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Building Critical Thinking Skills

Did you know that one of the original purposes of school and education was to prepare children for a workforce in an industrialized economy? That's right! Children were being trained to work in factories or other such "new age" jobs, and school acted as the training facility to help them do this with success. This type of schooling was known as the "Factory Model". Rote practice of mathematics and language were the foundation for education.

Now, meet me in 2020, where the world looks drastically different and so does the workforce. The model of school in North America has slightly changed to accommodate this, but largely is reminiscent of the way school was intended to be in the early 1900's. I'm proud to teach at a school where STEM has become a major focus of our education program and I get excited to see the way the kids engage with the material. To me, the overall model of school in it's rigid scheduling and structure can still feel like it's stuck in the 1900's, but we work within the framework we are given!

So how do we battle this stale way of thinking? We teach more meaningful skills. We give students opportunities to dig deep, to question truths and to go beyond reading and repeating. While rote skills are important, knowing what to do with them is the skill to focus on. Learning by problem solving, asking questions and thinking critically gives students an opportunity to apply their knowledge in a meaningful setting. I'll give you an example of the way I altered a Grade 5 Social Studies task to allow students to dig deeper:

We were studying Canadian Government and had decided to do a bit of a study on past Prime Ministers of Canada. The old way of teaching would likely have had the students choose or even be assigned a Prime Minister, research their biographies, create a board and present on them to the class.

The potential skills earned: researching using non-fiction sources, summarizing research, oral presentation/memorization skills

What I Did Instead

The day I introduced this assignment, I never mentioned the words Prime Minister or even the task at all. We started with a class discussion/group activity - "What makes a good leader?" This was towards the end of our unit and while we learned a ton about the structure of the Canadian Government, on this day, I never mentioned our Government or Prime Ministers - we just had a meaningful discussion.

The students were given 15 slips of paper, all with different characteristics/traits written on them. Some of these traits included characteristics such as trustworthy, honest, humourous, punctual, good communicator, strict, etc. As a table group, their job was to spend 10 minutes narrowing down those traits to the Top 5 Characteristics of a Good Leader. I walked around and listened to my 10 and 11-year-old students debate the qualities of a good leader back and forth until they eventually settled upon their top 5. The reasoning they had behind their choices were not only valid, but well-supported. The only time I got involved was to ask them to explain something in more depth, or to seek the opinion of someone who felt the opposite. I poked and prodded as a Devil's Advocate, but never gave my own opinion.

Once the 10 minutes were up, students were rattled. I LOVED this. It meant they cared. Some were upset because their group never really settled on a choice they all agreed on - and I explained how that was okay, since the point was to debate the characteristics exactly as they had done. However, their next job was going to be even tougher! I made them narrow those 5 traits down to 3. I thought they were going to kill me.

At the end of the 5 minutes, they each had 3. They felt relieved it was over. Until I told them to settle upon one trait that best demonstrated a good leader. Deep down, they knew this was coming. Ultimately, they chose a final trait and together as a class, we made a list - The Top 5 Characteristics of a Good Leader (the final one from each table group). Luckily, they were all different! In the event there was an overlap, we would have likely just had 4 or come up with a 5th one together.

The next day, I introduced the task. Their job was to work with a partner to choose a previous Prime Minister and answer the following question and support with evidence:

Did (insert Prime Minister's name here) demonstrate good leadership based on the success criteria we created as a class? Use evidence from your research to support your answer.

Instead of a simple oral presentation, we did a fair. Students worked with their partners to research (guided with questions and research organizers), create info-graphic boards and present in a fair-style gathering. The best part - other students from other classes and grades got to come visit, learn, ask questions and give feedback! Students needed to tailor the way they presented to the age of student coming to visit - simplify for younger, elaborate for older, perhaps with more respect for a member of administration. They needed to know their material well enough to actually discuss it, not just memorize and restate it. We posed questions and they needed to defend their responses using evidence from their research.

The depth of this project took it from shallow level research and repetition to a critical thinking inquiry-based task.

Inquiry Based Learning

Inquiry Based Learning is a pedagogical theory that puts the student in the driver's seat. As the educator, you pose an open-ended question and the students need to use their skills to investigate, explore, ask more, contribute and obtain the answers.

Click here for a great document on Inquiry Based Learning from the Ontario Ministry of Education.

Adding in opportunities for IBL can greatly impact the level of engagement and more importantly, the ability to think critically in a given task.

Project Based Learning

Another great way to bring critical thinking into the learning environment is through another pedagogical theory called Project Based Learning. As you can imagine, PBL is a very hands-on style of learning where students work together to solve or answer a guiding question. They research, plan, design, build, and troubleshoot.

Click here for a great document that explains the benefits of PBL.

These are two simple tweaks you can make to the content and tasks you are likely already working with!

If you'd like me to help you make adjustments to some of the things you are working on - please reach out and let me know!

Happy Thinking :)



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