Classroom Strategies

Some Research

Putting critical thinking into effect in my classroom will require a shift in my teaching practice.  According to a session with Gini-Newman, there is a distinct difference between the traditional classroom and the critical thing environment.  Where the traditional classroom is designed around a system of the teacher teaching the answers and students trying to remember what was taught, the critical thinking classroom demands that students figure out a reasonable answer as teachers help them develop the tools to do this successfully.  This thought is echoed in the book, Education for Judgement: The Artisty of Discussion Leadership, edited by C. Roland Christensen, David A. Garvin, and Ann Sweet from Harvard Business School by drawing a comparison between convention pedagogy where “teaching is telling, knowledge is facts, and learning is recall” as opposed to a pedagogy of discussion teaching where “teaching is enabling, knowledge is understanding, and learning is the active construction of subject matter” (xii).  The book also describes that teaching is fundamentally about creating pedagogical, social and ethical frameworks where students are able to take charge of their own learning, both individually and collaboratively (xvi).  This resonates deeply with what Debbie Silver had to say.  Even the notion of the classroom’s organization is discussed in the book; classrooms must be set up to allow for student discussions and interactions (6).

The notion of teaching through discussions, as Education for Judgment advocates, is supported by Jim Knight in his book, Unmistakable Impact, as he quotes Freire: “Only dialogue . . . is . . . capable of generating critical thinking (41).  It is through talking with one another that we come to more profound understandings of a text, of society, of life.  The notion of teaching through dialogue also requires the creation of a community, of collaboration, which, again, is one of the Gini-Newman identified as necessary to critical thinking. These discussions are significantly more useful when we converse with people who disagree with our perspective (42).  When we only have people who agree with us, we are never pushed to deepen and defend our thoughts.  Kinght also says that “dialogue is the thinking approach to communication.  In the best situation, our ideas flow back and forth so freely that we start to think together–we reach a point where we lose sight of whose ideas are whose.  Such conversation is energizing, humanizing . . . (42).  If collaboration and discussion is so vital, and when it is happening at its best we lose sight of whose ideas are whose, I am forced to question whether or not assessment practices that do not allow for discussion of new texts and measure the growth of the conversation by individuals rather than the individuals separately are really a fair at all.

Critical thinking stems from situations that require a decision to be made based upon criteria.  One important way to create these situations is the ask questions.  Teachers have known this for a long time, hence the format of the tests we give, but rarely are we asking questions that require critical thinking based on criteria. Gini-Newman said during a PD session that our questions must require thinking and making a decision.  He even suggests that teachers develop transcendent questions that become the driving force behind a unit plan.  The transcendent question should be one that is beyond the curriculum itself and actually applies to the lives and/or society of the students.  This will lead to engagement as students use the curricular knowledge to answer a question that is relevant to them.  Others have taken this notion of questioning further, encouraging teachers to have the students ask the questions as a means of engagement (Karen Hume in her book, Tuned Out 227).  Hume argues that “putting students in this active role is particularly engaging for adolescent learners because it gives them choice and control over their learning” (227).  Once again this is supported by the work of Debbie Silver.

Charles C. Jett’s blog on Field Studies shows the importance of authentic learning opportunities for kids to develop critical skills.  Jett’s critical skills include more than just critical thinking; however, this seems to be developing as the norm–Critical thinking does not stand alone.  The field studies are as authentic as a learning task comes, requiring students to do real work for real businesses.  While I have not been able to achieve this level of authenticity yet, I am more conscious about trying to build assessment tasks and evaluations that represent authentic tasks and evaluations.

One final thought on the critical thinking challenges that I will incorporate into my classroom this year comes from Gini-Newman.  Gini-Newman presents 6 critical thinking forms to use with students to require them to think critically:

  1. Critique the Piece
  2. Judge the Better or Best
  3. Rework the Piece
  4. Decode the Puzzle
  5. Design to Specs
  6. Perform to Specs

My Approach This Year

Based upon this research, my classroom this year will seek to create an environment of

  • questions,
  • discussions,
  • critical thinking forms
  • authentic learning opportunities
  • autonomy,
  • community, and
  • creativity

Some Examples from This Term

We began the course by viewing a lecture (the first one) from Harvard professor, Michael Sandel. Using, students were able to voice their opinion on the ethical questions Sandel asked.  Then we discussed their perspectives and they were forced to confront opposing views and defend their position with support and criteria.  This was carried forward to the study of a short story offering a similar ethical dilemma; students were asked to consider the basis for and impact of an individual’s choices from the character’s actions, then to apply the same basis and impact to their own personal context.  This forced students to focus on the criteria for decisions as they decoded the choices of the characters and themselves.

Through both of these texts (and most of our units), students were considering their initial thoughts and reactions by writing in their “thought journals.”  The thought journals are a place for students to explore ideas and deepen them without being penalized by initial thoughts.  The process is ongoing through a unit and ideas deepen and grow as they learn more and discuss the ideas with the class.  Ideas are added and crossed out, enhanced and become more thoughtful.  It is the process and final ideas that are assessed after the time for critical thinking and collaboration has occurred   The thought journals are assessed by two criteria:  Thoughtfulness of ideas and quality of support (from text and conversations).  This process requires students to question their initial ideas and use the assessment criteria to determine whether their thoughts can be more insightful and their support more precise.

Students have also completed numerous projects that cater to their autonomy and right to choose.  These projects have ranged from novel studies to opinion pieces to showing learning about topics of their choice.  The projects have involved collaboration, creativity, autonomy, critical thinking forms, and authentic learning opportunities.  Reflections on the projects were also created where students considered what could be improved and then took the steps to make those improvements–critically thinking about their own work and processes.

One specific authentic task asked students to read a short story, then, taking on the role of a music director for a film, make a recommendation to the film director about which of two  songs would make the better theme song for the short story that is being turned into a film.  The task required students to decode the short story in-depth as well as both song lyrics and the songs themselves.  They needed to form criteria to judge which song better represented the short story.  They needed to make a choice.  They needed to discuss their thoughts with others in order to ensure they had considered every angle.  They needed to write a a well-conceived proposal to the film director explaining their choice and why it was the better choice.

Critical thinking strategies have also been incorporated into the course for learning grammar and punctuation.  When learning to improve comma and semicolon usage, students were required to think critically and form criteria to determine if a comma was correctly placed.  They worked creatively and collaboratively to increase engagement in the tasks and improve and defend their choices.



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