Friday, January 25, 2019

Getting Critical About Critical Thinking

This week’s article summary is Getting Critical About Critical Thinking.

Most of us would agree that one of the primary goals of education is to develop critical-thinking skills and habits in our students.

This article provides a succinct definition of critical thinking, using words like ‘original thought’ and ‘struggling to solve.’

It also provides a number of ways to foster and stimulate critical thinking in the classroom.

What I noticed is that so many of the author’s recommendations are utilized daily at Trinity, e.g., project-based learning, metacognition, interdisciplinary activities, student reflection, open inquiry.

Especially as schools in our Information/Technology Age continue to move towards empowering students as learners, thinkers, and creators, even Trinity, as an elementary school, needs to provide ample opportunities for our students—from Early Learners through Sixth Grade—to be critical and creative thinkers who don’t only consume content but create it as well!


Critical thinking has become education’s bull’s-eye.

We’re tasked with ensuring that students develop critical-thinking skills and then continue to improve their ability to use them.

We’re definitely heading in a good direction. Our educational system was developed in the shadow of the industrial era, when the factory model prevailed. So when we say that we must now differentiate, individuate, and, yes, teach critical thinking, it’s to help move away from the rote strategies used in the standardization era.

The need to teach critical thinking is everywhere these days, yet it’s clear definition is still lacking,

I define critical thinking through visualization: I picture the brain triggered by a thought that causes it to shoot signals from one area to another, forming pathways between neurons. Critical thinking is when the brain is active, making connections to the material and applying original thought to the concept. It’s the difference between struggling to remember and struggling to solve.

Googling "Effects of World War I on Europe" is not critical thinking. Outlining a science chapter is not critical thinking. These both have a purpose, but critical thinking they are not. My definition is not perfect, but it indicates what critical thinking is not.

The fact is that while all kids think, not all activities trigger critical thinking. We want to use targeted approaches and strategies to cause those brains to sweat:

Adopt a PBL philosophy. Project-based learning differs from mere projects because it triggers more critical thinking. Rather than write a report on a state, why not found the 51st state? Rather than read about the effects of nutrients in soil, why not grow a garden and see those effects in action? Check out these resources for getting started with project-based learning.

Explore the world in a subject-area scavenger hunt. Ask students to find examples of your content in the world outside of school. Ask them to bring in those examples and teach others how they apply to the current topic of study.

Utilize habits of mind. Asking students to think critically is not enough; we have to teach them how. Guide your students in visualizations, help them make connections, and teach them about persistence and taking risks in order to solve difficult challenges. Find suggestions for doing this in “Integrating the 16 Habits of Mind.”

Require reflection. The KWL (Know, Want to Know, Learned) chart is a good start, but add an H for “How” to it, making a KWLH chart. Ask students how they learned something. Teach your students to recognize their own “eureka!” moments. Present them with metacognitive questions so they can routinely explore what they think about their thinking and how they got there.

Teach students to question. Push students to develop questions beyond those that can be answered through a Google search. Help them develop questions that guide their research, that challenge with evidence, and that indicate their own understanding. Consider having them use question stems developed around the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Getting Feedback Right

This week’s article summary is Getting Feedback Right, and it’s an interview with feedback guru John Hattie.

For me, the article provided a few provocative nuggets.

First, while being able to provide effective feedback is key, just as important is the ability to receive and use it. Yet unfortunately most of us—including students—struggle receiving constructive feedback. One reason for this is the misuse of praise. While praising can strengthen the relationship between teacher and student, it often gets in the way of receiving and doing something with feedback. As Hattie explains, both children and adults hear the praise (a compliment) more than the constructive feedback (too often viewed as criticism).

I was also surprised at how much teacher-talk dominates classrooms. Nearly 90%! Hattie suggests that all teachers commit and practice to listening more and talking less.

Finally, I liked his two basic questions for effective feedback:
  • Does it help a student understand what they know and don’t know?
  • Does it help the student know what to concretely do next to get better?



John Hattie has spent his career trying to pick through the "big ideas" in education to find what has the greatest effect on student learning. But it took him a decade to realize he was looking at one crucial aspect of learning all wrong.

"I used to think giving more feedback and better feedback was the answer to improving education, and it's the exact opposite: How do teachers and students receive feedback? How do they interpret it?"

In his newest book, Visible Learning: Feedback, Hattie digs into how the culture of both the classroom and its students can affect how feedback works, and what research suggests teachers can do to create a culture in which adults and students encourage each other to keep learning

What do people most often misunderstand about feedback?

There's very little research on how students progress; there's a lot more research on how teachers think students should progress. We asked 1,000-plus teachers what they meant by feedback, and it was very much focused on answering, 'How am I doing? Where am I going?' We asked many thousands of students what they meant and it was simple: 'Help me know what to do now.'

One of the ironies is that students who are above the average are less likely to ask for the 'what now?' feedback because they can usually work it out on their own. The kids who are below average really want that dialogue, want the information—and they're the least likely to get it. They get 'correct, incorrect, you could improve here'—checks and crosses that give them no information.

When teachers spend hours and hours writing comments, if there's no feedback providing concrete steps for the students to improve, students will argue themselves blue in the face that they never received anything. The key questions are Does feedback help someone understand what they don't know? What they do know? and Where they go?
Are there differences in how students absorb feedback at different ages?

There are changes over time. Up to around age 10, there's a lot of compliance behavior. Kids think coming to school means, 'Sit up straight, do your work, and watch the teacher work.' They want personalization. We know, for example, when teachers give feedback to the whole class, every kid knows it's not about them and they tune out.

By 12, there's a lot more peer involvement and therefore kids welcome feedback much more if it's done privately than they do if it's done publicly. And all of us, regardless of age, welcome praise.

There's been some debate about the role of praise in teaching students. What do you think?

Teachers, being nice people, have a lot of praise for kids who struggle. The problem with praise is that it has zero-to-negative impact on improving the task or the work. That isn't to say you shouldn't praise kids, because that's the essence of a lot of relationships. But you should separate it, so when you are talking about the work, you should be talking about the work, not the person. If I tell you, 'Here are things you should change to improve,' and then I tell you how good you were, the next day, what do you remember? You'd remember the praise; that dominates.

Praise does make a difference to relationships, and obviously building relationships is critical. But I remind people that the reason to build a relationship is so that you can talk about the errors.

Can you think of one clear, low-hanging fruit to help teachers improve their instruction and feedback in the classroom?

In a study of about 12,000 classrooms in the United Kingdom, we found on average teachers talked about 89 percent of the time; that's not a lot of listening. What we want teachers to do is to interview students about, 'What don't you understand about what I said when I made these comments?'—so we start to focus on how the teacher's comments are being received. I do think the power of teaching is in the art of listening.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Orchids and Dandelions

This week’s article summary is Orchids and Dandelions.

As I’ve mentioned in article summaries on brain science, humans like to put things in categories as categorization more easily allows for storage in long-term memory.

The article categorizes people into dandelions and orchids.

Dandelions are those who rebound easily from misfortune while orchids are those who are dramatically affected by their environment.

The article also introduced me to two new terms: the Apgar Test and epigenetics.

The Apgar Test is assessed on newborns in five areas: appearance, pulse, grimace, activity, respiration.

Epigenetics is the science of how environment influences the implementation of our genes; in other words, how nurture (our surroundings) influences nature (our genetic make-up).

As you’ll see in the article, while genes are important, they aren’t necessarily our destiny—the environment we live in greatly influences us and the implementation of our genes. And while 80% of us are dandelions who can often rise above an adverse environment, the 20% of us who are orchids need a very supportive and safe environment to grow, thrive, and flourish.

As an educator and a parent, I read the article thinking a lot about my students who were most likely orchids and the importance of creating a positive environment for them.


Many children are able to thrive in any environment, while others may flourish only under the most favorable conditions.

Early experiences with psychological trauma and adversity create obstacles to normal development and impair mental and physical health, but there’s variation in how children respond: While some are powerfully affected by trauma, others are able to effectively weather adverse experiences, sustaining few, if any, developmental or health consequences.

The two types are:
  • Dandelion children: About 80 percent of kids show a kind of biological indifference to experiences of adversity with stress response circuits in their brains that are minimally reactive to such events. Like dandelions that thrive in almost any environment, such children are mostly unperturbed by the stressors and traumas they confront.
  • Orchid children: About 20 percent show an exceptional susceptibility to both negative and positive social contexts with stress response circuits highly sensitive to adverse events. Like orchids, which require very particular, supportive environments to thrive, these children show an exceptional capacity for succeeding in nurturant, supportive circumstances, but sustain a disproportionate number of illnesses and problems when raised in stressful, adverse social conditions.

Why did orchid children survive over the course of human evolution? Early hominids may have benefited from having a few individuals in their midst who were super-sensitive to impending attacks by animals or hostile rivals.

Being an orchid might also be of great benefit to those living at the other extreme in environments of exceptional safety, protection, and abundance. Here, the propensity of orchid children to be open and porous to environmental events and exposures would garner even greater advantages. Most children would thrive in such settings; orchids would thrive spectacularly.

Recognizing this differential susceptibility is an essential key to understanding the experiences of individual children, to parenting children of differing sensitivities and temperaments effectively, and to fostering the healthy, adaptive capacity of all young people.

In a telling experiment, researchers measured the correlation between newborn babies’ Apgar scores in the first five minutes of life and teachers’ observations of the same children in kindergarten. On average, children with lower Apgar scores were less compliant with rules and instructions as five-year-olds and had more difficulty sitting still and focusing, less interest in books and reading, and more difficulty grasping and using a pencil. At each lower step on the Apgar scale such physical, social, emotional, language, and communication domains of development were all significantly more compromised five years later.

But it’s not all about genes, researchers have found; genetic characteristics create children’s dispositions, but don’t necessarily determine the outcomes. Children born with orchid-like genes who are raised in different environments – for example, those placed in cruel, negligent orphanages versus those welcomed into nurturing foster homes – had strikingly different outcomes: the latter recovered remarkably well from a bad start in terms of development and mental health. What’s at work here is epigenetics – the new science of how the environment influences the expression of genes.

There’s an adage among pediatricians that all parents are environmental determinists until they have their own children, at which point they switch to believing that it’s all about genes. Watching a child throwing a tantrum at the next table in a restaurant, a pre-child couple says it’s clearly the parents’ fault for not raising their child properly. But when the same couple is dealing with its own out-of-control child in a public place, we hope that those around us understand that we’ve done our best, but the child came into the world with this temperament. It’s far more comforting to ascribe the behavior of our own noisy or troubling toddler to genes, for which we have only passive responsibility, than to our capacities as parents, for which we are more directly accountable.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle: it’s not either/or but rather both/and. Every human disposition and disorder of mental or physical health depends on an intricate interaction between internal and external causes to take root and advance. The key to understanding human differences will involve a keener knowledge of how genetic difference and environmental variation work together to change biological processes. This approach to ‘unpuzzling’ human nature and wellness brings us closer to understanding what makes orchids and dandelions bloom, wither, or move between these states over the course of a changing life.

You can think of human life as the song that issues from the epigenetic piano and its equalizer, the result of a complex compositional process shaped by both genes and environments. Each person is predisposed to play certain types of scores, like those of the orchid or the dandelion, but there is abundant space for unique variation and improvisation.