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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

What is Critical Thinking? How do we teach it? And how does it fit into great PBL?

What is Critical Thinking? How do we teach it? And how does it fit into great PBL?

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Laura Thomas in another post in this group mentioned the Critical Skills Classroom model, and this reminded me of one of my favorite topics, both when I teach students and when I teach teachers about PBL—namely, Critical Thinking. Education has been talking about Critical Thinking for centuries it seems, yet do we have a good definition for what it is? More importantly, do we have a good set of tools and ideas with which to teach it? And perhaps most importantly, do we know how to teach it to ALL students, not just the ‘better’ students? I have an article on some of these ideas (at least the definition part) that I would like to share with you, perhaps as a thought stimulator, but prior to that I would be really curious if any of you would like to share your thoughts as they stand currently. Any takers?

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Thomas Stanley's picture
Thomas Stanley
Educational Consultant-former teacher in high school

In order to teach critical thinking in an online or blended learning environment it is important for teachers and administrators to think about what I call the Five Points of the online/blended learning star !

The Five Points of the Star
Virtual Learning is an InterActive Experience

Ideas for creating an interactive online learning experience.

There are a number of ways to teach critical thinking in the online/blended world because so many programs are credit retrieval, others are expanded correspondence courses, and still others ask the student to do simple thematic activities. Another exciting way to teach critical thinking is to have teachers and students do highly interactive online/real-world learning activities. This type of teaching/learning allows people to do more than just teach using the minimal learning experiences for their students. It gives teachers the opportunity to challenge students to learn the material by touching on all levels of learning. In this type of learning environment it allows us to expect a higher level of critical thinking from our students.

Here are some ideas on how to deliver this exciting type of learning and an overview of what some of the possibilities are by using what I call the 5 POINTS of the STAR blended and online learning environment (later posts will define each of these ideas in detail}. In order to have the students become highly engaged in their own learning and take the time to be better students it is necessary to shift into a different paradigm of learning. It is important to create an educational setting that allows the student to explore and engage in multiple levels of critical thinking. To create this type of student engagement in the online/blended learning world a student should have five very highly interactive experiences: student-to-student, student-to-teacher, student-to-material, student-to-community, and student-to-technology. If an online/blended learning program/class is able to build this type of learning experience the student will have one of the most exciting and memorable educational encounters of their career.

The best type of learning to develop each of these ideas is to have the student do some type of inquiry-based, project-based, or problem-based learning. These types of learning are not isolated classroom experiences but cross-curricular ones. For example, the work might be developed using a thematic structure that is organized and developed by the teaching staff and allows students to work toward their own analysis of these projects or activities. Combining the real-world resources, activities and the online experiences are some of the most valuable lessons a student can do. High to low-level students can master key interactive fundamentals if given the chance. It is essential to have cross-curricular themes for the younger students to work through in order to learn how to do the variety of learning projects.

It is an important part of interactive distance learning to ask students to actually master the content and do real-world activities. When a student must mentally, emotionally, and physically touch the material they learn the real skills that they will be able to use in the 21st Century. If a student must make use all of the academic disciplines to do their work and acutally produce a product that has to be viewed, reviewed and restructured it forces them to learn all of the major academic skills they will use later in their lives.

If a school is built on the five point of the star's sound educational principles it will have one of the most robust learning communities in the online/blended learning world. It is a type of learning that many students, teachers and administrators are not accustomed to and it does challenge our drill-and-kill mentality of education.

Critical thinking means that you take the risk of allowing students to form their own judgements. To me that is the essence of critical thinking and by using; Student-to-Community, Student-to-Material, Student-to-Student, Student-to-Teacher,and Student-to-Technology they will be able to think through any problem they face.

Butch Fernando's picture
Butch Fernando
HR and Organization Development at PAREF Northfield School

CRITICAL, from 3 points: 1) Looking for the flaws or defects, 2) high impact, or of high value and importance, and 3) A discipline or habitual way of thinking characterized by careful evaluation

If only we can successfully train our kids to ask WHY, and then ask another WHY on a deeper level, and then ask the opposite, WHY NOT. This could be an antidote to media blitzes and advertising campaigns which numb our senses and teach us to swallow hook, line and sinker. As I read it somewhere, A lie repeated often enough and through a long period of time, eventually becomes the truth! Let's give our kids the thinking tools they need to change this materialistic and commercial world.

JaNell Collins's picture

My students hate it but I always use the 5ws method. I give them a complex question; one that has several answers. I tell them to answer the question but if it makes me ask then it's not complete. They have no choice but to be specific with their answers so that they can begin to incorporate their own thoughts, biases, values, etc.

I'm sure this is very simplistic but so far it seems to be working.

Yannis Vatis's picture
Yannis Vatis
Mentoring Supervisor for ACIC

Edit: Okay, newbie to this comment system, this was in reply to Erika Saunders.

I'm pretty much in the same boat as you are, as in all thinking is pretty much critical. I had to take a couple of course in my college years that carried the "critical thinking" label. It always felt that my CT lecturers were just trying to make it more fancy than it actually was in the end: just think about stuff. I know that some would argue that critical thinking requires that one actually considers whether something "is" or "is not", e.g is murder wrong? why is it wrong? You can be thinking of how nice it would be to have a banana or some cake but it's not critical really. But wait, isn't that just actually a desire rather than thinking?

I don't really know, to me it's always felt that we just slapped on "critical" next to "thinking" to make it sound like something more profound. Thinking seems to sound to simple for the young 'uns. :-)

Ms.Garcia's picture
Ms.Garcia
High School English Teacher from Navajo Nation

I completely agree with this! I teach in a high-poverty, rural area where my students engage in critical thinking all the time but mostly outside of the classroom. Other adults wouldn't survive in their world.

I think they key is to create a bridge for students to use those skills in every area. For example, my students are used to basic recall when it comes to reading a novel (who is the main character, what happened) but today I saw a beautiful thing emerge. About five of my students got into an argument over the reasons why Brutus and Cassius should or should not have died at the end of Julius Cesar. They started to bring in examples from their culture, real world events, and proposed other hypothetical situations. The other students would join in and keep glancing my way to see if I was going to stop "the interruption". When I praised them for their critical thinking skills you could see their surprise. And that is when it hit me that I need to do a better job at modeling critical thinking and throw away those cheap study guides.

Thomas Stanley's picture
Thomas Stanley
Educational Consultant-former teacher in high school

There are a number of ways to teach critical thinking in the online world. An exciting way to teach students high level thinking skills is to have teachers and students do interactive online/real-world learning experiences. This type of teaching gives teachers the opportunity to challenge students to learn the material by touching all levels of learning. In this type of learning environment students will be expected to extend their thinking to the highest level.
This type of learning is called the Five Points of the Star method of learning and includes the opportunity to do blended and online learning. In order to have the students become highly engaged in their own learning and take the time to be better students, it is necessary to shift into a different paradigm of teaching. To develop high level thinking skills it is important to create an educational setting that allows students to explore and engage in multiple levels of learning. To create this type of student engagement in critical thinking in the online or blended learning world, students should have five very highly interactive experiences; student-to-student, student-to-teacher, student-to-community, student-to- material, and student-to-technology. If an online or blended learning program/class is able to build this type of learning environment, the students will have one of the most intellectually exciting and memorable encounters of their educational experience.
To teach students critical thinking skills it is best done if the class or program the has the student do some type of inquiry-based, project-based, or problem-based learning. However, you cannot just expect the student to understand what they are doing and why they are doing it. The process must begin by introducing the students to these types of learning. It will mean they the students must understand the nature and purpose of critical thinking. Do some sample projects and then be allowed to move forward into a well defined and structured project based learning activity.
Most students do not understand the nature of a cross-curricular activity and that these activities are not isolated classroom experiences. For example, the work might be developed using a thematic structure that at first is organized and developed by the teaching staff and allows students to also work toward developing their own projects and activities. Students will learn how to combine the real-world resources, activities, and online experiences. This is the essence of learning how to do critical thinking and is some of the most valuable lessons students can do. All students, whether high achieving or low level, can master key interactive fundamentals if given the chance. It is the first order of business that the students learn how to do a critical thinking project before moving on to their own topics and assignments.
The critical thinking process allows teachers to create an interactive, distance education that asks students to do real-world activities that insists a student fully master the content. When students must mentally, emotionally, and physically touch the material they learn the authentic skills they will need to use as they advance into their academic and real-world future.
If students must use all of the academic disciplines to do their work and produce a product that has to be viewed, reviewed, and restructured then they are forced to learn how valuable critical thinking is as a skill they will use later in their lives.
If a school is built on these sound educational principles, it will have one of the most robust learning communities in the online world. It is a type of learning that many students, teachers, and administrators are not accustomed to, and it challenges our traditional drill-and-kill mentality of education.

Phyllis Edwards's picture

To help my students see reading as an interactive process, I used to start by saying that reading the (black) marks on a (white) surface have no meaning. Meaning is created by the minds involved in the writing/reading process. This enabled students to get past their fear of not being able to figure out what the author means by considering the thoughts that came to their own minds a they read. Since junior and high school students were not allowed to write in their books, I employed a process similar to that described in the article but using a several tools, among them a dialectical journal and a note-taking/note-making chart. With both of these tools, students noted information or quotes from the text in one column and their own reactions, questions, new ideas, etc. in the other. This helped them 'see' the communication between the two parties and perceive themselves as co-creators of meaning.

malynmawby's picture

PBL as well as critical and creative thinking are topics close to my heart and I've blogged about this a fair bit. Distilling all that is tough, in the interest of abstraction and brevity, but I'll try.

Critical thinking is the ability to view from different perspectives - with varying levels of breadth and depth. Among other things, it involves empathy and open-mindedness. It is not surprising that empathy is big in Design Thinking; it makes sense.

Hand-in-hand with critical thinking is creative thinking. Interdependence between the two is apparent in PBL.

Ms.Togs's picture
Ms.Togs
sixth grade physical science waimea canyon middle school on Kauai HI

to open our classrooms to let students engage in their own problem solving engages all forms and definitions of critical thinking. But in order for this phenomena to take place, instruction and instructor needs to step back and become the observer. To the educator questions become the tool to keep the thinking in the student realm. This is the hard part for me to not answer questions but to ask them.

Gaynelle Sharrieff Holmes's picture
Gaynelle Sharrieff Holmes
5th Grade Teacher in Virginia

I absolutely love your perspective about critical thinking. I hadn't quite looked at the concept that way. Our school's student population is considered "at risk" and you're right, our students are already utilizing critical thinking skills in their daily lives. I must now learn how to help them transfer this skill over to their academics.

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