One Paper Towel Isn’t Enough

Friday, April 27, 2012

When I taught middle school, I had the pleasure of working with the student government.  These kids were the cream of the crop--smart, motivated, responsible, and charming.  One evening several of the kids were running a refreshment stand and someone spilled a two-liter bottle of soda. 
They ran out to find me and asked, “What do we do?”
            I was taken aback and stated the obvious, “Clean it up.”
            The students, again—bright, sweet, hardworking, twelve-years-oldish, gave me blank looks.
            I clarified, “Go the locker room, get paper towels, and clean it up.”
            One girl ran off and returned later with one, yes, one paper towel.

            Houston, we have a problem.  This is what happens when we hover.  This is what happens when we see learning as an information dump.  This is what happens when children aren’t given the freedom or opportunity to think for themselves. 
            Phrases like “critical thinking” get tossed around a lot, but actually pinning down what the heck that means is more complicated than you might think.  Critical thinking encompasses a wide range of skills that vary somewhat depending the field being examined.  I consider critical thinking to include:

·     problem solving
·     creating and analyzing both written and visual rhetoric
·     considering issues from multiple perspectives
·     deductive and inductive reasoning
·     identifying logical fallacies
·     applying knowledge to new situations
·     thinking about thinking
·     considering ethics in decision making
·     creating, testing, and evaluating theories

So, what does this look like in the classroom?   Well for one, all coursework should provide the opportunity for debate and collaboration.  And, across the curriculum, students should be required to write evaluations of their own work.

Middle school students should take classes on leadership and be required to complete service projects during school hours.  This is different than the community service requirements some school have, as those can be filled completing random tasks that while helpful to the community, don’t actually require critical thinking.  Middle school students should also be required to write one research paper a year (not a report) with a thesis statement (rather than a topic sentence) that includes rebuttals against alternative viewpoints. English and social studies classes should teach students how to evaluate visuals and articles for bias and non-rational appeals.

In high school students should be required to take classes on ethics and logic. Science classes should require students to design and conduct their own experiments, and high school students should study current events through a historical lens.
       In a classroom centered on critical thinking, students are actively engaged and teachers facilitate learning by asking questions and guiding students rather than lecturing.  Content is learned more deeply, but probably less broadly.  However, unless you’re training for a spot on Jeopardy, this likely doesn’t matter.

       Many school systems offer gifted students experiences like those I’ve outlined above, but I’d argue that non-gifted students should be given similar opportunities.  Gifted students might be developmentally ready earlier than other students and might be able to take their thinking to another level, but a person with average intelligence is capable of more than we give them credit for and deserves not be overlooked because basic reading, writing, and math skills are not enough anymore.  The future needs thinkers, not laborers.


Alan Sheriff said...

I completely agree with one exception; I don't think students should write evaluations of their own work. We need to be graded by someone objective, not someone as subjective as ourselves. Kids will either be too hard or too easy on themselves, but rarely will they be accurate in their assesments. The same critical thinking can be accomplished by having them evaluate the work of a previous year's class's wrok (anonymously) on the same project. If this is done before your kids do the project, they can think critically about what they should integrate into their own work... giving them a leg up and motivating them to be engaged in the critical thinking exercise as it will help their own performance.

Mary Sheriff said...

I love your suggestion to have peers review work prior to completing their own assignment; I think this serves to help them with both their critical thinking and planning process. However, for me such an exercise doesn't replace self-reflection. Self-reflection is an opportunity to extend learning and make it more meaningful, as well as inspire critical thinking. Your comment may be an inspiration for a future blog on the value of self-reflection :) Thanks for your comments and ideas.

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