George Lucas Educational Foundation

Schools That Work | Practice

KIPP King Collegiate High School

Grades 9-12 | San Lorenzo, CA

Training Teachers to Teach Critical Thinking

Professional development at KIPP King includes setting up "fishbowl" classroom configurations, assigning student roles, and other techniques for facilitating successful Socratic discussions.

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How KIPP Teachers Learn to Teach Critical Thinking (Transcript)

Kellan McNulty: Prior to coming to Kipp, I tried to do a fishbowl discussion and it failed. And I had the kind of vague idea of how to do it, but I didn't have the specific tools. When I got to Kipp last year, we had a really good professional development on Socratic seminars that really showed me kind of the little tricks that made it work. My name is Kellan McNulty and I teach tenth grade AP world history and eleventh grade AP US history at Kipp King Collegiate.

Katie Kirkpatrick: I think the hardest thing for teachers in adopting a critical thinking model is that it requires them to kinda step back and let the students do all the work. And I think for a teacher who's used to being the agent of knowledge, it can be hard for them to take a back seat to the learning that's happening in the classroom. My name is Katie Kirkpatrick and I'm the dean of instruction at Kipp King Collegiate High School. I also teach ninth grade speech and composition.

Kellan McNulty: Another thing that I started doing at Kipp is using like very specific structures to push students to critical thought. And the biggest impact has been the Socratic seminar rubric. Last year, before I started teaching at Kipp, we went through a lotta professional development, and one of the most useful sessions was on the Socratic seminars. To set up my classroom for the Socratic seminar, I basically moved the desks into a square in the middle of the room and twelve students sit there. And then outside of that square, I had the desks surrounding it into a larger square and twelve, you know, to fourteen students sit on the outside. Many teachers know this as a fishbowl, and the rubric asks the person on the outer circle to grade them on, did they use the text to support their arguments? Did they use analytical language? And it gives examples of analytical language. Did they make a connection to what someone else was saying in the discussion, right? Did they agree or disagree with someone else?

So if you wanna do this in your classroom, like it's really important that you actually seat them in a way that's conducive and you maybe sit down yourself, or you even take yourself outta the discussion, 'cause if you're just standing up there normally, like they might not be able to have a discussion like you want.

During PD last year, I learned how to set up the room like that, and how to use that rubric, and the different jobs that you can give people on the outside to stay motivated and invested and paying attention.

Jacob Springer: To keep your kids engaged, these kids who are in the center, or you who are in the center, you're always gonna have a role, right? If you're a student, you're a participant, or you're a teacher-facilitator. Those are the only roles that are available to the inside. But the outside, you don't wanna just let them sit there. They need an active role and they need a role that helps them really follow what's going on. So here are the roles you might assign to people who are on the outside. You might tell, "Okay, you're a reporter," and you can have multiple reporters. In fact, it's really interesting to have multiple reporters, 'cause sometimes they see things differently and they report out different things. Your silent contributor, I really love this role. So like they follow on as if they were in the conversation, but they're not in it. And at the end, you get the chance to say to them, "What would you have said?" And then the shadower. And when you're a shadower, you're directly assigned to a student in the inner circle. So your job is to say, did she speak loudly and clearly? Did she give reasons and evidence for her statements? Did she use the text? Did she paraphrase accurately?

Kellan McNulty: Typically, once students get used to this, they do very well with it.

Katie Kirkpatrick: The thing that's compelling about this specific model is that it shows up everywhere, you know. So how is it that you can convince your mom to buy you a cell phone? How are you going to convince a college to accept you? I mean, those situations require critical thinking, and argumentation skills, and we all use them in our daily lives so frequently.

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Video Credits


  • Zachary Fink


  • Mariko Nobori


  • Alyssa Fedele

Associate Producer

  • Doug Keely


  • Zachary Fink

Video Programming Producer

  • Amy Erin Borovoy


The Benefits of Using the Critical-Thinking Model

Thinking critically is one thing, but being able to teach it can be quite another.

Using questioning techniques, 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.

There's often the misconception that teaching critical thinking is more work. But if teachers have some  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.

How It's Done

Defining Critical Thinking in the Classroom  

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.

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:

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

One of the hardest things for new teachers is that 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.

Comments (3) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

David B. Cohen's picture
David B. Cohen
English teacher; NBCT; writer; consultant

I don't understand why this video mentions KIPP over and over. There's nothing about the school, the teachers, the training, the techniques, or the students that is particularly noteworthy. Socratic seminars and fishbowls are well known and widely used techniques, and have been for decades. This video just shows teachers talking about those techniques and providing some explanations. For teachers who haven't tried these techniques, it could be moderately useful video. These people could have been almost any teachers in almost any secondary school, but every 30 seconds or so, we're reminded, these are KIPP teachers in a KIPP school. What's the big deal?

Mr. Goldberg's picture
Mr. Goldberg
7th grade Humanities/Special Education Teacher

I agree the comment above. This is very much like another video and article posted with Edutopia. Sounds like a commercial for KIPP more than an honest exploration of critical thinking. Lots of great public school do this too. Nothing special about KIPP here.

Mariko Nobori's picture
Mariko Nobori
Former Managing Editor and Producer, Edutopia

David B. Cohen: Thank you for your comment. This video is part of a full feature on KIPP King Collegiate High School, a school we selected for the ways they are using critical thinking to close the achievement gap. Our goal with this video was to provide practical suggestions for teachers who are perhaps not as familiar with how to facilitate Socratic discussions in their classroom. This school provides PD for their staff specifically in this area with very clear techniques that we wanted to share.

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