Friday, April 4, 2014

Guidance for Teaching Critical Thinking Skills

“Think harder,” I sometimes hear a teacher say, and I, too, have said it many times.

What I’ve come to realize, though, is that students have already retrieved their answer, and if they’ve given me an incorrect response, they don’t know the answer, so all I’m getting at this point from them is a guess. 

In truth, the question must not have been much of a thinking question if there was a single correct answer.  That question most likely only required recall. 

We need recall; there’s a good bit of information that we need to be able to retrieve instantly so we store it in our brains to be able to recall it at just the right times to support our thinking.  There are also lots of facts that don’t have to be stored in our brains; thanks to resources like Google, we can look up information on the go. 

More importantly, we must teach students higher order thinking skills; teaching critical thinking involves more than asking a question.  Not only must we move toward asking students to do higher level thinking, but also we must teach them how to think. 

Webb’s Depth of Knowledge classifies the ability to recall facts, information, and procedures as a Level 1 skill, namely Recall & Reproduction.  Much of what we ask students to do fall into DOK1:  define vocabulary, list information given in class, match terms, answer the 5Ws & H.  We repeatedly find these exercises in workbooks, worksheets, oral discussions, and on assessments.

A common misconception is that all open ended responses require critical thinking.  Not so.  Questions requiring students to fill in the blank to define a term or to list the steps of a procedure are DOK1.  The questions may be difficult because the student has to remember the information, but the question does not require critical thinking; those questions may not even require understanding.

Avoid the trap of believing that difficult questions require critical thinking and easy questions do not.  Difficulty does not equal rigor.  Rigor comes about from the mental processing required to produce a response. Similarly, an easy question could require critical thinking. 

When we ask students to apply what they’ve learned, we move up the ladder to DOK2.  Determining cause and effect (versus listing causes & effects memorized from notes), comparing and contrasting ideas, interpreting passages, making observations in a science lab, summarizing, and using context clues to gain meaning are examples of work at this level.

With strategic thinking, DOK3, students develop logical arguments, support their positions with evidence, critique others, draw conclusions, analyze, hypothesize, and use their knowledge to solve unusual problems. 

Extended Thinking, DOK4, occurs when students investigate problems, synthesize ideas from multiple sources, make connections, evaluate claims, and compose or create original works.

In a previous blog, I wrote about the skill of analysis, and I provided an example of breaking down the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution to demonstrate analysis.  We cannot tell students to analyze something without giving them the instruction that teaches them how to analyze. To do so would be assigning, not teaching. 

Increasing the rigor of our courses necessitates requiring critical thinking from students.  How often do you assess the quality of your questions?  Are you asking students to think critically?  Revisit your most recent test to label each item as DOK1, DOK2, DOK3, or DOK4.  List the questions you will ask in a class discussion and label their DOK levels.

I challenge you to increase the amount of critical thinking you ask students to do in your discussion and on your next assessment. But before you do so, make sure you teach them how.

For example, if we ask students to evaluate, they will need to first establish the criteria against which they will evaluate the subject.  What evidence will be used to determine the subject’s value? How well does the subject measure up to the established criteria?  Teaching students to work through the various steps of the process is necessary if students are to perform the critical thinking skill of evaluation. 

Likewise, students need to be taught how to explain.  An explanation includes a statement of the big idea supported by details in order to make the topic clear and understandable. Provide students with an explanation of an explanation.  Show them the elements that constitute a good explanation and offer models of explanations to help them learn this skill. 

Effective teachers teach thinking skills and provide a plethora of opportunities for students to practice these skills.
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There are some helpful resources available to help teachers better understand thinking.  Bellanca, Fogarty & Pete’s How to Teach Thinking Skills within the Common Core offers numerous teaching ideas.  Their text provides an analysis of several essential skills to help teachers understand the necessary elements of each.  Making Thinking Visible is Reinhardt, Church & Morrison’s  contribution.  This book provides exercises to teach thinking skills. Brookhart’s How to Assess Higher-Order Thinking Skills in Your Classroom provides some additional fodder to deepen teachers’ understanding and expand their skill base.

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