Critical Thinking

A Focus on Critical Thinking

Take a look at a high school that asks students difficult, thought-provoking questions to prepare them for college.

July 18, 2011
A group of students are having a conversation.

Overview

Why Critical Thinking?

King, a small public charter high school of 460 students (in the 2010-11 academic year) in grades 9-12, is part of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) network of schools. KIPP Is a national network of free, open-enrollment, college-prep public schools that operates in underserved communities across the country. King shares the KIPP goal of preparing students for success in college and beyond. But at King, they believe that the most important skill that will lead to this success is critical thinking.

Get the best of Edutopia in your inbox each week.

Most of the students at King will be the first in their family to go to college. While at King, students are surrounded by others from similar backgrounds. Nationwide, more than 85 percent of KIPP students are from families eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch program; 95 percent are African American or Latino. However, when they get to college, most find themselves for the first time in an environment of predominantly white students from higher-income communities.

So the goal becomes doing as much as humanly possible to erase any doubt in the minds of students that they can succeed in college. The teachers at King are narrowly focused on arming their students with the skills they need to meet the particular challenges of higher education. From the moment one of their graduates steps onto a college campus, KIPP educators want her to feel confident that she belongs in that rigorous academic environment. Singer believes that the intellectual asset that is leveraged most on college campuses is critical thinking. By teaching these skills at King, he says, "we've given them what they need to persist through college." When they emerge to take their places in the workplace, degrees in hand, "that is the moment when we close the achievement gap," Singer adds.

How It's Done

Inquiring Minds

Ideally, teaching kids how to think critically becomes an integral part of your approach, no matter what subject you teach. But if you're just getting started, here are some concrete ways you can begin leveraging your students' critical-thinking skills in the classroom and beyond.

Questions, questions, questions

Questioning is at the heart of critical thinking, so you want to create an environment where intellectual curiosity is fostered and questions are encouraged. For Jared Kushida, who teaches a global politics class called War and Peace at KIPP King Collegiate, "lecturing" means integrating a flow of questions throughout a lesson. "I rarely go on for more than 30 seconds without asking a question, and I rarely stop at that one question," he explains.

In the beginning stages, you may be doing most of the asking to show your students the types of questions that will lead to higher-level thinking and understanding. You can also use "wrong" answers as opportunities to explore your students' thinking. Then ask more questions to lead them in a different direction. As students become more comfortable and skilled, their questions will drive the class discussions.

Start with a prompt and help them unpack it

Pose a provocative question to build an argument around and help your students break it down. Identify any ambiguous or subjective terms and have students clarify and define them. For example, Katie Kirkpatrick, who teaches ninth-grade Speech & Composition at KIPP King Collegiate, poses this question in the first unit of her class: "Is a life in poverty the responsibility of the individual or a result of outside factors?" She guides her class to identify "responsibility of the individual" and "result of outside factors" as what she calls "shady terms" that need definition. Once the terms are clearly defined, students are better able to seek and find evidence that is relevant to their argument.

Provide tools for entering the conversation

At the beginning of the year, Kirkpatrick gives her students a list of sentence starters and connectors such as "I agree/disagree because," "I can connect to your statement because," and "Can you clarify what you mean by." Providing them with these words gives them ways to enter the conversation and will guide their thought process in analyzing the argument.

Model your expectations

"It all comes back to modeling," says Kellan McNulty, who teaches AP world history and AP U.S. history at KIPP King Collegiate. "If you have a behavioral expectation, the best way to teach that is to model." In fact, he learned how to facilitate effective Socratic discussions by observing his colleague. Similarly, he demonstrates for his students ways to enter a conversation, the difference between an analytical point and a summary, and appropriate ways to disagree with one another. Kirkpatrick uses examples, both good and bad, of people presenting arguments and having Socratic discussions from sites such as YouTube. 

Encourage constructive controversy

Lively discussions usually involve some degree of differing perspectives. McNulty even uses a "devil's advocate" card that he secretly gives to a student before each discussion, charging him or her with the role of bringing up opposing views. You can give students controversial topics and let them hash it out, but make sure to first demonstrate for them respectful ways of disagreeing and establish clear rules for voicing different perspectives. These rules include the language to use when disagreeing and that the disagreement must be objective, such as finding a flaw in the evidence or the reasoning, not a subjective disagreement based on personal opinions.

Choose content students will invest in

It's important to choose topics that are relevant and significant to students to get them talking and engaged. Kirkpatrick wanted social justice to be the overarching theme for her class. The topic struck a chord with the students and motivated them to build the communication skills they needed to effectively voice their views. Kushida spends much of his prep time finding rich sources (including texts, photos, art, even a single word) about pressing, relevant content to help fuel the discussions. He follows up with a deep arsenal of questions that range from factual to analytical to connective to philosophical.

Set up Socratic discussions

Socratic discussion is the method of inquiry in which participants ask one another questions that test logic with the goal of gaining greater understanding or clarity. At King, teachers regularly set up formal Socratic discussions to give students the opportunity to challenge one another intellectually. The teachers serve primarily as observers, offering prompts only when there is a lull in the conversation, but otherwise leaving it to the students to keep the discussion moving. They strive to engage students in Socratic dialogue informally as well. Kushida explains that he works Socratic questioning in every single day by "never being satisfied with a student answer that does not result in another question and always pushing and counterquestioning and teaching them to do the same."

Assess their reasoning through different methods

To know whether your students are learning to think critically, you need a window into their thought processes. So challenge them to communicate back to you. Essays, Socratic discussions, and speeches give students the chance to demonstrate their skill and allow you to evaluate their reasoning in a variety of situations. Even written tests can foster critical thinking if they require the student to provide counterarguments to a series of statements using details and evidence from the unit of study. You can also assign your students topics to research and then let them lead the classroom discussion. Doing so will help you assess their understanding of the material and their skill at communicating it.

Let students evaluate each other

It can be difficult to assess students while simultaneously facilitating a Socratic discussion. But one way teachers at King give some of the responsibility to the students is by setting up the room in a "fishbowl" configuration, with an inner circle and an outer circle. Students in the inner circle are the active participants while those in the outer are their peer evaluators. Kirkpatrick, McNulty, and others at King use a Socratic seminar rubric that clearly lays out the components of analytical thinking so the students know exactly what to look for. And by evaluating their peers with the same rubric the teacher uses, students gain a better understanding of the criteria for strong critical thinking and discussion.

Step back

It can be hard for a teacher to let go of the reins and let the students do the teaching. "But when you remove yourself from the equation," McNulty explains, "that really forces the kids to step up." And when you give students the responsibility to be the thinkers in the class and drive the content, they may take it in unexpected directions that are more relevant to them and are thus more likely to stick.

School Snapshot

KIPP King Collegiate High School

Grades 9-12 | San Lorenzo, CA
Enrollment
460 | Charter, Suburban
Per Pupil Expenditures
$9,872 School$8,096 District$8,452 State
Free / Reduced Lunch
69%
DEMOGRAPHICS:
40% Hispanic
30% Asian/Pacific Islander
19% Black
5% White
5% Other
20% English-language learners, 2% Individualized education programs