Training Teachers to Teach Critical Thinking

How KIPP educators instruct their colleagues to enhance their classroom practice.

How KIPP educators instruct their colleagues to enhance their classroom practice.
KIPP King PD session; Katie Kirkpatrick portrait

KIPP King Collegiate High School principal Jason Singer trains his teachers to lead Socratic discussions (above); Katie Kirkpatrick (right), dean of instruction, developed a step-by-step framework -- described below -- for teaching students basic critical-thinking skills.

Credit: Zachary Fink

Thinking critically is one thing, but being able to teach it can be quite another. Katie Kirkpatrick, dean of instruction at KIPP King Collegiate High School, developed the school's Speech & Composition class, a requirement for all students. In the class, students learn basic critical-thinking skills. The class has been so effective that she now trains teachers how to leverage critical-thinking skills in their classrooms as well. We sat down with Katie to learn about how she trains staff. Here are her answers to some of our questions.

Define what critical thinking in the classroom is.

It's an approach to teaching that allows students to make sense of the content. They analyze the content, they evaluate the content, and they're able to apply it to their daily lives. Teachers ask specific questions to get the students to do those things.

How is your training session structured?

It's a three-hour training on the frameworks that I use in my own course, which I generated from the Toulmin Model of Argumentation. It involves having participants go through the entire process of writing an argument, just as they would if they were students in my classroom. The framework involves three specific phases:

  1. The pre-writing phase involves
    • unpacking a prompt or a question to understand what the question really means
    • doing a close reading of text or an information source
    • gathering evidence
    • evaluating evidence
  2. The writing phase consists of composing the argument and writing it using the four component parts of an argument in the Toulmin model:
    • claim, which is your thesis
    • clarification, which defines the scope of your argument
    • evidence to support the claim
    • justification, which is the reasoning behind why your evidence supports the claim
  3. The evaluation phase involves evaluating their argument based on four major criteria -- the RACS test:
    • relevance
    • accuracy
    • clarity
    • specificity
How do teachers transfer what they've learned in your workshops to their classrooms?

The first step is to develop the questions that are going to frame your assignments. Framing your units with essential questions helps students make sense of the knowledge they're learning. They can see that the learning in this classroom is going to help them answer this essential question at the end of the unit. Once you frame your questions or frame your prompts, then you can essentially take students through the steps listed above.

What are the right kinds of questions to ask?

In figuring out what questions to ask, it's really helpful to look at Bloom's Taxonomy. Bloom's begins with a knowledge-based question such as, "Who was the first president of the United States?" To answer that question simply requires knowledge.

That's just a first step. Next you want them to be able to evaluate. So I push teachers to look at the levels of Bloom's Taxonomy that involve the analysis and evaluation type of questions. That's when you're pushing kids' thinking. For instance, if you ask, "To what extent was George Washington successful as the first president of the United States?" that's a much higher-level question. It requires a student to evaluate, to create a set of criteria for what makes someone a great president, to possess knowledge about George Washington, and to evaluate his performance against that set of criteria.

I suggest that teachers really think about questions that hit four specific criteria. Questions should

  1. be open-ended, with no right or wrong answer, which prompts exploration in different directions
  2. require synthesis of information, an understanding of how pieces fit together
  3. be "alive in their disciplines," which means perpetually arguable, with themes that will recur throughout a student's lifetime and always be relevant
  4. be age-appropriate

In an inquiry-based class, how do teachers balance giving the information with asking the questions?

Begin providing them with a piece of content that is relevant so you can dive in and ask, "How is this relevant to other content areas? How is this going to be relevant to you when you go home?" Then develop questions that have students make those connections.

What are the benefits to teachers in using the critical-thinking model in the classroom?

The content becomes more relevant for every child in the classroom and for the teacher as well. It pushes your practice. When you have students taking on the onus for their own learning, questioning and thinking and formulating their own arguments, then they're the ones who come up with new ways to learn the material. As a teacher, it's an incredibly enriching experience because you see your content going in directions that you may never have thought of.

Also, I think there's the misconception that teaching critical thinking is more work. But if teachers have some tools, like questioning tools, and are creating ways for students to formulate arguments in response to essential questions, that is really what can drive the content. So just infusing questioning into lessons and not changing entire lesson plans, not changing entire scope and sequences for the curriculum, that's where the magic happens.

What are some of the hardest things for new teachers learning how to teach critical thinking to their students?

It requires them to step back and let the students do the work. For a teacher who's used to being the agent of knowledge, it can be hard for them to take a backseat to the learning that's happening in the classroom and also to trust that students can do it.

Is it possible to both teach students critical thinking and prepare them for the state tests?

You can make sure students are ready for the state tests as well as infuse critical thinking into the curriculum. Most of those tests are very knowledge-based; they don't require kids to do much critical thinking. So you can ramp up the content by having the kids analyze it and evaluate it. When they do that, the learning sticks.

Can critical thinking be leveraged in STEM classes? Can you give some examples?

Our geometry class frames every unit with an essential question. One is, "What is the ideal shape of a honeycomb?" So within that unit, students are learning about perimeter, how to calculate the area of a shape. Once they learn those skills, they're able to understand how to create the ideal shape of a honeycomb and that bees do this, too. And this matters because it isn't just happening in math class but also in the natural world, and you can observe it.

An example in a physics class might be something like this: Students are faced with a problem and a challenge of creating a bridge. So they create a bridge out of balsa wood after learning about how bridges are formed and all the relevant physics formulas and physics content. Their job is to apply that content in creating the bridge. Essentially, what they're doing is evaluating the extent to which things they've learned are going to come into play in building this bridge. The success of a student's bridge depends on how s/he has applied these skills within the laws of physics.

This article originally published on 7/15/2011

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Comments (4)

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I love Blooms, and it is

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I love Blooms, and it is essential to the work I do and the work I ask of teachers and students. One of my favorite requests of teachers is to ask questions that they do not know the answer to ahead of time--because it is asking the student to develop a uniquely thoughtful answer, one that is unpredictable, and ultimately delightful for the teacher to hear. How boring to ask questions you already know the answer to! How fulfilling to hear young minds at work! And once you get above the very lowest level questions, it's all about how each mind is organizing, translating, and connecting with the material. Can you ask your students a question that you will be delighted to hear their answers? I think one of the greatest compliments a student can say of a teacher is, "She was interested in what i was thinking."

Director, Antioch Center for School Renewal

While this is a different

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While this is a different take on teaching teachers to teach critical thinking, I can see how it would be useful. I like the way you utilize Bloom's as a tool to help teachers think about the kinds of things they ask students to do.

I also like that you remind teachers that this is going to require them to step aside and let the students do the work. As Charlotte Danielson told us, "the learner does the learning." (Of course, I would say that- I wrote a book on the topic of teacher facilitation.) Thanks for a solid post!

Teaching Critical Thinking

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In response to the comment about having enough time to foster critical thinking in the HST-based classroom: Ms. Kirkpatrick is right about the content and curriculum being very low level (Bloom's Levels 1-3) with very few standards aimed at higher-order thinking. Teachers must analyze their curriculum and pick the best tasks/activities/content that will target critical thinking. But case in point, choosing a website over another and being able to justify their choice is using critical thinking, but the actual task (collecting research) is Bloom's Level 1.

Founder, Director of SuperScience for High School Physics

Critical thinking in physics and psychology

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In 2010, this is how I lectured on critical thinking at Bexley High School in a physics class -

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