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August 29, 2018

Heavy Lifting: The Exercise of Critical Thinking

Each year as we head back into the classroom, our minds are filled with all the lessons, units, benchmarks, and projects we have planned in order to cover all of this year’s content. While we are focused on all the specific content and skills, we can lose sight of the bigger picture. More so than teaching facts, we want to make sure we do the heavy lifting and teach our students exercise their critical thinking muscles.

Dr. Seuss’s Miss Bonkers eloquently expresses the importance of thinking when she encourages her students not to fret about an impending test:

We’ve taught you that the earth is round,
That red and white make pink,
And something else that matters more —
We’ve taught you how to think.”
“Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!” Dr. Seuss, with some help from Jack Prelutsky & Lane Smith, 1998

Teaching students how to think is tricky and abstract. Teaching students facts and formulas is fairly concrete; we can tell them information, give them defined ways of practicing, and then clearly measure if they know it or not. Thinking is different. It’s not a discrete skill we learn and then move on from. It’s also hard to measure whether students are getting better at it.

Getting better at thinking means flexing those muscles every day; if we don’t, they can atrophy. Of course, students flex their critical thinking muscles a little in every lesson, but they can make even better progress with some intentional skill-building. You can do this by asking thoughtful questions on the fly in discussions, or adding them at the end of any homework assignment. If you use Pear Deck, we’ve made a pack of templates for you to insert directly into any slide presentation.

Behaviors to look out for

To help you combat thinking atrophy in your classroom, we've put together a list of behaviors to look out for, as well ways you can counteract those thinking behaviors each day.

Behavior: Taking information at face value
Counteractive Measure: Ask students to identify the missing information. “What else do you want to know?” or, “What other information do you need to figure this out or draw a conclusion?”

Behavior: Stating an opinion but not knowing why they have that opinion
Counteractive Measure: Ask students to explain. “Why do you think that?” or, “What evidence would make you reconsider your opinion?”

Behavior: Only considering one point of view
Counteractive Measure: Ask students to consider or imagine another point of view. “What might someone else think about this?” Pair students up with someone who has a different point of view.

Behavior: Drawing a conclusion without reason
Counteractive Measure: Ask students to explain their reasoning. “What evidence from the text supports your conclusion?” or, “What steps did you take to get that answer?"

Behavior: Seeing each class and unit of study as separated and unrelated
Counteractive Measure: Ask students to make connections between different topics. “How does today’s lesson relate to last month’s unit?”

Behavior: Not being able to come up with multiple ideas for approaching a problem or project
Counteractive Measure: Ask students to think creatively. “How might we…”

Behavior: Not being able to come to a conclusion or an opinion at all
Counteractive Measure: Ask students what they think. “What did you like about that lesson?” or, “What was confusing?”

Behavior: Not knowing the difference between a judgment and an observation
Counteractive Measure: Ask students to observe what they see without judgment. “What do you see?”

No matter the content, push students daily to explain, consider, observe, ask, and wonder. This explicit thinking about thinking will not only help students with this particular unit, but also make it easier for them to apply lessons from this unit to the next unit, or to another class.


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