It was an old, stitched pillbox hat with a black veil that fell past his nose. It reminded him of a funeral. And when 10-year-old Eric Brooks put it on, he began to move his lips back and forth in the manner of an old woman heaving with sorrow.
Different kinds of hats, he declared, change your personality.
In a classroom at Coppin State College in Northwest Baltimore yesterday, Eric set about creating his own hat by attaching a fuzzy snowman, a drawing, old balloons and other odds and ends to a plain rectangle of construction paper. At each step, he and his classmates discussed what they might do next to their creations to realize the idea in their heads.
Thus did Eric learn the connection between a plain piece of construction paper and the props his teacher, Mary Ellen Beaty-O'Ferrall, plucked from her mother-in-law's garage sale years ago. The step-by-step process of making a hat was the same he and other students used later in the morning to build a plain sentence into a whole story.
"We are trying to think in a strange new way today," Ms. Beaty-O'Ferrall told her students.
Eric, a fifth-grader at Woodmoor Elementary School, is one of 48 children who travel from as far away as Easton twice a month on Saturdays during the school year to learn about the thinking process at the Maryland Center for Thinking Studies.
Yesterday's five classes for students from grades five to eight focused on learning how to define things, such as success; how to make generalizations, such as about a plate of doughnuts; and, as in Eric's case, how to elaborate, whether by turning a plain piece of paper into a hat or a sentence into a story. The steps are part of the process known as thinking, and by breaking down the process, his teachers hope Eric will understand the moves of the mind and see its possibilities.
The goal of the center, said Antoinette Worsham, who started it two years ago after developing a model program and training Howard County teachers, is to prepare children to live in a society that is overloaded with information.
"If they are not taught to become excellent processors of information, rather than receptacles of information, then they are doomed to failure," said Dr. Worsham.
"Parents are upset when their children don't know when Columbusdiscovered America. Well, the issue is, did Columbus discover America and why did America need to be discovered?"
Besides its Saturday lessons, the Coppin center trains teachers statewide and writes instructional manuals for teachers and textbooks that help children analyze and discover instead of memorize facts. The center also is developing a new degree -- a master's in cognitive instruction, available now only at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.
"It is important to get them to understand how they think, how they know," said Frank Lyman, who directs the Saturday program. "We call it 'unpacking thinking,' " he said.
About 10 percent of teachers nationwide now teach such techniques, commonly known as teaching "critical thinking," he said.
The 48 Saturday students are intentionally mixed by ability, race, ethnicity, sex and family background. The school is free and open to all Baltimore students, with half the places reserved for them, and $200 a year for county students, whose names are drawn from a waiting list. Parents receive progress reports twice a year.
The curriculum is designed by hand-picked, specially trained teachers. They use a thinking wheel, which features different steps in thinking -- for instance, applying cause and effect, making comparisons, showing similarities and differences and drawing generalizations from examples. Then, children can draw pictures of steps they use and analyze the ones they use or could use during the regular school week.
And in teaching about the thinking process and how to use it, the teachers advocate cooperative learning.
In Tom Payne's class, for instance, Brandon Fleming, 13, and Tyrone Cloyd, 15, shared their ideas about success -- what color it is, what forms it takes, how they might achieve it -- before collaborating on a picture of their idea. It featured a mountain punctuated by a series of steep valleys or pitfalls, such as being fired or laid off from a job.
"The skill is defining," said Mr. Payne, a Howard County teacher, who also had students read stories about successful people and discuss what each had in common.
Another skill learned yesterday was making generalizations -- in this case, about a plate of doughnuts.
If one doughnut on a plate is soft, is it fair to say that the rest are soft?
"We would have to eat them all to be sure, wouldn't we?" asked teacher Sally Duff, the author of soon-to-be published science textbook using critical thinking skills.
Well, no. Not if the doughnut you ate was a representative sample, she said.
What is a representative sample? Ms. Duff introduced a plate of chocolate and vanilla honey-glazed doughnuts. She ate a chocolate one. "These doughnuts are chocolate," she concluded. Her students urged her to take another sample.
It, too, was chocolate, and she came to the same conclusion. Another teacher, Mr. Lyman, tasted a chocolate doughnut and agreed that the rest must be chocolate.
Brandon Wylie, 11, looked exasperated. "You two have taken two of one type on the plate," he told his teachers. "There are two types of doughnuts, so to make a generalization, you have to split them," he said. "I think you need to try the other kind."
So, how many doughnuts do you need for a representative sample? In this case, two, one chocolate and one honey-glazed. After removing his chewing gum to the back of his hand, that's what Brandon popped into his mouth when class was over.