Thursday, February 9, 2017

4 Cs Series: Critical Thinking

When leading a discussion with our students, we’re all accustomed to hearing one word answers, answers to a question we might not have ever asked, or even no answer at all! How many times do we leave a discussion in class wondering if we could have gone even deeper with the concept? The idea of asking our students to think critically sounds really formidable- in fact some find it hard to decide where to start, but it really doesn’t have to be. In this third installment of our 4Cs series, we’re going to examine what Critical Thinking looks like in the classroom and give some simple classroom tips that will jump start some awesome classroom discussions and inquiry-based skill sets.

Provide Evidence
The trick to helping students think critically is embodied in one word- Questioning. When we begin asking students probing questions and they start asking them on their own, we are asking them to think critically. The first step is ironically, the end. Once they answer a question, it helps if we ask them to provide evidence to support their claim. EEEK! This means they have to know the theory and reasoning behind their claim in order to properly explain where it came from.

Teacher: Why is the sky blue?
Student: Because particles of light scatter in the atmosphere and blue ones...
Teacher (not all at once): Can you explain what you mean? What were your sources? Is there an alternative theory? Why did you accept this theory over it?

It only takes a few times going through this process before students begin anticipating the questions we’ll ask and seek the answers beforehand!

With the wealth of information out there, it is important for us, as teachers, to learn with our students. We need to be comfortable asking questions (such as above) that we may not know the answer to and seek learning and understanding side by side. This means we need to be mindfully present during our conversations with our students and in our classrooms.

Classroom Tip:
Ask students to get into groups of two (student A and student B). Take a simple concept, i.e. why we get sunburns, and ask student A to explain it to student B as if he/she is speaking to a kindergartner. Ask student B to question anything that may seem unclear as a kindergartner. If student A realizes he/she cannot answer a question, ask the pair to quickly look it up together. As we get used to explaining and questioning this way, students understand two things:
  • How to understand a concept to its core in order to understand and/or explain it fully
  • How to ask questions, even ones that others might be perceived as basic

Asking Open-Ended Questions:
Yikes! Have you ever prepared for a lengthy discussion in class and had it finish in less than five minutes? It’s hard to have a discussion or answer a question that can’t be immediately looked up by searching Google. Pre-digital era, it made sense for us to learn facts - we couldn’t just haul around a set of encyclopedias with us as we moved from conversation to conversation. Today, educators and students are finding that we have access to seemingly infinite information and we only need to verbally ask a question to our phones and/or home devices to get an immediate response.

The five Ws: Who, what, where, when and even why don’t take long to answer anymore. This is great news for education because now we can focus on the “Why?” behind the why. Technology allows us to keep asking “Why? to dig deeper while maintaining a relative schedule with our curriculum paths. However, Marzano and Toth (2014) warn us that we must ask our students to live in a world of complexity. We can’t ask them to solve some huge issue at the end of a unit without built-in practice along the way. Students need to exercise this new habit every day.

So How Do We Ask “Why?”
Open-Ended Questions: avoid asking students questions that are easily answered in one-two words.
What year?
Who authored?
Do you like it?
Instead, ask:
How did the 1970’s decade influence this novel?
How do you think the author’s background influenced this novel?
How would you explain your love of this novel to someone who doesn’t like it?

Solve a Problem: Ask them to solve a problem with the knowledge they learned today. Most likely groups of students get together to learn a new concept together on most days in your classroom. At the end of the learning, ask them to solve a problem with their new-found knowledge. For instance, students in high school might spend one class period studying the playwright William Shakespeare. At the end of their fact-finding, ask them to solve a problem such as “Some critics don’t believe William Shakespeare actually wrote the plays attributed to him. Do you agree or disagree? Support your reasoning.”

Solve an Unsolvable Problem: Go for a cross curricular problem that has stumped humankind to this day and ask them to work in teams to come up with a unique solution. After my 12th grade students finish reading “Heart of Darkness” I ask them to work in teams of 5-6 to solve an unsolvable world issue. For instance, Create a solution to the malaria epidemic occurring in Africa politically, economically, and humanely.

Alternate Endings - ask your students to discuss what might have happened if a different decision had been made in today’s social studies topic (What if Paul Revere’s horse had been stolen the evening of his ride and no one ended up going?) or the day’s reading (What if Juliet’s mother had stood up to her father when her father announced the impending nuptials with Paris?). Students can’t wing these types of things. They are forced to think outside the box and consider consequences for different types of outcomes.

Depth of Knowledge Questions: Most educators are aware of Norman Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK) research. There are four levels of thinking that align with cognitive ability and strength. (1) Recall, (2) Skills and Concepts, (3) Strategic Thinking, and (4) Extended Thinking. Beginning at the first level and moving through questioning and tasks to the fourth level guides educators and students through cognitive reasoning and thought. Edutopia posted a great article about Webb’s DOK Levels and gives great content area examples for each of them.

Socratic Questioning: Yes! This method is still sound 1600 years after Socrates and 15-ish years after the Socratic Seminars were first established. At its very essence, according to The Critical Thinking Community, “one will respond to all answers with a further question (that calls upon the respondent to develop his/her thinking in a fuller and deeper way).” Students can try this in groups and/or educators can practice this with students and whole groups. Not only will activities such as Socratic Circles help develop questioning, they also help students in seeking to understand by listening.

How Do We Know We Are Doing Well?
This one is easy, usually. Did the students move beyond obvious answers? Did they question their own assertions? Did they consider other perspectives? Did they develop a thoughtful conclusion to their discussion, paper, project, etc? Did they seek to fully understand a concept?

Inspired by Washington State University’s 7-item rubric the school uses to assess critical thinking in its general education courses, I’ve created a checklist educators and students can use as they move through the learning process. This process can be worked through in one class period with a simple topic and it can also be utilized for a complex cross-curricular project. The more we ask students to question and fully develop their understanding, the easier it becomes to make it part of their nature.

Critical Thinking
1. What is the problem, topic, learning goal, etc?
2. What do I think about it overall? What is my personal perspective?
3. What do other people think about it? What are alternate theories? (Research)
4. What sources did I use to find my information? How did I evaluate these sources?
5. What are my final conclusions? What feedback will I get from them? How will I respond?

Works Cited
"Kentucky: Council on Postsecondary Education - Home." Kentucky: Council on Postsecondary Education - Home. Web. 13 Dec. 2016.
"The Role of Socratic Questioning in Thinking, Teaching, and Learning." The Role of Socratic Questioning in Thinking, Teac. Web. 13 Dec. 2016.
"Teacher and Principal Leadership Evaluation." Teacher and Principal Leadership Evaluation. Web. 13 Dec. 2016.

Kate Petty
Director of Certification Programs

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