming sullen and withdrawn - occasionally even disruptive. As dedicated teachers, they tried their best. They provided still more practice in the necessary basic skills, only to find that Johnny either forgot them or couldn't do anything with them. He was often overheard saying that his teachers were picking on him.

Johnny stayed in Chapter 1. The occasional improvement he showed would quickly dissipate. By eighth grade he was reading three years below grade level, and he was as often absent as present. His ninth-grade teacher noted that Johnny could not deal with any abstract concepts and labeled him a "concrete learner." After a year in a general track, Johnny dropped out of school.

Anyone who has worked with at-risk students knows many students like Johnny and his female counterparts. A recent national task force on Chapter 1 noted that existing approaches produce few sustained gains. Most of the progress that Chapter 1 students make during the school year dissipates over the summer or when they leave the program. It is not unusual to find "professional" Chapter I students who remain in the program as long as it is available.

The literature is replete with excuses. It is the fault of the home. Johnny is unmotivated and has no interest in learning, no pride in achievement. Johnny has such low self-esteem that he cannot learn. The program fails because it uses a pullout approach. The drill in the special program is not coordinated with the curriculum of the regular classroom. Johnny hasn't received sufficient services. The tests are not fair or not adequate. Johnny is a victim of a racist and uncaring society. The teachers don't care enough. or they are incompetent.

While there are elements of truth in some of these rationalizations. research ~ from the Higher Order Thinking Skills I (HOTS) project suggests a completely different reason for Johnny's failure: a gross misperception of the nature of his problem. The underlying assumption of Chapter I services is that children suffer from a knowledge deficit. The goal of remediation is to overcome that deficit. Thus students are taught and retaught specific pieces of information from the standard curriculum. I contend that a r knowledge deficit is not the real problem in learning in the upper-elementary s grades. The learning problems are actually caused by another factor that educators are largely unaware of, one that well- a intended remedial services, no matter how carefully they are designed, must inevitably exacerbate. This crucial factor d is that remedial students don't understand "understanding. "


The HOTS project got started six years ago at the suggestion of three educators in Norwalk, California. They felt that the Chapter 1 students they were dealing with were potentially quite bright but that traditional approaches were not tapping their intellect. The four of us adopted current theories of cognition to design an alternative approach in which all the supplemental time now used for more drill on basic skills would be used to enhance general thinking ability. Our aim was to see whether it would be possible to improve thinking skills in such a way that basic skills and social skills would improve as by-products. We designed techniques combining the use of Apple II computers with Socratic teaching to stimulate the development of the following four key general thinking techniques:

• metacognition (consciously applying strategies to solve problems),

• inference from context (figuring out unknown words and information from the surrounding information)

• decontextualization (generalizing ideas from one context to another). and

• synthesis of information (combining information from a variety of sources and identifying the key pieces of information needed to solve a problem).

The activities were designed to be intellectually challenging. Students would have to struggle to be successful, but every effort was made to make the activities stimulating and motivational. Would continually providing at-risk students with difficult and interesting problems improve their ability to deal with novel problems and to apply the concepts they learned in more sophisticated ways? Would these skills transfer to improved classroom performance?

The innovative curriculum we designed to answer these questions provided exciting and systematic ways to practice the four key thinking skills without worrying about connecting them to the regular curriculum. The new curriculum that emerged was ungraded for use with students in grades 4 through 8. There were few direct connections to classroom content, because the curriculum focused on the process of thinking rather than on curricular objectives. Not until the end of the second year of the program would students apply their general thinking skills to two formal content activities that they typically had trouble with: analyzing literature and solving math word problems. We believed that getting students used to basic thinking processes would translate into improved performance in the classroom.

Instead of using the techniques of direct instruction, teachers were trained to maintain proper levels of ambiguity in discussions so that students would have to resolve ambiguity, construct meaning, and articulate complete ideas and strategies. Teachers were also trained to guide students without simplifying problems, reducing ambiguity, or telling students what to do. The key to creating a reflective learning environment was to change the ways in which teachers asked questions and responded to the answers that students gave. The general thinking activities of the HOTS program replaced all drill and practice and all content instruction during the supplemental compensatory time. There were no remedial services. The program was purely a general thinking - even a gifted - approach for at-risk

Over the past three years the HOTS program has grown from 28 sites to more than 300 in 21 states. Most sites use the program with Chapter I students in grades 4 through 8, although research is currently under way with third- and eighth-graders. Some have also experimented successfully with using HOTS for students in grades 4 through 8 who are
mildly learning-disabled and with gifted students in the primary grades. (HOTS may be the first program designed for Chapter I that has been adopted for gifted students.) The growth of the program has been accomplished without any full time staff and largely by means of grassroots interest and word of mouth. In September 1988 HOTS was approved for dissemination by the National Diffusion Network.

Over the past five years, I have collected a great deal of data and spent a considerable amount of time talking to and observing teachers and students in classrooms using HOTS. This research has generated many new insights into the processes of teaching and learning, and the findings call into question the assumptions of remedial programs.


1. A thinking skills program can improve achievement in the basic skills at least as much as a good remedial approach - and probably a great deal more. Most people "know" that a nondirect approach to instruction that is not connected to the curriculum cannot work. Surprise! In the study of HOTS conducted for the National Diffusion Network, students averaged gains between fall and spring of more than 15 percentile points on standardized reading and math tests - gains that exceed the national averages. The results are even more dramatic for the more reliable spring-to-spring testing data. Reading gains were 67%
higher than national averages, and math gains were 123% higher - even though there were very few math activities in the first-year HOTS curriculum. In addition, the gains continued into the second year, with second-year gains exceeding national averages in both reading and math.

The latest results, generated from a more refined version of the curriculum, are even better. Students in Jamestown Elementary in Jamestown. Pennsylvania, gained 5.6 years on the Stanford Diagnostic Reading Test (fall-to-spring testing) in the first year; 20% of the fifth and sixth-grade Chapter I students scored above the high school level. Videotapes of these students reveal them to be highly articulate and sophisticated learners. Data recently received from Pennsylvania schools show that 90% of the HOTS Chapter I students made gains in the first year, and 60% finished at or above the 50th percentile on the standardized reading test. Wright Elementary School in Santa Rosa, California, was recently selected as one of the top gain-producing schools in California.

The general thinking activities (without explicit connections to the curriculum) not only increased scores on norm referenced standardized tests of basic skills, but they also produced dramatic increases on criterion-referenced tests. The Detroit Public Schools found that HOTS students who did not receive supplementary remediation in math achieved a level of mastery on their math tests that was three times higher than that achieved by students who received extra drill in the specific objectives measured. These results suggest that many of the assumptions we now routinely make about the need to link remedial activities to the curriculum in the upper-elementary grades are simply wrong.

2. It appears that general thinking activities can be designed to enhance the ability of students to learn content the first time it is taught. Why does HOTS work? While there are undoubtedly many factors, I suspect that a key one is that, once students know how to work with ideas, they engage in the basic linking activities that promote long-term memory. The time students spend in general thinking gradually begins to develop their ability to process whatever they are being taught, the first time it is taught. This breaks the cycle of remediation and converts compensatory efforts into a truly supplemental activity.

3. At-risk students have tremendous levels of intellectual and academic potential. We do not truly understand the learning potential of students. In almost all cases, when at-risk students were challenged with extremely difficult concepts, were given enough time to work on their ideas, and were given the responsibility for generating those ideas (i.e., no teachers telling them what to do), they amazed us with the quality of their thinking and of their solutions. The HOTS program has gone far beyond what conventional wisdom suggests these students are capable of dealing with; yet they invariably succeed at tasks that would give most adults difficulty. Instead of "dumbing down" the curriculum, we should be spending more time figuring out how to make parts of it far more sophisticated and challenging. It is much more important and interesting to see whether new approaches can enable fifth- and sixth grade Chapter I students to read the complicated plot and language of a Sherlock Holmes novel (as HOTS is now doing) than it is to invent pop-psychological excuses for why Johnny isn't learning.

The following results illustrate how students respond to being challenged intellectually. In Mary Dill Elementary in Altar Valley, Arizona, 36% of the Chapter I students made the honor roll. In Katherine Curren Elementary in Hopkins, Minnesota, 10% of the Chapter I students were rediagnosed as gifted at the end of one year in HOTS and placed in a gifted program. In Doran Annex Elementary in Fall River, Massachusetts, when the four top academic students were selected to participate in a special enrichment program at the local high school, two were Chapter 1 students. The students in the Detroit Public Schools hated to write. After going through the HOTS writing curriculum, they produced stories that the editor of a national journal said were the best writing that elementary students had ever submitted to that journal. He was astonished to find out that these stories had been produced by Chapter 1 students.

4. It is possible to change dramatically the relationships between teachers and students. One of the most stunning revelations to veteran teachers is the dramatic change that takes place in their relationships with students in the HOTS program. The students hang on their teacher's every word and show a tremendous eagerness to learn. I recently observed a HOTS class in what I had been warned was the worst school in its particular district. I watched the teacher take the class through a series of difficult questions. The students responded to the challenging learning situation with broad smiles and expressions of joy, even as they were struggling to come up with ideas. I found myself wondering why we ever settle for anything less. Cynthia Dunn, a HOTS teacher in Springfield Elementary in East Springfield, Pennsylvania, found that her once apathetic Chapter 1 students are now so curious and excited about what is going on that they try to sneak off with the teacher's manual to read what is going to happen next.

In another situation, the HOTS teacher was new to a "tough" inner-city school. After six months she complained that the regular classroom teachers would not speak to her. The reason? They were convinced that she was not teaching, because she had no discipline problems. Her students also made such large gains in math that the central office required them to retake the test. In a scene reminiscent of the movie Stand and Deliver, the students retook the test and performed well. Fascinated students are not discipline problems.

5. The fundamental learning problem is that at-risk students do not seem to understand "understanding. Classroom teachers often report that, when they ask at-risk students "thought" questions, the students just stare at them as though they don't know how to deal with such questions. One reason for the students' reaction is that they have learned that, if they act helpless, the teacher will make things easier for them. Thus they have no incentive to try to answer difficult questions.

However, the heart of the problem is that students really don't know how to deal with ambiguity or with unstructured types of learning. They seem incapable of handling more than one concept at a time, of having a conversation about ideas, or of thinking ideas through. They view each piece of information as a discrete entity that applies only in the context in which they learned it. They do not seem to understand how to generalize—
or that they are even supposed to do so. The best way to capture their naivete about what one does with ideas is to say that they do not understand what it means to understand.

When HOTS teachers first begin to engage Chapter 1 students in Socratic dialogue, the students seem genuinely puzzled as to what the teacher is up to. It's as though this is the first time these youngsters have encountered this way of interacting with adults - and it may well be. After she seemed perplexed by a series of questions I had asked her, one little girl told me, "This is the first time anyone has asked me my opinion, and it seems strange - but I think I like it!"

That at-risk students as a group do not understand "understanding" is not their fault. Nor is it an indication of a problem with their brains - or a function of their race, ethnicity, or economic class. It is more likely that the adults in their lives simply do not model thinking processes for them. Such modeling has typically been done through sophisticated conversation at the dinner table and in school. However, such conversation is increasingly rare. A recent study found that couples average only four minutes of conversation with their children each day; the typical working parent averages just 30 seconds. 1 Given the growing number of students who come from households headed by a single working parent, there is almost no conversation in the home lives of most at-risk children - let alone conversation about constructing meaning.

Nor do students typically encounter such conversation in school. Questions to promote understanding are seldom heard in elementary classrooms. My graduate students' observations of 14 classroom teachers working with Chapter I students showed that, even in small groups, 93 % of the questions called for recall and required only one- or two-word answers. Indeed, the most underused technology in American education is not computers — it's conversation. How are students supposed to know the conventions of thinking about ideas if they have not had adequate experience in doing so?

6. The education profession does not seem to recognize that the problem of not understanding "understanding" exists. When I address audiences of experienced educators, I inevitably ask them, 'How long does it take at-risk students in grades 4 through 8 to understand the difference between guessing and using a strategy or a system to solve a problem?" Their answers almost invariably fall into the range of from two to five days. Teachers in the HOTS program, who spend every day trying to get students to understand how to apply strategies to solve problems, have discovered that it generally takes three to four months. 2 The audiences are astounded when I report this finding, which is based on wide experience over a four-year period and across a wide variety of ethnic and racial settings. Audiences quickly realize that, if this finding is valid, it means that their students are unable to construct systematic procedures for dealing with any of the more advanced concepts that begin to appear in fourth grade. Audiences also grasp the implication that they have been treating the symptoms rather than the fundamental learning problem.

7. The fundamental learning problem can be eliminated if enough time and enough resources are made available. The HOTS program demonstrates that cognitive theory, combined with good pedagogical principles and lots of sweat, can powerfully affect the learning of at risk students. At the same time, typical approaches to developing thinking skills will not work. Hit-or-miss approaches in which all teachers are encouraged to ask at-risk students questions from time to time that require sophisticated thinking are not enough. This intensive questioning must be done regularly, in a consistent fashion, for part of the day over an extended period of time. The deficit in understanding "understanding" is too great to be dealt with on an occasional basis; efforts to develop thinking skills will fail if the intervention is brief or not applied consistently.

For example, consider the experience of a group of HOTS students coming to a computer lab each day. For the first 15 or 20 minutes a specially trained teacher engages them in conversation. A series of questions are asked about their discoveries on the previous day, and they may be asked to link concepts from the previous day's program to other programs or to everyday experience. Every answer given by the students is challenged and probed. If an answer is correct, students are asked to explain why it is correct and are pushed to articulate their idea fully. If the answer is incorrect. students are asked to explain how to tell from available information that the answer is incorrect.

On the previous day the students may have been using a computer simulation to figure out the dynamics of flying a hot air balloon. The teacher may start the second class by inquiring about the perspective from which they were looking at the balloon. Students are asked to defend their answers in terms of the evidence. Those whose balloons crashed will be asked to explain the strategies they were using to combine the factors of fuel. wind direction. terrain, and a balloon s capabilities: why their strategies didn't work; and how they plan to modify them. The students are asked to justify whatever strategies they suggest. Alternative strategies are elicited, and students defend and test the ones that they feel are correct. Such constant probing is designed to help students construct their own meaning rather than to tell them what to do.

After the initial conversation. students go to the computers to work on the problem or to test their hypotheses. The computer simulation enables students to test ideas as fast as they can think of them. Once again, the teacher continually prods students to describe the implications of the computer's feedback for the validity of their ideas and assumptions.

It is this constant, probing conversation that produces the learning gains and improves students' articulation. Over a period of three to six months, the students' patterns of speech and thinking start to resemble those modeled by the teacher. HOTS students gradually begin to understand how adults think about ideas - not because they have been taught to do so, but because they have experienced the process for an extended period of time in situations of interest to them. In a year or two the thinking skills become internalized and are routinely applied to content learning and problem solving. Moreover, the constant probing by the teacher gradually increases the students' confidence in their own ability to express ideas, and the quantity and sophistication of their speech increases.

The cumulative effect of being in such an environment was apparent recently when I watched a group of second-year HOTS students that included one student who had been in the program for only 1 1/2 months. The experienced students frequently paused to reflect, while the new student kept banging on his keyboard. the experienced students solved the problem, but the new student didn't use any approach or strategy. The experienced students gently suggested that, instead of just hitting the keys, he ought to think of a strategy. Of course, a year earlier, they had just been hitting keys themselves.


1. If the fundamental learning problem is that students do not understand “understanding," then remedial approaches are likely to make long-term learning problems worse. Remedial teaching of facts reinforces the students' belief that learning means treating information as discrete pieces. Recalling facts is probably the only learning experience that most at-risk students have had, and they literally believe that this is what learning must be. Indeed, HOTS teachers consistently report that students seem surprised to learn that figuring things out and expressing their ideas are important parts of learning.

Even worse, remediation approaches in the content areas mistakenly assume that the lack of demonstrated knowledge is the problem. However, once concepts reach a certain level of complexity, remembering the content becomes more of a thinking process. A concept is remembered only if it can be quickly connected to existing knowledge. Students who do not make such connections and associations will not be able to retain or apply what they learn. This is why remedial approaches that do work in the early grades, where the curriculum is relatively simple, often exacerbate learning problems later - starting with the fourth grade, when the curriculum becomes more complex.

As the curriculum grows more complex, lack of knowledge about content becomes a symptom of the real problem, which is that students cannot construct the types of understanding that can build the connections that are critical to the retention of content. Instead of helping students to think in terms of constructing relationships, such remediation reinforces the tendency to view learning as memorization. Without such "conceptual Velcro," new information slips out of the mind as fast as it comes in, producing a kind of "conceptual Teflon."

Remediation (reteaching) produces a vicious cycle wherein the more remediation, the less students learn and the less well they are able to apply their learning. If the strategy of remediation is mistaken, we must face the possibility that the money spent to solve the learning problems of at-risk students is inadvertently making them worse. Nor will efforts to develop better remedial approaches help; that is like trying to put out a fire by pouring gasoline on it—and then complaining that what we really need is more gasoline of higher octane.

I am not arguing against drill, rote learning, and direct instruction in the learning of content. I am arguing that we cannot have at-risk students doing these things all the time and still expect them to develop intellectually. The supplemental help we offer ought to be of a different, more sophisticated kind.

2. Use of the -35-minute principle can enhance the abilities of at-risk students to learn in the content areas. If it takes extensive effort to help students understand "understanding," many readers are probably asking themselves, "If I have to spend all day teaching thinking, when do I teach content?" Conversations about this point inevitably return to the age-old debate over whether schools should use a "process" or a "content" approach to teaching. Is there an efficient and practical way to develop the concept of understanding in a way that also enhances the learning of conventional content?

The HOTS program demonstrates that the answer is yes. By systematically varying the amount of help provided to students, we have been able to ascertain just how much help is required. It boils down to what I call the 35-minute principle of school improvement:

Intensive, consistent exposure to sophisticated conversation that engages students in key techniques to develop thinking, conducted in groups of fewer than 15 students, for 35 minutes a day, four days a week, for two years can significantly enhance the learning of all content by at-risk students. Therefore, schools should consolidate their improvement programs and expenditures into this type of effort. It is probably the single most effective use of resources that a school can make in grades 4 through 8.

The 35-minute principle suggests that the many "innovative" programs that we cook up should be consolidated into a single effort. We must abandon the tendency to keep adding new programs that treat the symptoms of the fundamental learning problem. Instead, schools should invest 35 minutes a day in dealing with the fundamental- learning problem: helping students to understand "understanding."

Our experience with HOTS has already demonstrated that the use of the 35 minute principle can improve reading and math scores for Chapter I students and for mildly impaired learning-disabled students. This finding creates the potential for consolidating four programs into one —if federal and state authorities cooperate. These programs can be consolidated because most learning (and probably most discipline) problems in American education stem from students' lack of understanding about how to understand what's going on. (Indeed, the greatest discipline problem in American education may be that students do not know how to be "disciplined" thinkers.)

The use of the 35-minute principle could be financed largely through existing funds. An analysis of costs at a typical elementary school in a large urban district in California found that it would be a simple matter to finance the 35 minutes of intellectually challenging activities by combining the funds from existing compensatory sources into a single pot. While many argue that all learning should involve thinking, we must start somewhere - and the 35-minute
principle provides a practical benchmark that has been shown to produce dramatic learning gains.

It is possible that more than 35 minutes of sophisticated conversation would produce even greater gains. However, a global strategy of trying to change all curricula would be very complex. It took four years to write the two years' worth of curriculum for the HOTS program - and that was for only 35 minutes of daily activities. Changing a whole school's curriculum and teaching methods would be a mind-boggling (and perhaps unnecessary) exercise. Meanwhile, the 35-minute principle provides a practical and robust way to go beyond rhetoric and philosophical debate. The learning capability of at-risk students can be dramatically enhanced while changing the methods of only one or two teachers in a school.

One word of caution is in order here. Using Chapter I funds for programs that focus on structural change, such as reducing class size across the board, will probably not be as effective as keeping class size the same and providing the 35 minutes of thinking activities to the Chapter I students in smaller groups with a specially trained teacher.

3. The 35-minute intervention must be very sophisticated. The curriculum during the 35 minutes of sophisticated conversation must make the learning fun and be consistent with key theories of learning. The intervention must be conducted by high-quality teachers who are trained to teach differently. For example, teachers must be able to listen to students’ attempts to construct meaning and guide them without telling them what to do.

Given the sophistication and nontraditional nature of the teaching needed to help students understand "understanding,~ the 35 minutes of special instruction are probably best provided by a specially trained teacher outside the context of the regular classroom. The large number of students and the multiple agendas of the regular classroom make it difficult to engage in the types of conversations needed or to keep at the process long enough. Who has time in the regular classroom to help students through periods of failure at sophisticated tasks? Which classroom teacher can spend three or four months training students to explain what they mean every time they say something? Indeed, when two of the most outstanding teachers in the HOTS program decided to bring the techniques they had learned back to the regular classroom, they quickly abandoned the effort as hopeless. The multiple pressures of the classroom made it impossible to provide sufficiently intensive thinking experiences.

The sophistication of the learning that takes place in the HOTS program does not mean that the development of students' self-esteem is neglected. The traditional approach to improving the self esteem of at-risk students is to simplify the questions asked and to praise students for correct answers. But such an approach ultimately destroys self-concept. Johnny is smart enough to know why he is being asked simple questions, and he is clever enough to know that by acting helpless he can avoid having to answer the more difficult ones. The tragedy of this approach is that neither Johnny nor his teachers ever discover how bright he really is. The HOTS program views real accomplishment as the best developer of self-concept. The more sophisticated the accomplishment and the greater the degree to which students are able to demonstrate it to their peers, the greater the gain in self-esteem.

The activities in the HOTS program are designed to stretch students beyond the level at which they initially feel comfortable. While there is frustration when they are not immediately successful and have to struggle, the joy that comes from solving a problem that once seemed impossible is beautiful to behold. (As a general rule we try to avoid problems that require students to struggle for more than a day or two before they develop a way to solve them.) Students who repeatedly experience this type of success come to accept difficult problems - and initial failure—as normal and approach them in a reflective manner. Once they come to understand that they are good at figuring things out, HOTS students love to be challenged intellectually with very difficult problems. Regular classroom teachers respond that when they ask a novel question, the most persistent and reflective students are the Chapter I students in the HOTS program.

While the ultimate goal is to prepare at-risk students to succeed in the thinking-in-content activities of academically challenging courses. it is accomplished by first providing general thinking activities in accordance with the 35-minute principle. This approach is based on the ~theory of cognitive underpinnings.

4. The theory of cognitive underpinnings states that at-risk students need general thinking experiences for two years before they can be expected to do well in intensive thinking-in-content activities. While thinking skills should be integrated into content for students who have already internalized how to work with ideas. Putting students who do not understand 'understanding’ into a math class that emphasizes thinking is not likely to improve either their thinking or their knowledge of math. Two years of general thinking activities, implemented in accordance with the 35-minute principle, are essential in order to develop students' sense of how to work with ideas.


Applying the 35-minute principle and the theory of cognitive underpinnings together provides a powerful solution to the problem posed by at-risk Iearners. Implementing these two concepts requires commitment to a three- to four-year improvement cycle.

Once students have enough experience in the key thinking skills provided under the 35-minute principle. it is as if their minds have been jump-started. They automatically construct networks of connections around whatever they are learning. In the regular classroom they are able to link the content presented in ways that enable them to retain and apply it. With good instruction during regular class time. The students' knowledge base grows quickly. Moreover, their knowledge grows in a highly flexible way that makes information available to them for a wide array of problem-solving activities. Thus it is not necessary to reteach - or reinforce - most of what is taught in the regular curriculum.

This general transfer of skill to the learning of classroom content means that it is unnecessary to connect the HOTS activities to those of the regular classroom. Instead of using Chapter I programs to reteach what wasn't learned the first time the general thinking activities provide the skills needed to learn what is taught in the classroom the first time it is taught and empower students to benefit from all good classroom instructional techniques.

However, the HOTS program will not cure all of a school's problems. To maximize the transfer effects of the 35 minutes of thinking activities, a school should first do everything it can to enhance the effectiveness of the content instruction that takes place during the rest of the school day. There are many popular models of school improvement to choose from that will guarantee that the at-risk students spend enough time-on-task and receive direct instruction in reading and math every day. In addition, all other pullout programs should be scheduled in conjunction with the 35 minute HOTS activity in order to minimize the disruption of regular classroom instruction and to enable classroom teachers to provide enriched small-group instruction to the remaining students.

The only formal connection between HOTS and the regular classroom occurs every three weeks when students write eight questions and answers about a block of reading in a content area. (Reformulating what has been read into questions is a powerful way to enhance comprehension.) However, incorporating some thinking activities into the regular classroom can increase the effects of the 35 minute principle. The best predictor of which HOTS students would make the most progress was whether the classroom teacher asked follow-up questions that required students to clarify and justify their answers. Having classroom teachers ask "why" questions and make greater use of writing and of more sophisticated reading material can further enhance the effects of the 35-minute principle.

Converting at-risk students into sophisticated learners creates a new problem for American education. The typical middle school or junior high school with a high proportion of at-risk students has few courses that challenge them intellectually. We have been so busy dumbing down the curriculum and coping with failure that the system is unprepared for sophisticated learners.

Indeed, I recently observed a group of eighth-graders in the second year of HOTS and then observed a group of sixth-graders who were also in the second year of HOTS. There was no difference in thinking between the two groups; the two extra years in school had not had any cognitive effect.

I recently watched a videotape of Bill, a sixth-grader in the Detroit Public Schools. Unlike Johnny, Bill has completed the HOTS program and is an articulate, reflective young man. In two years he went from being a nonreader and a non thinker to being someone who loves to read books and analyze ideas. I worry that in middle school Bill will not find the learning opportunities that he needs to continue to develop his intellect.

Schools and districts must insure that the intellectual abilities developed by a two-year period of general thinking activities continue to be nourished by thinking-in-content courses. Schools and districts need to establish at least one course (ideally for two years) at the middle school or junior high school level that applies the same thinking skills and mode of instruction to a content area. Such a course should be available at the point when the students complete the general thinking program. For example, if the 35-minute principle is used for thinking instruction in grades 5 and 6, then the first thinking-in-content course should be offered in grade 7.

How many courses must be taught in a problem-solving fashion in order to continue to nurture students' intellectual development? Given that only 35 minutes of general thinking activities have powerful effects, it seems reasonable to start with one content course a day that is taught in a problem-solving manner. And a course of this kind should be offered for at least two years after the thinking instruction has been completed.

But which content course should it be? Any course will probably work. The determining factor should be the interest and competence of the faculty members who will teach the course. The goal is not to add a new course, but rather to redesign existing content-area courses and change the way they are taught.

Virtually any course can be turned into a highly creative and intellectually challenging experience for students. However, whether it is developed in-house or adopted from an outside source, putting together a thinking-in-content course will probably take one to two years. School districts must provide the necessary funding to enable a curriculum development team to work long enough to rethink and redesign a single course thoroughly and to develop a new approach to training teachers to teach in a Socratic mode.


While HOTS shows that a thinking skills approach can effectively enhance content learning, I am pessimistic about whether the most widely advocated approaches to thinking will be beneficial to at-risk students. Most programs assume that instruction in thinking should be spread throughout the curriculum. but HOTS has succeeded by targeting a specific group of students and teaching general thinking divorced from content. Most of the members of the educational psychology community agree that there are no general thinking skills and that transfer of training is limited to very specific situations and can occur only via thinking-in-content activities. Yet the effects of the HOTS program are there for all to see.

Indeed, I worry about the recent calls from such groups as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics for reducing content coverage and focusing on problem solving. Without evidence that content-based techniques for enhancing the problem-solving abilities of at-risk

students exist, we may be stepping back in time to the failed discovery learning movement of the 1960s. We will have yet another movement that benefits those already doing well and further confuses those who do not understand "understanding.~ What we need are new problem solving techniques that make it possible to increase content coverage - a goal that merely applying conventional wisdom cannot achieve. We must construct new wisdom and more powerful interventions.


Now that HOTS has demonstrated that a carefully designed thinking skills program can develop the natural intellectual potential of at-risk students in a way that dramatically improves their basic skills, there are still four goals for the HOTS program. The first goal is to spread the knowledge gained from the success of HOTS in the hope that doing so will stimulate others to develop and test approaches that challenge at-risk students intellectually. The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and others are supporting such efforts. In addition, the new reauthorization of Chapter I encourages school districts to use Chapter I funds to develop advanced skills.

The second goal is to continue to research ways to improve the HOTS program and to enhance its long-term effects. Key research efforts now under way are seeking to determine: 1) the effects of starting at earlier grade levels, 2) the highest grade level at which students can benefit from this approach, and 3) ways to predict more accurately which students will benefit most from HOTS.

The third goal is to develop a schoolwide middle school version of HOTS for use in urban schools.

The fourth goal is to help middle schools plan and implement thinking-in-content courses. Under a grant from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, we will identify exemplary middle school thinking-in-content curricula for a variety of content areas and disseminate the recommendations. We are also developing an innovative two-year thinking-in-mathematics course. The research goal will be to test the theory of cognitive underpinnings by comparing the relative success of HOTS graduates and of "average" students in such courses.

We have made a terrible mistake in how we educate the disadvantaged in our society. There is an identifiable reason why things have gotten worse despite the billions that we have poured annually into helping at-risk students. We have been arguing for so long about simplistic pedagogical stereotypes that we are not even aware of what the real learning problem is. The result has been a proliferation of prescriptions that have exacerbated these
- students’ inability to understand after the fourth grade.

Johnny is probably quite bright and an eager learner who loves to solve problems. Instead of pushing universal formulas and philosophies, we need to step back and admit that current approaches have not begun to tap lohnny's intellectual potential - or even to realize what it is. The techniques that evolved in HOTS go against all conventional wisdom - yet they work powerfully.

The success of HOTS suggests that it is possible to design sophisticated interventions that will enhance both short and long-term learning of content, while also increasing self-esteem and thinking ability. This goal can be accomplished in a practical way by introducing into the school day intensive doses of skilled conversation built around highly creative curricula. This approach, in effect, brings the dinner table to school. (Good conversation related to the right curriculum is so powerful that relatively small doses can turn the lights back on in Johnny's eyes - or prevent them from being extinguished in the first place.

The question is whether there is the political and administrative will to do these things. Have we been unsuccessful and simplistic for so long that we are unable to marshal the fiscal and human resources already in the system to provide a sophisticated learning environment - if only for 35 minutes a day? Do we even know what sophisticated learning is? Do professors and practitioners have the will and the vision to develop the curricula that are needed? If not, let's not blame Johnny, his parents, or the power structure but admit that it is we educators who are at fault for continuing to use the wrong methodology. There is a way to turn future Johnnies into excited, successful, and sophisticated learners.

1. A study by time-management expert Michael Fonina, cited in George Will's column, Arizona Dally Star, 1 September 1988.

2. The primary reason why educators do not realize that students are having trouble constructing understanding is that teachers seldom take the time to listen to children trying to construct meaning. When a question is asked, the general process is that a student gives an answer and the teacher passes judgment on its correctness. In most classroom dialogue, the answers and verdicts have nothing to do with understanding. Producing understanding in classroom conversations is much more difficult than most teachers or teacher educators realize.

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