Our ultimate purpose as high school teachers should be to make ourselves unnecessary. We want to show our students how to learn, even when we aren’t there to help them. In order to do this we need to cultivate an environment where critical thinking is the norm.
1. SET UP LESSONS THAT ASK STUDENTS TO DIG DEEPER
Don’t spend too long in the basement of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Knowledge and comprehension are very important, and provide the foundation for higher level learning, but it’s also imperative that we teach our kids what to do with the facts they gather. The skills they need to analyze, evaluate and create will stretch their brains in a way that will help them to become logical thinkers, creative problem solvers and life long learners. Don’t equate rigour with volume and give students pages of chapter questions that focus too much on fact finding and not enough on analysis and interpretation. For example, it’s a fact that Romeo was pining over a girl named Rosaline at the beginning of the play. However, that fact is just a useless piece of information unless the students use it to do some critical thinking. By using their knowledge and comprehension for higher level questions, students will need to think critically about questions like: Why does Shakespeare include this section about Rosaline? What does it show about Romeo’s character? What does it illustrate about his family and friends? If you were Romeo’s therapist, what advice would you give him on the subject of love?
2. TEACH AND USE A PROCESS THAT FOCUSES ON CRITICAL THINKING
Critical thinkers question. They question the things they read, the ideas they are presented and the values that others may impose on them. Therefore, if you want to create a culture of critical thinking, you should model good questioning in your classroom. You can check out a previous blog post for suggestions on how to do that. I’d also like to share what I’m doing this week with my general English class as a specific example. At the end of the week we will do an informal debate on legalizing marijuana. Yesterday I asked them a question: do you believe it should be legalized? They wrote about their own thoughts first, and then I paired them up and had them interview some teachers, counsellors and youth workers who were free that period, to see what they thought about the issue. Today, we will focus on fact finding, and I will supply them with articles to read that present arguments on both sides of the issue. They will record these facts, then work in groups to prepare arguments for the debate. They will look at their opinions and find facts to back them up. I could have just given them the articles to read, and questions to guide their search for information; however, by following this process, they have thought about their own feelings on the subject, sought others’ opinions, found factual information to back up arguments, and then, finally, expressed informed opinions.
3. CREATE OPPORTUNITIES FOR EVERY STUDENT TO THINK
There are many ways for students to hide in a classroom. I’m not referring to them climbing under a desk or into a closet; I’m referring to the students who sit there quietly, trying hard not to be noticed, not participating in any discussion. It’s easy to do if you have a couple of keeners in the room who want to participate in every discussion and answer every question you pose. Even when we encourage other students to participate, it’s easy for a student to tune out, not think, and hope that you don’t call on them to respond. Last year, I had such a class, and I wrote a post about how I turned it around and got more students to take part in class discussions. You can check it out here.
4. KEEP THE BAR AT JUST THE RIGHT SPOT
Wether you call it “flow” or “the zone of proximal development”, the plan is the same: give your students tasks that aren’t too easy or too hard. Give them something “just right.” If the tasks don’t challenge them and make them think, they won’t have to do any mental stretching and will soon get bored. If the task is too challenging, many will get frustrated and give up. The art of teaching requires you to experiment to find that sweet spot for your students. Start by using good questioning techniques and modelling your own thinking process during class discussions. Next, put them in groups and give them a task that’s a little bit challenging and will require them to work together to accomplish it. Circulate and guide them, but resist the urge to show them what to do. Ask good questions, the kind that direct them without giving them any answers: have you thought about this? Check out this quote on page __: what is the author suggesting here? If you can tell that students are struggling (and not just looking for an easy answer), you can give them a little more guidance.
Once you create an environment where critical thinking is the norm, great things can happen. Students will see the reward in stretching themselves to grapple with difficult questions and you will be able to sit back and enjoy the discussions. You might even find yourself a little unnecessary.
If you’d like some activities that are great for critical thinking, I have several that focus on the inquiry process. My learning stations also provide students with lots of opportunity to collaborate and think critically.