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What’s Up with Thinking about Thinking?

Michelle Garcia Winner

Michelle Garcia Winner

When was the last time you had a thought about someone around you? It's very likely that it was in the last hour or so? Was it a “good thought” or a "neutral thought" that made you feel comfortable or calm or a “not-so-good thought” that made you feel uncomfortable? If you really pay attention, you will start to notice how much we observe people around us, including people we don't even plan to talk to, just because we are sharing space with them.


Our brains are magnet for social-thought! In fact, most of us cannot turn off our thoughts about others around us. These thoughts invade us all the time; we notice who hangs out together, who doesn't like whom, who seems to always want to be by themselves, etc.


We also think a lot about how people feel. We notice when our teachers and/or parents are in good moods and/or bad moods. We notice when people are crying, angry or super happy. If you pay attention, you'll notice how you often change your own behavior based on what you think someone else is thinking about or how are they feeling. Hopefully you know it is a really BAD idea to get mad at someone who is already in a bad mood; typically they will have no patience for you and will respond harshly.


The deal is that we ALL think about others - especially when we are sharing the same space together. And, we not only think about others, we have feelings about their actions too, even when not talking to one another which is why people routinely refer to words like "polite", "respectful" and "cooperate."  Interestingly, each of these words signifies ways in which we are supposed to think about how we make people feel in order to keep them neutral or calm.


Let's take a stab at trying to define these words which it is not as easy as one would think because they are all more than words, they are concepts. Concepts refer to ideas rather than singular things.

  1. Be Polite: This means you treat people in a way that makes them feel okay and conversely, doesn't irritate them. We have formal ways in which we show politeness with words (e.g., say please and thank you), but there are other ways in which we are polite without ever talking to one another (e.g., walking around a person who stopped rather than bumping into him).
  2. Be Respectful: This is an advanced form of being polite. Being respectful not only means that you avoid causing irritation/frustration, but that you also show the person that you appreciate his or her knowledge and ideas. For example, a student may be considered to be respectful when she is okay with the teacher explaining a math concept to the class (that she already understands), without announcing that she already knows! Many times, being respectful simply means that we show other people we want to hear what they know by listening - not talking.
  3. Cooperation is a special form of being polite and respectful.  A person shows cooperation by encouraging others to share ideas (often in a group) and then appreciating their different ideas or actions to help the group. But, it's also a two-sided process because cooperation requires that the individual also contribute to what others are thinking about or working on in a polite and respectful way. This means that each person will need to back off to let other people have a turn on occasion.

This is all very abstract! When we ask our students to be polite or respectful or cooperate, consider that it's not something that people just "do", it's a complex thinking process that plays a role in the ability to show the concept.

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