Student Engagement

Teaching Students to Dig Deeper

May 20, 2013
Image credit: iStockphoto

A backwoodsman went to a home improvement store and purchased a chainsaw to replace an old, worn-out saw. After a month, the backwoodsman returned the saw to the store, complaining, "It doesn't work worth a darn! I could hardly cut half the wood I normally do." The salesman, looking at the chainsaw and seeing nothing wrong with it, pulled the cord. The chainsaw started easily with a roar. The backwoodsman jumped back. "Tarnation, what's all that racket? When I used it to saw, it was plumb silent!"

Sometimes this happens when we try to help students to think deeper. We give them a tool to broaden their understanding, and really don't know how to use it and are not accustomed to using it. A common occurrence in classrooms is that the teacher, when he or she sees the students struggle mightily to "think out of the box" will precipitously step in and give the students the answers, or throw the deeper learning activity out all together, thinking that the students aren't ready for it. What these students and the teachers need is to be patient, practice and build those mental muscles over time. One thing that helps teachers and students is a better understanding the nature of the advanced thinking tools.

Going Deep

I am including an excerpt from my new book, Teaching Students to Dig Deeper: The Common Core in Action, that explains the differences in cognitive activities we commonly call higher-order thinking:

Analytical thinking, and critical thinking are often lumped together with that other higher-order thinking skill (HOTS) known as problem-solving. In fact, in most professional literature, authors, researchers, and education gurus use analytical thinking, critical thinking, and problem-solving as interchangeable terms that simply indicate "deeper" thinking. Part of the reason for this confusion is that these skills often appear to use some of the same thinking techniques. What really occurs, however, is that in order to think critically, the thinker must first think analytically. In order to problem solve, the thinker must think analytically and critically.

Let me clarify. Critical thinking and analytical thinking are not the same thing. To clarify the difference between these words, let's look at their etymology (word origins). According to the dictionary, "analyze" means to break apart into essential elements. The opposite of analyze is synthesize, or put together. "Criticize" means to evaluate or make a judgment regarding the merits or faults. The opposite of criticize in one sense would be praise, or in another sense absence of judgment. Simply looking at the two definitions, it is glaringly obvious that two different skill sets are required. So why are they often lumped together? The dictionary definition of this answer would be a stupor of thought, or the condition of not thinking.

Analysis Vs. Critical Thinking

Benjamin Bloom (1956) made the specific distinction between analytical thinking (analysis) and critical thinking (evaluation), stating that the two skills differ by two orders of magnitude (Lorin Anderson, in her revision of Bloom's Taxonomy, changed it so they differ by only one). So, according to Bloom, thinking critically is more difficult than thinking analytically. The reason for this has already been discussed: In order to think critically, one must understand what one is criticizing. The way to understand something is to look at it analytically: break it down into parts, figure out how it works, classify it, etc. Once that is done, then critical thinking can be undertaken: asking why something works, looking for reasons, finding limits and exceptions, judging value, discovering errors.

Here's an example: My son, Gideon who is now studying engineering at Texas A&M, took apart a broken hand mixer in order to 3-D sculpt it on the computer. In the process, he had to analyze the parts and pieces, evaluate (criticize) what parts were defective, and creatively program the computer to recreate the mixer. In the process he had to use all three to problem solve when the 3-D printer did not produce what he was expecting.

Suggested Strategies

So, when we design learning activities, it would help students tremendously if we not only clarified which of the four thinking skills they will be using, but also give them specific practice opportunities in which to become proficient in them. In my book, I give several techniques for teaching analytical thinking, critical thinking and problem-solving: Answer a Question with a Question; If...Then, and What If; Finish the Story; Syllogisms; Logical Operations; And, If, Or, X or; Program a Partner; Methods of Classification: Genus, Phylum, Species; Identifying Patterns: Textual, CSI, Frames for Writing, and many others. I only list them here, but do explain them fully in my book (tease to get you to read it; is it working?)

How have you found success in getting students to dig deeper using the different and unique higher-order thinking skills?

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