George Lucas Educational Foundation
Critical Thinking

What Does a 21st-Century Classroom Look Like: Justification for Answers

August 10, 2015

Continuing to follow up the post 10 Signs of a 21st Century Classroom

This feature could just as easily be called “critical thinking”. As with so many of the points raised in this series, the idea itself is not new. Making an argument in support of a thought is the logical second step of the inquiry process. However, technology has advanced to the point where students can really be empowered to back up what their comments with facts.

There can be problems associated with asking students to evaluate their thought process. As always, time can be a factor. It takes much longer to have students provide evidence that E. coli is a bacterium than to just tell them that it is so. Oddly, political concerns may arise as well. Here are a few suggestions to begin incorporating justification into the classroom.

Being a Science Teacher is Great!

Again, I hate to brag, but as a science teacher I am uniquely positioned to implement this idea. Students in science class can personally generate data that can be used in support of their ideas. By owning the data, they are more connected with and invested in the conclusions that can be drawn. Properly implemented, a science experiment can challenge preconceptions and lead to stronger understanding.

Go to the Data

The internet is great. Students now have access to data from any number of sources. They can verify for themselves whether or not something is factual. Wolfram Alpha is a great site for this. Our students don’t automatically understand how to analyze data. They often have trouble connecting what they learn in math classes (even statistics) to any other subject. Luckily, there are resources to help with this problem.

How Good is the Source?

Using Google to find answers is not without its pitfalls. It is very easy to come across information online that is incorrect whether intentionally or in error. I cannot count the number of times that students have referenced urban legends or articles that originated from the Onion as fact. Used correctly, the internet can also be a valuable tool in refuting incorrect or misleading data. Providing training into evaluating the validity of a source is very important.

Many English teachers require students to complete source evaluation documents when writing research papers. Through this process, students are asked to consider the authority, tone, and audience of their sources

Ask “Why?”

Like most of my fellow teachers, I try not to let students remain comfortable in their unexamined thoughts. It is too easy to give just an answer, it is human nature to try to give the same response as the majority of the class. By asking students to explain why they gave a certain answer, they must deepen their thinking. This may also help to build confidence in their replies. Our math department chair is well known for her catchphrase: “Are you asking me or telling me?”

Here again, students in English classes have experienced this for many years. They are consistently asked to find textural evidence for their viewpoints. And yes, quotations can mean different things to different people, but that is the nature of data. It is up to individuals to tease out the meaning.

Don’t Answer with “Because”

If we expect our students to defend their own thinking, we must model it ourselves. Some questions are difficult to answer. There is often too much to accomplish during the class period to stop and address every comment. Often, the answer might not be definitely known even in the wider community.

It is important not to simply dismiss questions. If the answer is unknown or there is not enough time to answer, come back to the question. Let the student know that their comments are important. Don’t be afraid to explain that you are unsure. Most importantly, give yourself a reminder to look the information up when there is a spare moment and another reminder to bring the answer back to the class. Students who feel ignored will have less desire to continue their curiosity.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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