Friday, January 31, 2020

Teaching Critical Thinking Skills

This week’s article summary is Teaching Critical Thinking Skills.

As we settle into the second half of the school year, this article is a reminder of one of the macro goals of education: empowering our students to be critical and creative thinkers who create, not just consume, content.

As the book Range explains, the majority of questions teachers ask students fall into two categories: using-procedure questions (that require more concrete, yes/no  thinking) and making-connections questions (that ask for deeper thought and analysis).

As the book’s author explains, even when teachers ask making-connections questions intended to stimulate deeper learning and critical and/or creative thinking, we often  provide our students with so many hints and guidance (even from our facial expressions and body language) that deep questions end up requiring only using-procedural answers.

When I think of essay questions on tests I used to give my 8th graders, we had discussed ideas and concepts so much in previous classes that while I thought I was asking them to think deeply, they were in fact basically repeating what was discussed in class.

The article below reminds us to be ever conscious of the type of questions we ask and how we ask them, specifically ones that begin with How or Why. Try to keep these questions open ended, give ample thinking time, and rather than summarizing a child’s answer (as I still often do), let the child further explain him/herself, the more nuanced the better.

The author also encourages us to ask our students to ponder solutions to bigger problem that defy easy solutions. While we don’t expect our students to solve world hunger or permanent world peace having discussions about big issues gives students practice with deeper thought, problem solving, and the ultimate grayness and ambiguity of the real world.

Enjoy the weekend and the international big event on Sunday. Yes, there’s a football game but I can’t wait to hear if Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow!


If we want our children to have flexible minds that can readily absorb new information and respond to complex problems, we need to develop their critical thinking skills.

We can encourage kids to think critically from an early age— by asking questions.

1. Go beyond “what?” — and ask “how?” and “why?”: When learning about climate change in school, teachers may ask a question like “What are main causes of climate change?” The problem with this question is it can be answered with a quick web search, and being able to answer it gives students a false of security, making them feel like they know a topic when in fact their knowledge is superficial. Try to ask deeper questions like “How exactly does X cause climate change?” and “Why should we worry about it?” Students will need to go beyond the bare facts and really think about a subject. Other great questions: “How will climate change affect where we live?” or “Why should our town in particular worry about climate change?”

2. Follow it up with “How do you know this?”: Students have to provide some sort of evidence and be able to defend their answer against some logical attack. Answering this question requires kids to reflect on their previous statements and assess where they’re getting their information from.

3. Prompt them to think about how their perspective may differ from other people’s: Ask a question like “How will climate change affect people living in X country or X city?” or “Why should people living in X country or X city worry about it?” Kids will be pushed to think about the priorities and concerns of others, and to try to understand their perspectives — essential elements of creative problem-solving.

4. Finally, ask them how to solve this problem: But be sure to focus the question. For example, rather than ask “How can we solve climate change?” — which is too big for anyone to wrap their mind around — ask “How could we address and solve cause X of climate change?” Answering this question will require kids to synthesize their knowledge. Nudge them to come up with a variety of approaches: What scientific solution could address cause X? What’s a financial solution? Political solution?

You can use these questions with most topics. This is about teaching them to think for themselves. 

Your role is to direct their questions and listen critically.

Critical thinking isn’t just for the young, of course. If you’re a lifelong learner, ask yourself these types of questions in order to test your assumptions about what you think you already know. We can all improve and support critical thinking by asking a few extra questions each day.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Fostering Deeper Learning

When I arrived at college as a naive freshman, I had no idea what I would major in.

But in the first course I attended on the first day of classes, I knew history was for me. It was a basic survey of American history, but Professor Athey was dynamic (engaging, provocative, humorous), used the contents of the generic and unimaginative textbook as a springboard for complex questions that fostered robust class discussions and a multitude of perspectives, and connected the past to the present, making the content of his course relatable and meaningful to egocentric eighteen year olds.

While I had always been curious about human nature (why people individually and collectively act the way they do) and cause and effect (how one event influences others), I needed an inspiring mentor to focus me academically. He became my academic advisor and supported me when I asked to create my own course of study, using novels as historical documents.

I often wonder if I would have been a history major and then chosen teaching as a career if I hadn’t been assigned to his class as a freshman.

The point of the article below is that we as teachers have the exciting opportunity and daunting responsibility to help our students find their passion in school and develop self-confidence.

This is particularly evident in the grades Trinity serves: foremost, we ensure our students develop a strong foundation of content knowledge in core academic subjects and specials; yet equally important we also excite our students through the passion and commitment we demonstrate every day. I always challenge myself to be uber positive and optimistic in all my discussions at school with kids and with adults.

I like the author’s term ‘apprenticeship’ as in so many ways it describes what we do at Trinity: give our students opportunities to sample performing and visual arts, science and technology, a non-native language, physical education, etc., hoping that at some point they will have the same epiphany I had when taking that history class as a freshman!



Deeper learning consists of three interrelated conditions:
  • Mastery--when students fathom a subject
  • Identity--when they connect the knowledge of the subject to their own sense of self
  • Creativity-when they can apply that understanding to another endeavor, i.e., the next layer of learning.
The best teachers see themselves not as only purveyors of information but as champions of the subject; their purpose is to initiate students into the field. They dive deeply into a few domains rather than skim the surface of many. They consider failure a feature of learning rather than a shameful mistake. And they expect their students to build something from what they learn, not simply to behave like passive recipients of another’s wisdom.
Much of the richest learning occurs outside the conventional classroom, during electives, clubs and extracurricular activities like drama, music, and sports. In these places, students are free to explore what interests them and to do what it is they’re learning; the activities are a form of apprenticeship for students. And often, those doing the teaching or coaching are steeped in the subject themselves, and thus better able to model what they’re trying to convey.
Here are some ways teachers can apply some of these principles to their classrooms and hallways
Slow down. Slow down as much as possible to get a richer, deeper, slower inquiry. Consider what you’re trying to teach—the skills of historical inquiry, say—and address those skills in the context of the student’s question. Though deviating from the day’s plan, this approach can accomplish the same goals while addressing kids’ curiosity.
Yoke assignments to the real world. Students feel more connected to their work when it touches on their interests and life outside the classroom.
Think open-ended. Teachers who approach their subjects as on-going endeavors that are full of mysteries inspire student learning. Viewing the subject as dead and done, on the other hand—here are the causes of the French Revolution, these are the lessons of A Separate Peace—can stultify curiosity. Better to adopt a stance that welcomes new interpretations and views students as possible contributors to the field—or apprentices who are beginning to develop something under the supervision of their teacher and with input from peers.
Offer choice and agency. Students are free to choose their extracurricular activities, and this choice is motivating and reinforcing. Unlike required classes, where student interest is irrelevant, a club or sport that teenagers select out of curiosity builds a community of like-minded kids where each feels accountable to the others. To mimic what works in these looser extracurricular settings, those who teach required classes might add as much choice as possible to their course work. A chemistry teacher intent on teaching the scientific method, for instance, might allow students to choose the content of their experiment. In English, the teacher could invite students to select some of the books they’re analyzing. The more agency students have over their learning, the more apt they are to engage deeply in the content.
Ask yourself, “what will my students need in life?” As teachers gain experience, they see more clearly what students need to succeed every day. Usually, this boils down to three abilities: to write, communicate, and think critically. Regardless of the subject, these top teachers oriented their instruction around these skills.
Think about times when the learning was deepest and do more of it. Reflect on what worked best in one setting and apply it to others.