The company he founded is called ThinkWorks, and the flagship product ThinkBlocks, a set of magnetic dry-erase nesting blocks that can be used to teach advanced thinking skills to children and adults of all ages and capacities, which is evidenced by the fact that the blocks are being used with special needs students as well as gifted students, with everyone from elementary and middle school students to teachers and school administrators.
"Our current education system was designed for the industrial age," Cabrera said. "Our schools were designed to train good factory workers, which is why there are so many bells and repetitive tasks." When No Child Left Behind was implemented in the '90s, teachers were required to teach to the test, and are held accountable for how well students perform, saod Cabrera's business partner Laura Colosi, PhD, ThinkWorks chief operations officer.
"That's been the focus," Cabrera said. "Schools are not turning out thinking kids, and businesses are not getting people who can think. The global problems we face today require people who know how to think."
In the year 1900, eight out of ten jobs were manual, and involved working with your hands, Cabrera points out, and in the year 2010, eight of ten jobs include working with ideas. As such, Cabrera, and his business partner Laura Colosi, PhD, ThinkWorks chief operations officer, have made it their lifelong goal to develop and distribute methods and mechanisms for teaching kids to think critically.
It's not that 'teach to the test' is inherently destructive, Cabrera said, but it's impossible to ensure that the information you teach today will be relevant tomorrow. Since each person experiences classroom material differently, and will use it differently, how is it possible to predict which information will be the most useful for a given student ten or thirty years down the line? Instead of treating each student as though they're the same in order to deposit facts into their brains, Cabrera's pedagogy draws on Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences as a basis for differentiation among students, and Piaget's constructivism as a starting point of understanding how the "receiving" mind can't help but rearrange and reconstruct the information it encounters.
"You might think of Constructivism as people doing group work in classrooms," Cabrera said, "but let me disavow you of that now." More importantly than classroom structure, Constructivism refers to the idea that even the sitting, listening, so-called passive student is busy "building" his or her own version of the facts and concepts being discussed, and that when both teacher and student are aware of this, the learning process is expedited and enriched.
Gardner's theory on multiple intelligences reformed the way many teachers evaluate, understand, and approach intelligence and learning in reference to their students. Expanding intelligence to include linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and later, naturalistic, Gardner's theory led to a basic understanding of, and in some departments careful teacher training of, different learning styles such as visual, auditory, reader-writer, and tactile-kinesthetic. Some students need to hear something repeated, while others need to see it written down, and still others need to write it down themselves in order to absorb and process it. A visual learner might be completely lost in a lecture class if substantial pictures, charts, graphs, and other visual aids aren't used, for example.
As useful as it can be for a teacher to understand the different learning styles of her students, however, it can also be difficult to keep track of which students need which kind of instruction. The fact that most people have some combination of these learning styles further complicates the approach for a teacher trying to communicate a concept. In planning a class, it's easy to fall into pigeon-holing the activities: I'll do this for the visual learners, this for the auditory learners, and so on, which can leave half the class floundering in the dark while the other half is getting a grasp on the material.
One thing that seems particularly innovative about ThinkBlocks is that it allows both teacher and students to engage all these different learning styles at once. A teacher using ThinkBlocks can explain a concept while moving the blocks around and interacting them, providing simultaneous visual and auditory instruction in a way that's more streamlined, unified, and comprehensive than lecturing and trying to scrawl notes on the blackboard at the same time. Tactile learners can take their turn with the blocks after the demonstration, reenacting the teacher's demonstration, or making up their own.
If fact, everyone becomes somewhat of a tactile learner under ThinkWorks philosophy, which leans heavily on the power of haptics to "light up the brain" and stimulate neurological connections of the person handling the objects. From the Greek "haphe," or pertaining to the sense of touch, culture uses the term in reference to haptic technology such as joysticks or steering wheels in video games, or haptic poetry that can be traced to the "sculptural" constructions of Dadaists Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters, or even further back to fetish objects, gems, and roans in spiritual practices. There is also sociological and anthropological study of haptic communication between humans, or the study of the different ways in which we touch each other, and the cultural significance attached to various kinds of touch.
Haptics, then, might be viewed as the gateway through which concepts are "allowed in," and then deeply internalized. On the ThinkWorks website, which is itself very intelligent in its ease of use, minimalist and attractive design, and abundance of well-organized relevant information, Colosi and Cabrera note the six types of thinking required for the 21st Century: Critical Thinking, the ability to analyze, deconstruct, and evaluate; Creative Thinking, the ability to construct new lines of thought; Systems Thinking, the ability to understand complex patterns in context; Scientific Thinking, the ability to observe, validate, and evidence; Interdisciplinary Thinking: the ability to unify, transfer, synthesize, and integrate; and finally, Prosocial Thinking, the ability to build rapport through compassion and concern. But underlying all previous and current theory on intelligence and learning styles, Cabrera argues, are four kinds of thought patterns that are universal.
They call it DSRP, an acronym for the "four universal patterns that underlie all thought." So while your brain is busy "rearranging" the stimuli and information it's receiving, here is a more nuanced description of the processes that are taking place, or, put another way, while you are listening to a lecture or reading a book or drawing a concept map, your mind is busy:
* Drawing Distinctions: Comparing and contrasting between similarities and opposites;
* Organizing Systems: Sorting, nesting and categorizing using part-whole thinking;
* Forming Relationships: Making connections, interactions, associations, and cause & effect explicit;
* Taking Perspectives: Seeing different points-of-view and seeing new possibilities.
Clearly, this describes more than just what happens in the classroom: Colosi and Cabrera assert that these four basic patterns underlie all of human thought. ThinkBlocks allow the teacher to exemplify and illustrate the actual dynamics of learning and communication at work at the same time as the material and curriculum is being taught. It's like sneaking in a lesson on pedagogy on the side: this is what we're learning, and this is how we're learning it. Likewise, the student gets a chance to observe himself when he picks up and handles the blocks: the idea is that being aware of the underlying systems and patterns of thought, curriculum, and learning will allow for education and critical thinking skills that are brought into every aspect of a student's life.
ThinkBlocks hits the market
ThinkWorks launched ThinkBlocks earlier this year, and Colosi and Cabrera received immediate positive feedback, and more importantly, perhaps, excited customers and clients from all over the country. Since the product can be used for all ages and all subject matters, they are being used for training and inter-personal relations with adults and staff as well as with students.
But perhaps most telling is the fact that the Fairfax School District, outside of Washington, D.C., adopted the blocks almost instantly. Fairfax started using the blocks with pre-kindergarten, Kindergarten, and special education, students, but plan to implement them with students of all ages and ranges this fall.
"There's a saying that 'where Fairfax goes, the rest of the country goes," Cabrera said, "so it was extremely significant. We hit a vein."
Colosi and Cabrera said while they expected the product to be popular, they were still surprised by the immediate depth and breadth of the response, which led to the hiring of two more staff people, and plans to hire more, for training, support, and working with local businesses. Currently, other team members include Greg Wheeler and Leighton Arnold.
The blocks have been successfully phased into the Ithaca City School District as well, with plans to implement them more widely in the fall. Colosi and Cabrera worked with Lee Ginenthal, literacy staff developer for grades 6-12, to start phasing them into Enfield and Northeast at the elementary level. They will be moving into more classrooms this year, and will also be used to train teachers and administrators in all schools.
The blocks are useful to address literacy issues, Ginenthal indicated. "Literacy is a lot more than reading and writing in the 21st century," he said. "The world we're living in involves more reflection. Problems are becoming more complex and more urgent. Thinking skills are an important part of 21st century literacy, as are technology skills and media literacy."
There are plans to use the blocks to help solve interpersonal conflicts as well, Ginenthal said. "Reflection on the use of the tool is a key part of anything, and if the problem stays on the block, and can be distanced. It becomes an intellectual activity," rather than a heated, emotional one.
I asked Ginenthal if he thought some of the inter-personal problems at the high school were in part because the students didn't have the tools to think their way through what was happening, or were being stifled in other intellectual and creative aspects of their education.
"Absolutely," he said. "People recognize that there's a problem. This is not the solution for all of it, but one more tool for our kit."
Staying at home
Toward the end of our interview, I asked Colosi and Cabrera if they had any plans to ever move their business out of Ithaca, maybe to a bigger city. The entire team has history, roots, masters degrees, PhDs, and research and teaching appointments at Cornell, along with families and children here, and they don't plan to relocate, ever. "Never sell, never leave," Cabrera said. "This is our life's work."