“Public Thinking:” Thinking Out Loud in the Classroom

Thinking inside of a bubble can stifle the thinking process. Traditionally, a student goes to class, listens to the professor’s lecture, and then goes home to do the assigned homework. While in class, the professor’s lecture may have made perfect sense. All of the dots may have appeared to be connected, but neither the student nor the professor knows for sure that any learning has taken place because the student has not yet been allowed to demonstrate what he/she knows. But if the professor assigns the reading before hand and provides a space for open dialogue about the reading before class, then he/she is able to gauge how much the students have learned from the reading; the professor is then able to base his/her lecture on what the students do not know.

According to the chapter, “Public Thinking,” in the book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better by Clive Thompson (journalist, blogger and writer) writing in public internet platforms “can help clarify our thinking” and make connections (51). So if a professor asks students to do a reading assignment before class and blog about it on the class website before their next meeting, then a number of things could happen: students have the opportunity to be exposed to the reading before the lecture, discussion about the reading begins with the students without interference from the professor, and resulting points of clarification bubble up so that the professor knows how to shape his/her lecture. In other words, the professor casts a line with the reading as bait, and the students approach the reading with their individual perspectives and previous knowledge. Consequently, they begin a string of discussion about the material and their minds are primed to receive the new information. Each student makes a contribution to the dialogue. Their contributions overlaps with another, thus filling in some gaps. The gaps that remain are filled in with the professor’s contribution to the conversation during lecture.

Resting at the core of Thompson’s claim is a kind of Aristotelian idea. Aristotle walked about the Lyceum discussing some profound idea with his students. There were questions and answers posited by student and professor alike. Although the hypothetical class discussed in this post is not physically gathered together as they discuss the reading, they are communing in cyberspace, so the result is similar. They are thinking in a public space that allows them to share ideas, and that strengthens the learning process. Thompson writes, “…knowledge has always been created via conversation, argument, and consensus” (69). So it makes sense that this time honored way of gaining knowledge is practiced in the classroom since the expectation to learn resides in that space.

The potential for great ideas to form using this model is great. Thompson explains how friends, Okolloh (Nigerian blogger), Hersman (website developer), and Kobia (programmer), made connections and were able to bring a great idea to life thanks to Okolloh’s blog. Her thinking in public a space allowed others to add to her ideas. Thompson’s illustration demonstrates the value of thinking in public spaces. In a classroom setting, this would look like a group project hashed out via some internet platform like Facebook, Google Docs, or other forums.

I am a supplemental instruction tutor at San Diego City College. I see various examples of students accessing knowledge. The examples that seem to be the most effective are the ones that encourage the students to think publicly, for they allow the students to demonstrate what they have learned before they go off to ponder the new material. This model empowers students and allows them to be active participants in their education.


Thompson, Clive. “Public Thinking.” Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better. Penguin Group, 2014.


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