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HIP Thinking: A Reintroduction

Brady Smith, High Intensity Practice (HIP) Thinking Instructor

Change is an essential part of Avenues’ DNA, and nowhere is this more true than in the High Intensity Practice (HIP) program, which has evolved enormously in just three short years. Begun in 2015 under the leadership of Todd Shy and Cem Inaltong, HIP was initially divided into two different programs, HIP Math and HIP Writing, each of which sought to develop students’ higher order thinking skills through regular practice at math and writing challenges. Initially, the program was small, taught by a mix of part-time and full-time faculty who met with students for focused sessions at the beginning and end of the day. But HIP, from its inception, was never meant to be a marginal part of the curriculum. Our mandate is to teach empathy, creativity and critical thinking, among the other foundational Avenues elements, which puts us at the heart of the Avenues educational experience. The transition to the 2017–18 school year saw a host of new changes that reflects the importance of the program and its place in Avenues’ mission. The program has a new slate of full-time faculty; the course has been fully integrated into the regular Avenues schedule; and HIP Math and HIP Writing have been combined into HIP Thinking to better reflect our orientation towards higher-order cognitive skills. Who are we now? What do we do? Why is it important? This post answers all of your questions and more.

Who Are We?

The core HIP team consists is a diverse group of people with a wide range of skills, experiences and interests – perhaps the most varied group of people at Avenues. A few of us have backgrounds in science and math and have spent our careers in K-12 education. The rest of us come to HIP from farther field: one of us has a law degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. in anthropology; another has a Ph.D. in English; still another is an expert in Russian language and literature; and yet another is a hiring consultant who came aboard as a teacher after guiding the process that produced the new team. What drew us to HIP at Avenues? Why do we do what we do? For Erin Finn-Welch, a founding faculty member who heads up the HIP program, the reason has to do with change. “I want to change things,” she says, and she sees in HIP the opportunity to fundamentally change the way students experience learning in the classroom. Will Roble, a HIP Math teacher who came to Avenues from a role as senior director of middle school for Achievement First charter schools, emphasizes the different perspective that HIP gives students on math. “I teach HIP because it is an opportunity to explore mathematical thinking in a way that is different from the conventional math class,“ he says. “Ample time is dedicated to exploration, grappling, and conjecture – making, testing and proving. This creates a dynamic and exciting learning experience.” Molly Rose Ávila, a second-year HIP teacher who is also a Ph.D. candidate in Slavic languages and literature at Columbia, talks about the HIP writing classroom in a similar way: “For 80 minutes every other day, they step away from the pressures of the world and enter an almost meditative space (as several students have described it to me) where the central relationship is the one a student has with their own notebook, and their own mind. The focus of HIP is not content, but rather empathy, creativity, mental agility – and hence I see my role as not only a teacher but also a mentor, a coach, a listener, along their own journey.”

The HIP team.

The HIP team.

What Do We Do?

HIP Thinking develop students’ higher order thinking skills and foundational executive functions – working memory, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility – through focused practice at complex math and writing challenges. We emphasize process over product, and design our curriculum to challenge students to think in new and innovative ways. Some aspects of HIP are standardized across the curriculum: students start lessons with a warm-up activity, teachers introduce the cognitive skill being practiced that day, students use that skill to complete a 20 minute math or writing challenge, and they finish by explaining their thought processes in a closing reflection. Within this framework, however, what students actually do can vary widely, limited only by the range of cognitive skills we teach and the imagination that students put into their work. In the 6th grade HIP Math sequence, for example, students have wrestled with a Fermi problem that asked them to calculate the number of cheeseburgers needed to cross the Atlantic Ocean and developed problem-solving skills through a unit that asked them to employ different styles of mathematical thinking at the same time. In the 9th grade writing sections, students started the year building their creative capacities by writing a series of autobiographical sketches in the styles of famous autobiographers, including St. Augustine, Margery Kempe and the Russian futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Since assigning letter grades can discourage risk-taking and experimentation, HIP remains an ungraded course, but students are still assessed every day. Teachers read and comment on student work in order to help guide them as they develop and optimize their own habits of thought. The HIP team is also building a guided self-assessment process in which students, on the basis of a HIP Thinking rubric, learn to take stock of their own learning and identify areas of success and growth themselves.

8th grade students tackling a design challenge during HIP.

8th grade students tackling a design challenge during HIP. 

An 8th grader works on a design challenge.

An 8th grader works on a design challenge. 

Why does it matter?

The benefits of HIP are many. At a basic level, students grow their skills at both math and writing and find themselves better prepared for the work they do elsewhere at school, on standardized tests and as part of the college admissions process. The freedom of HIP is also an attraction to many students who find it a welcome break from the academic pressures that can otherwise define life at Avenues. However, HIP Thinking differs from most other high-intensity practice curricula in that it is not conceived principally as a mean of building mastery only in the disciplines on which it draws. As mentioned above, our aim is to teach students the first seven elements from the Avenues World Elements chart – empathy, creativity, abstraction, metacognition, critical thinking, mental agility and planning. Increased skill at each of these cognitive processes supports stronger learning and skill development across the Avenues curriculum. But it also correlates to higher executive function, and thus increased success in all student endeavors, academic and beyond. Students who succeed in HIP are uniquely equipped to apply their creative intelligence to project-based learning experiences and college admissions essays, some of which serve as the bases for HIP writing lessons throughout the year. They are also especially prepared to tackle life after Avenues, where many of the learning supports we put in place fall away, and where success in college and beyond requires many of the meta-curricular skills we emphasize in HIP Thinking – careful planning, joyful experimentation, constant reflection, creative problem-solving and a willingness to embrace the unknown. The world into which are students are moving is one of astonishing complexity and accelerating change. No single course of study can prepare the leaders of the future for all the challenges they will face in the decades to come. That’s why we teach HIP – to help students develop the tools they will need to navigate a world that doesn’t exist yet, and to enable them to bring a different kind of world into being.

HIP Thinking, Reconsidered

As you can see, HIP Thinking has changed considerably over the years, and the program will continue to evolve in the years to come. I’ve already mentioned our work on a self-assessment program, which is designed to make learning more concrete and transferable, but we anticipate a few other changes to the program in the next year. One is a breakdown of the boundary between math and writing so that math and writing faculty can be paired with students on longer, more complex HIP thinking challenges. Another is the development of a HIP Thinking speaker series that will draw on the resources of the Avenues community and the city at large to bring in professionals in a variety of fields to talk about the benefits of HIP for the kinds of work that they do. We’ve had some successful partnerships with other programs on campus over the course of this year and hope to continue to deepen our relationship to other disciplines at Avenues. But above all, we want to continue to work to make HIP into an engaging, joyful experience for students in grades 6 through 10. The more we know, the better we can do our jobs, so feedback is always welcome, as are questions about any aspect of what we do. If you have thoughts to offer, questions to ask, or ideas to share, email Erin Finn-Welch ( or Brady Smith (


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