Two Birds, One Stone: Critical Thinking and Collaboration Activity

Is my blog post title impolitically correct?  I reside in Redneck, Alberta where killing birds is pretty common-place.  You’ll live (Even if the birds don’t!)

I went “old school” today, which is odd for me, as anyone who knows me knows.  I used to push tech; now I’m open to students preferences. But today I forced pen to paper in order to make my point about the need for critical thinking and collaboration in our “learning community.”

I’ve taken to calling my ELA 10 class a community.  The students laugh at me but are slowly beginning to mimic me, even if it’s facetious for now.  I want students to believe that a community of learners will benefit them so much more than a class of students.  My goal for the class from the start of the term has been to build their critical thinking skills (see here), and now I want them to begin on collaboration as a critical thinking strategy.

My lesson today was designed around having students believe that collaborating together can actually benefit them by aiding them in their critical thinking.  For a bit more background into the current assignment, see this post and the end of this post.  Essentially, I want to move away from “essay” writing and replace it with more authentic “proposal” writing.  There are some major similarities, but there are also many significant differences. In order to do this, I am using a real life proposal straight from the desk of President Obama a mere 3 months ago.  The proposal deals with reducing gun violence in order to keep kids and communities safer.  The stated context of the proposal was the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting this past December.  My students watched a powerful 15 minute news video produced by ABC to gain the needed context.  We discussed the tragic event, vented our outrage, and they brainstormed a list of 6 proposals individuals or groups might make in light of this event.

Today’s lesson introduced them to the proposal from Obama.  All we focused on for 80 minutes was the ~250 word introduction that contained a fantastic title, 3 paragraphs, a numbered list (the ideas), and a clear statement of purpose (the thesis).  I read the intro to them complete with appropriate emphasis and emotion (stopping to add some humour to the class with a photo to “explain” the 2nd Amendment of the American Constitution (We are Canadian, so it’s not common knowledge):

Bear Arms

Then the real learning began.  I slowly and carefully explained (and reexplained then drew a picture to visualize the explanation) what I wanted students to do:

  • Take out 2 blank, lined sheets of paper (What if I use a notebook?  Then tear one out and leave the other in.  Can I use my iPad?  No, this needs to be paper today. Can it have other stuff on it?  No, blank sheets, please.)
  • Today you will be completing a critical thinking activity and should come to understand that asking questions is encouraged rather than criticized.  Hence, I don’t mind your questions at all . . . but they should be thoughtful questions!
  • When I tell you to, you will skim back through the introduction.  As you skim through, think of two questions you would want to ask The President if he was here right now.  Keep in mind these questions should make you sound smart and thoughtful rather than, you know . . . (. . . like we actually are Mr. Groff?  No, no.  You are all smart and thoughtful and you’ll prove it today.)
  • You will write down your two questions on both sheets of paper, at the top, nicely, not all huge and stupid like, like the grade 11’s insist on constantly doing.  (laugh laugh laugh) [but they all got it right].
  • Again, once you have your two questions, you’ll put them both on both sheets of paper. (So both my questions go on both sheets?  Or question one on one sheet and question two on the other?  Both on both.)
  • Here, let me show you.

2 paper example

  • Okay.  Do that now.  [It took a while.  I warned them to keep their work covered and private because if their neighbour has the same questions as them their lives will soon get very difficult.  Students struggled to think critically and come up with two thoughtful/insightful questions to ask The President.  BUT they refused help.  They understood the task and insisted that I do NOT offer them a suggestion.  [Of course, I wandered the room looking over shoulders.] After most had their questions down, on both sheets, I let them get a drink and relax while the others finished.]
  • Now, listen carefully.  When I say “go” I want you to pass ONE of your sheets to the person on your left. [They are in a semi-circle, all community-like.] (Which way is left? That way [picture me pointing left].  Which sheet?  I don’t care, choose one.  Maybe the neatest one. If you have one in your notebook, pass it and keep the loose page.  But then people will look through my notebook.  I want to pass the other one. No you don’t.  Trust me.  And they won’t have time to look through your notebook.  Do I need to put my name on it?  No, you don’t.  What?  Just trust me.
  • When I say “go” I want you to pass one sheet to the left, the neatest, or the one in your notebook.  Left.  That way. [picture me pointing left . . . again.]
  • Then, read the two questions on the page you get.  So Jimmy is going to get up and take his paper across the gap in our circle (I have to get up?  Fine, I’ll take your sheet over) and he’ll get a sheet from Sarah.  Jimmy is going to read Sarah’s two questions.  Then he’s going to reread his own two questions–the ones on the extra sheet of paper he kept (Oh, that’s why we wrote it out twice.  Yes.  Wow! You really thought of everything.  Yes. Yes, I did.)  Then he’s going to determine whether Sarah’s questions are different than his, or the same.  If they are different, he’s going to write his two questions out on Sarah’s paper.  He’s. Going. To. Write. HIS. Questions. On. HER. Paper.  IF, they are different.  (What if they are the same?  [Ignore and continue]) If Sarah has one, or both questions the same as Jimmy’s then Jimmy gets to think up one or two more questions to add to Sarah’s sheet. (Oh, no.  It took me forever to think up the first two.  This is why I told you not to copy your neighbour’s questions.  I didn’t.  Then likely you’ll be okay.)  When you’re done, do nothing.  Sit back and relax.
  • Ready? (Yes) Any more questions? (No)  Gopher! [students begin to pass papers until some laugh and chide their friends because I didn’t actually say “Go.”  [They get their papers back] Goal! [same] Goat! [groans and no movement] Go!!! [And they do.]
  • [Sit back and watch the work happen.  Critical thinking and collaboration everywhere.  First they thought critically about the introduction of the proposal, getting to know it better without realizing it. [Not the real point at all.  I couldn’t care less how well they understand this text–but understanding will happen regardless]  Then, they are considering whether or not their neighbour’s questions are the same as theirs. (Mr. Groff, I think this question is the same, but one of the words is different.  Let’s take a look, but I bet you’ll be writing a new question.  Oh, nope, okay.  The word that is different actually changes the meaning of the question.  “Reduce” and “Eliminate” are not the same.) [A couple more close calls happen but in every circumstance the questions are slightly different in their meaning.  Stop the class and mention that they are now understanding the importance of word choices.  It is critical that you use the best word to get your message across accurately.  [unintended learning] Write a draft, then go back and rethink your word choices.  You often won’t be there to explain that you meant one thing but mistakenly wrote another.]
  • Now, pass the paper you received to the left again.  Keep yours, but pass the one that isn’t yours.  (Why don’t you just say “get ours back again?”  Because Rick, you need to learn your left from your right.  You don’t want yours back. [this one didn’t really happen, thank goodness!]
  • Repeat what you just did.  Read the four questions on the page you just got, the last two should be the same two you just read but not necessarily if your neighbour had to write a new question.  If any of the questions are the same as yours, you need to write a new question.  If all four are different from your two, add your two to the list to make six questions.
  • Repeat.
  • Repeat
  • [Before the end of class, have students collect their original paper, which now has 10 or more questions on it.  They will know which is theirs because the first two questions on it will be the two questions they have on the other sheet in front of them.]
  • So, how many of you had to write new questions at some point. [Very few hands]  Isn’t it interesting how you struggled to come up with two questions from a 250 word introduction, yet most of you came up with different questions?  Were any of the questions terrible? [No, they weren’t.  They were all acceptable questions, many were thoughtful, and a few were insightful.]  Sharing your work with others, and getting to see theirs, can truly help you see a text or a situation from a different perspective.
  • As you walk out the door today, you’re going to throw one of your sheets in the recycling bin.  I don’t care which one.  That choice is yours. [Stand by door and recycling bin and watch students throw out the sheet with only two questions on it.  Nod in agreement and save their rationale for tomorrow’s class.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Praise or Not to Praise? Is that the Question?

I have the immense pleasure of being the Senior High ELA Curriculum Coach for PWSD 76 in Alberta, and today that meant the opportunity once again to get together as a coaching cohort.  During our meeting we viewed a previously aired webinar by Jim Knight (@jimknight99).  I enjoyed tweeting what I was learning throughout.  One section of the webinar that caught my attention was regarding the need to praise students more than we correct them.  (Hopefully I’m not putting too many words into Jim’s mouth.)

These statements reminded me of some thoughts I’d heard a while ago that emphasized the idea that praising children may not be the best approach if we want to raise kids who are intrinsically motivated to do the right thing rather than doing it because of the attention they receive from doing so.  I didn’t have the sources of these quotes with me at the moment, but I tweeted a couple questions out based upon the impact of these statements.  The idea of not offering praise is one that I’ve actually tried to put into practice (when I remember to do so) with my students and my own kids.

When I got home today, I had a couple replies from Jim Knight about what I had tweeted. Jim had a question for me that I didn’t have a ready answer for.  He asked, “Re: praise. Do you think teachers should only give corrective feedback? I think both, but we often overlook positive.”  I went back to the webinar link and listened to this portion again.  Here’s one statement that made his tweet reply begin to make sense:  “The bottom line is, that you want to make sure that you’re giving more positive attention to the students than negative attention.  If all you do is correct students, pretty quickly the students know ‘If I want to get that teacher’s attention, the only way I can get it is by acting up.‘” I’m assuming correction is being viewed then as negative attention; we correct when a student has been “acting up” in some way.  This dichotomy of praise and correction is something that I didn’t see addressed in my reading about “the pitfalls of praise,” as Joe Bower (@Joe_Bower) puts it in his blog post If I Don’t Praise Children, What Can I do?

Joe’s post was the first I read on this matter.  At the time, I remember, it didn’t feel right to hear that I shouldn’t praise my own son or daughters when they do something great.  But the logic makes sense: “If I praise Amber by saying “good job”, it’s the equivalent of patting her on the head and throwing a mirror inches in front of her face – like the praise, the mirror would encourage Amber to focus on how her good-will benefited her.” I realized I didn’t want my children to be motivated to do good in order to feel good themselves; I want them to do good because it’s the right thing to do.  And I certainly didn’t want to manipulate my children or create praise junkies or steal their pleasure, make them lose interest, or reduce achievement as Alfie Kohn (@alfiekohn) writes about in Five Reasons to Stop Saying ‘Good Job!’  These writings and others inspired me to look for alternatives to praise my children and my students (though I must admit I’ve been rather inconsistent and that’s probably worse than picking a side and sticking to it).  A couple suggestions that I really liked as alternatives also came from Joe and Alfie:  Say nothing, state what you saw, and talk less–ask more.  Joe’s question to Amber, “Did you see the smile on that ladies face?” seemed to be a great alternative to “Wow, that was such a nice thing that you just did!”  Though, it may be argued that this question still encourages Amber to do good because it will impress others, if not her teacher.  Perhaps a better question would be something along the lines of: “Can you tell me why you chose to help that lady.”  This would require Amber to think about her own motivation and the results of her actions, and it may lead to follow up questions.  I believe my response to Jim Knight lies buried somewhere in this last alternative.

As I mentioned, Jim’s perspective of praise comes from the relationship between praise and correction.  His webinar suggests a 5:1 ratio of praise to correction.  Thinking about my own practice, I think I’d be lucky to have a 1:5 ration in my classroom.  Jim notes that it’s not uncommon to find ratios of 1:10, 1:15 or even 0:28 in one Australian classroom.  What is the impact of this on students?  I can’t imagine that constant correction without praise will result in a positive self-image for a child.  And I believe this is Jim’s point.

I think I’m going to have to argue that if we are going to continue to provide students with correction, then we are going to have to also provide them with praise.  But is this the answer?  I’m going to step out on a limb here (hoping it doesn’t break away from under me) and suggest we stop doing both?  Through the course of researching and writing this blog, I continued to reflect on Jim’s question to me: “Do I think that teachers should only give corrective feedback?” My answer is this:  I believe praise is harmful to children, yet I also believe that constant correction without praise would also be harmful.  The only option I’m left with then is to abolish both.  Is this possible?  Can we teach without the use of correction?

A short time ago, I would have said no, of course we can’t!  However, my focus on critical thinking and collaboration is beginning to lead me to believe that students are capable of correcting themselves and each other.  I had an experience recently that reinforces this for me.  My ELA 10 class was working on getting commas and semicolons placed correctly within their sentence structures.  They were collaborating with a partner to write proper sentences based upon particular criteria I provided.  I was hovering, observing, refusing to answer questions (instead, helping them find the answers in the handouts they had in triplicate from a variety of sources showing the info in different ways).  Then I began to take pictures of the sentences they were creating.  I paused the activity and displayed their own examples on the board, using polleverywhere.com to ask the class whether the sentence used correct punctuation or not.  The results came in, and were not unanimous.  This let me know there were still some students struggling to figure things out, and it provided the opportunity for students to try to defend their answers.  The ones who were incorrect were unable to do so, but those who were correct provided justification from the notes and helped the others see why.  This is one example of how questioning students and providing the time for conversations and critical thinking could help us eliminate the need for correction in our classrooms and allow me to sleep soundly with the belief that praise should also defer to questioning and self-reflection.

 

***Amendment***

I couldn’t sleep last night and continued to reflect on this issue.  Here’s my problem:  My mind tells me that what I wrote is pretty solid; however, my heart wants to disagree.  I want to offer praise.  I want to offer correction.  Where does this desire come from?  Am I conditioned from growing up in a system that has told me this is what we do, or am I feeling a desire inherent in all humanity?  Where I ended up is admitting that perhaps I’m being too black and white about the issue.  I tend to do that (you’ll see it if you follow my blog and I’m hoping you’ll help keep me in line).  During my second year teacher’s evaluation, this was also the critique of of my acting principal.  I blame it on my strict religious upbringing where things were either right or they were wrong.  I’ve begun to mellow since then, wanting to be open to other perspectives and looking for common ground, but I tend to fall back on the “draw a line in the sand” approach when first confronted with a new issue.  In this case, I’m looking for common ground.  I see value in praise, which is why I’ve had a hard time not doing it.  I see value in correction, you can ask my own children about that.  As stated above, I see value in withholding praise and correction as well.  Perhaps that’s the answer I’m looking for.  Perhaps it’s a matter of analyzing the context and making a decision of what’s best for this child in this situation.  Does that sound like a cop-out?  I hope not.  I’m finally beginning to view education from this point of view, striving to individualize and see the gray areas where perhaps much of my time should be spent.