While more and more knowledge is available to us, the amount of time for us to pay attention to it remains the same. What kind of knowledge will be needed in the future, and how are we going to be acquiring it? Athabasca University’s George Siemens tells Steve Paikin how educational institutions are contending with these challenges.
Ideally, teaching kids how to think critically becomes an integral part of your approach, no matter what subject you teach. But if you’re just getting started, here are some concrete ways you can begin leveraging your students’ critical-thinking skills in the classroom and beyond.
1. Questions, questions, questions.
Questioning is at the heart of critical thinking, so you want to create an environment where intellectual curiosity is fostered and questions are encouraged. For Jared Kushida, who teaches a global politics class called War and Peace at KIPP King Collegiate, «lecturing» means integrating a flow of questions throughout a lesson. «I rarely go on for more than 30 seconds without asking a question, and I rarely stop at that one question,» he explains.
In the beginning stages, you may be doing most of the asking to show your students the types of questionsthat will lead to higher-level thinking and understanding. You can also use «wrong» answers as opportunities to explore your students’ thinking. Then ask more questions to lead them in a different direction. As students become more comfortable and skilled, their questions will drive the class discussions.
2. Start with a prompt and help them unpack it.
Pose a provocative question to build an argument around and help your students break it down. Identify any ambiguous or subjective terms and have students clarify and define them. For example, Katie Kirkpatrick, who teaches ninth-grade Speech & Composition at KIPP King Collegiate, poses this question in the first unit of her class: «Is a life in poverty the responsibility of the individual or a result of outside factors?» She guides her class to identify «responsibility of the individual» and «result of outside factors» as what she calls «shady terms» that need definition. Once the terms are clearly defined, students are better able to seek and find evidence that is relevant to their argument.
3. Provide tools for entering the conversation.
At the beginning of the year, Kirkpatrick gives her students a list of sentence starters and connectors such as «I agree/disagree because,» «I can connect to your statement because,» and «Can you clarify what you mean by.» Providing them with these words gives them ways to enter the conversation and will guide their thought process in analyzing the argument.
4. Model your expectations.
«It all comes back to modeling,» says Kellan McNulty, who teaches AP world history and AP U.S. history at KIPP King Collegiate. «If you have a behavioral expectation, the best way to teach that is to model.» In fact, he learned how to facilitate effective Socratic discussions by observing his colleague. Similarly, he demonstrates for his students ways to enter a conversation, the difference between an analytical point and a summary, and appropriate ways to disagree with one another. Kirkpatrick uses examples, both good and bad, of people presenting arguments and having Socratic discussions from sites such as YouTube. Some sample links include:
- Persuasive Speech
- Narrative Speech
- Informative Speech
- Teacher-facilitated Socratic discussion
- Student-led Socratic seminar
5. Encourage constructive controversy.
Lively discussions usually involve some degree of differing perspectives. McNulty even uses a «devil’s advocate» card that he secretly gives to a student before each discussion, charging him or her with the role of bringing up opposing views. You can give students controversial topics and let them hash it out, but make sure to first demonstrate for them respectful ways of disagreeing and establish clear rules for voicing different perspectives. These rules include the language to use when disagreeing and that the disagreement must be objective, such as finding a flaw in the evidence or the reasoning, not a subjective disagreement based on personal opinions.
6. Choose content students will invest in.
It’s important to choose topics that are relevant and significant to students to get them talking and engaged. Kirkpatrick wanted social justice to be the overarching theme for her class. The topic struck a chord with the students and motivated them to build the communication skills they needed to effectively voice their views. Kushida spends much of his prep time finding rich sources (including texts, photos, art, even a single word) about pressing, relevant content to help fuel the discussions. He follows up with a deep arsenal of questions that range from factual to analytical to connective to philosophical.
7. Set up Socratic discussions.
Socratic discussion is the method of inquiry in which participants ask one another questions that test logic with the goal of gaining greater understanding or clarity. At King, teachers regularly set up formal Socratic discussions to give students the opportunity to challenge one another intellectually. The teachers serve primarily as observers, offering prompts only when there is a lull in the conversation, but otherwise leaving it to the students to keep the discussion moving. They strive to engage students in Socratic dialogue informally as well. Kushida explains that he works Socratic questioning in every single day by «never being satisfied with a student answer that does not result in another question and always pushing and counterquestioning and teaching them to do the same.»
8. Assess their reasoning through different methods.
To know whether your students are learning to think critically, you need a window into their thought processes. So challenge them to communicate back to you. Essays, Socratic discussions, and speeches give students the chance to demonstrate their skill and allow you to evaluate their reasoning in a variety of situations. Even written tests can foster critical thinking if they require the student to provide counterarguments to a series of statements using details and evidence from the unit of study. You can also assign your students topics to research and then let them lead the classroom discussion. Doing so willhelp you assess their understanding of the material and their skill at communicating it.
9. Let students evaluate each other.
It can be difficult to assess students while simultaneously facilitating a Socratic discussion. But one way teachers at King give some of the responsibility to the students is by setting up the room in a «fishbowl» configuration, with an inner circle and an outer circle. Students in the inner circle are the active participants while those in the outer are their peer evaluators. Kirkpatrick, McNulty, and others at King use a Socratic seminar rubric that clearly lays out the components of analytical thinking so the students know exactly what to look for. And by evaluating their peers with the same rubric the teacher uses, students gain a better understanding of the criteria for strong critical thinking and discussion.
10. Step back.
It can be hard for a teacher to let go of the reins and let the students do the teaching. «But when you remove yourself from the equation,» McNulty explains, «that really forces the kids to step up.» And when you give students the responsibility to be the thinkers in the class and drive the content, they may take it in unexpected directions that are more relevant to them and are thus more likely to stick.
Have you ever thought about how silly we teachers can be? When we get in front of students, we present ourselves to be the ones with all the answers, and then after we talk to the students, we start asking questions as if we don’t know anything we just talked about. No wonder students get confused!
The Goal of a Question
On a more serious note, as teachers, we need to come to grips with the fact that we really do not know everything, and there is no reason to assume that the students know nothing. But perhaps the most important question to ask is, «What does a teacher asking questions of a class expect the class to learn from the questioning process?»
There are a number of things to consider in this scenario. Some teachers might answer that the reason to ask questions is to check for understanding, which benefits the teacher more than the student. Ostensibly, after we have taught a principle or concept, we could ask, «Does everybody understand?» Even though we all realize that students not answering — or even answering in the affirmative — may not really understand, we still ask it. Are we aware of how many times we ask this useless question during a day of teaching?
What we really end up telling the students when we ask this sort of question is, «Ok, here is your last chance. If you don’t ask any questions, then you understand completely, and I am free to go on to the next subject. Because I asked this fair question, and gave you a fair chance to answer, I am absolved from any lack of understanding on your part.»
The fallacy with this thinking is that sometimes the students do not understand that they do not understand, and if they do not know what they do not know, there is no way that they can ask a question about it.
The other element about this question is that it is a yes-or-no question, and we all know it’s all too easy to guess what answer the teacher wants to hear, and does not push the students into the higher-order-thinking stratosphere.
How do we then go about appropriately checking for understanding?
We ask specific questions! Great, you may be saying, but how do we do that?
Typically, these are the questions that are thrown out to the class as if they were tantalizing treats to be snatched up by all of the eager students. The reality is far different.
If we look at the dynamics of any classroom, it doesn’t take more than a week for students to figure out who is smart, who is not, and who doesn’t care. What is worse, studies show that after fourth grade, students know how they are perceived and play their roles accordingly. So, here comes one of those hook-laden questions bobbing about the classroom: «Class, if you could stretch string from here to the moon, how many balls of string would it take?»
The students who know they are not smart are not going to take the bait, and neither will the students who do not care. This leaves the smart kids as the only ones interested in answering, and almost before the question is finished, they have their hands up with an answer, right or wrong. The other two groups of kids are perfectly fine with this routine. Most likely, they will complacently say to themselves, «Let them answer the questions so I don’t have to.»
A teacher may defend this practice because the motivated student who answers will help the whole class to learn the answer. That might be true if the whole class were listening, but, when the teacher starts pacing the room and stops to ask a question, if the students know that the question will be open to the entire class, then most likely two-thirds of the class will not even pay it any attention and continue doodling or daydreaming.
I spent the day as a first grader, a third grader, a fifth grader, a sixth grader, and a ninth grader. I followed these students to all their classes. One astounding thing that I discovered is that some students went through a whole day — maybe even weeks and months — and never answered a single verbal question!
Once again, I ask, do we realize how many general questions we throw to the air in the course of a class period? We would be astounded at the results if we simply assigned a student to tally how many of these questions we actually ask each class period. Old habits are hard to break, but the students would love to help you break this one.
Let’s say we notice this problem and decide something has to change. «Jeffry, What do John the Baptist and Kermit the Frog have in common?» Several hands slowly recede and all eyes are on Jeffry. Well, some eyes are on Jeffry. The rest of the students just breathed sighs of relief that their names were not called. The question asked is not their problem, and neither is the answer.
Some teachers may say that while Jeffry is thinking of the answer, the rest of the students are, too. Wouldn’t that be nice? Once again, maybe one-third of the students are thinking about an answer, but the rest are just glad it wasn’t them.
So, how do teachers ask a question the right way?
A Simple, Effective Approach
Most of us have been exposed to the questioning strategies researched byMary Budd Rowe. She proposed that teachers simply ask a question, such as «What do you call it when an insect kills itself?» pause for at least three seconds, and then say a student’s name: «Sally.» By doing this, all the students will automatically be thinking about an answer and only after another child’s name is said will they sigh in relief because they were not chosen.
Creative teachers accompany this technique with a system to make sure that every child gets to answer questions in a random fashion. If it is not random, then once they answer a question, they think they have answered their one question and are done for the day. I did some online research on questioning and found these questioning and discussion resources from UMDMJ useful.
So, if we are not planning to use total physical response (TPR) to have all the students answer questions at the same time, then at least we should be asking a question, pausing for three seconds and then saying a student’s name in order to get the most effect out of questions. However, if we are satisfied with only some students paying attention and learning in our classrooms, then we can continue as usual.
What innovative strategies do you use to make sure every student gets a chance to ask and answer questions?
We’ve all heard of the fight or flight response. We go into survival mode when threatened by something or someone. We either put up our dukes (literally or metaphorically) or take off running (literally or metaphorically). Students often go into survival mode when they feel threatened by an overwhelming cognitive task or confusing text, or when they are called on and don’t know the answer, or are confronted or teased by another student (or a teacher!) Can one even learn in such a setting?
It’s a question that deserves our full consideration.
As teachers, we also know that when students’ affective filters or defenses are sky high, fight or flight responses will be modus operandi. A room full of defensive behaviors (withdrawn, angry) is a sad, unproductive place to teach and learn.
Now let’s flip it and take a look at how much more we are able to learn when we are in harmony with the people and things in any given educational environment. Being in harmony means feeling safe, feeling valued and a necessary part a group, and in this case, a learning community.
Hearts and Minds in Sync
What does research show to be the opposite of the brain’s fight or flight response? It shows that when we don’t feel threatened at all, we have a willingness to be vulnerable, to be open to new ideas and guidance from others — the ideal learning scenario!
Co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute Dr. David Rock says this:
«Engagement is a state of being willing to do difficult things, to take risks, to think deeply about issues and develop new solutions. …Interest, happiness, joy, and desire are approach emotions. This state is one of increased dopamine levels, important for interest and learning.»
Unfortunately, the hyper focus on standardized testing has gravitated many public schools so very far away from whole-child teaching and learning. Less time is spent on social-emotional, behavioral activities that help create and sustain an inviting and engaging classroom environment. And we know that to engage students in deeper learning — those times we really stretch their thinking — there is a certain vulnerability they must surrender to. It’s a magical mix of willingness and curiosity. So how do we get them there?
Let’s go back to Dr. David Rock:
«There is a large and growing body of research which indicates that people experiencing positive emotions perceive more options when trying to solve problems, solve more non-linear problems that require insight, [and they] collaborate better and generally perform better overall.»
In the Classroom
Of course this is great news from the research of Dr. Rock and others. So before challenging students with those high-level cognitive demands such as problem-solving, we need to cultivate a safe and harmonious learning environment that invites vulnerability and genuine inquiry. Here are a few essentials for doing that:
Essential #1: Be Sure to Community Build All Year Long. Routinely include strategies and activities in your lessons, such as Save the Last Word for Me, that allow students to express who they are, their thoughts and ideas, build relationships, and practice collaboration. This will help grow and maintain a feeling of emotional and intellectual safety in your classroom.
Essential #2: Design Group Guidelines Together. We have all felt fear (or some anxiety) when working in a group: Will they like me? Will my contributions be valued? It’s important students have a say when creating the guidelines so they feel connected to and ownership of them. They will also be more on board with adhering to them. «One Speaker at a Time,» «Respect all Ideas,» «Listen With Your Whole Body» are valuable norms when students collaborate. Make suggestions but let them decide on wording for the norms.
Essential #3: Have Non-Negotiables. Along with classroom rules and procedures, students must know non-negotiables right out the gate. My biggest non-negotiable: name-calling. This resulted in an immediate consequence (a call to the Dean and/or removal from the classroom that day). We have to tackle such things as name-calling and teasing head on or else kids won’t feel safe to be themselves, let alone learn.
Essential #4: Post Student Work Everywhere. This one is simple and easy. When displays of essays, poems, projects, and exams dominate the walls, there is a sense of belonging for the students in the room. When they look around and see their own writing and thinking, they certainly experience a higher level of comfort than if they see store-bought posters. That said, if informational posters are needed, ask your students to create them.
Now we’d love to hear from you! How have you developed your classroom to be an inviting, safe, and productive place to learn? Please share in the comment section below.
Learning is all about asking questions and finding answers to them. An inquisitive mind is one that goes beyond the status quo and probes deep below surface meanings. To foster such kind of thinking inside our classroom requires some hard work and a serious investment in time and efforts. We, as teachers and educators, need to prepare the right environment where inquisitive minds can nourish and grow. We need to water this environment with a culture of asking questions.