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You Gotta Believe!

What Was...

     As I finish my 25th year of teaching that actually started in 1982 (subtract ten years spent being a stay at home mom), you have to understand that I have seen teaching transform.  I have participated in transformation, and again, and then again...some little changes and some really big ones.  I have gone from only teaching whole group lessons to classes of 39 kids, only using worksheets, to using fancier, cuter worksheets, to becoming convinced that small differentiated groups and Daily 5 are the best things since sliced bread.  We at least can agree that a combination of quality whole group lessons in combination with research-based small group instruction and engagement are the gold standard in teaching elementary today.  I truly hope that this system of mixing the two, working with small groups to meet needs,  and finding quality, engaging activities for students stays around for awhile.

     I have seen state testing become high stakes testing.  In Texas, it has gone from TABS, to TEAMS, to TAAS, to STAAR. Testing has become the be-all, end-all in our classrooms from third grade through high school, as you all know!  We've gone from being terrified to "teach the test" to blatantly teaching to the test through district standards.  We have no choice. The TEST is ever in the forefront of our minds.  Teachers have honed strategies that work for them. Some of the strategies are good, and some, who really knows.  Still, I've watched some of my teaching friends hold on to a strategy like it was worth millions, and sadly it's just an "ok" strategy that the teacher loves and can't part with.  I have a few of those myself.  They become our lifelines, like friends we rely on, year after year! And please, nobody come along and make us change that teaching strategy for something else! Don't move our cheese, right?! We all have one way that works well for us. So, yay, strategies!  We do need them sometimes, but we can't solely rely on those.

What Is...

     Next cool thing to rock our teaching world...critical thinking. How many times have you heard a co-worker say, "they just don't know how to think!" That's right, they don't.  They may not even know they're smart!  We have to teach them that they can think.

Cue: QuadrantsBloomsActionVerbsRigorandRelevanceDepthandComplexity

Reading Rockets website defines it like this:  
          "In layperson's terms, critical thinking consists of seeing both sides of an issue, being 
           open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning dispassionately, demanding                 that claims be backed by evidence, deducing and inferring conclusions from available 
           facts, solving problems, and so forth."     

Further clarification about critical thinking and higher order thinking: 
       Our district is working hard to bring critical thinking to front and center of our planning, PLCs, and PD's.  THIS makes me happy!  I am a GT teacher, so critical thinking is "where it's at."  Yet another mandate coming down the pike stresses teachers out.  It takes a great deal of extra planning and thought to weave the quality activities using Bloom's, rigor, relevance, depth and complexity into a daily lesson plan and implementation.  The teachers in our district have a huge heart to do what is best for the kids, as most all teachers do. There is that buy-in aspect that we are working on!  I think we are better than we were a year ago because of it.

What's Missing...

     So here's the disconnect. We are busy planning for our small groups...which by law need to be guided by research-based instruction. We are busy making sure we use technology and keep them all engaged while thinking critically, at all times. Then there's the constant focus on testing that permeates our days and nearly every meeting, lesson, and lesson plan we are involved in. When we rely on practice strategies that teach the tested skills, where does the critical thinking component come in?  We're busy! There is not 100% buy-in from teachers that the critical thinking activities can replace direct instruction of strategies and will bring about the desired skills needed to pass a standardized test. Direct instruction and critical thinking can and should go hand in hand. Time is too precious for another experiment or program to help us teach better!
     There is possibly a lack of trust, and understandably so, on the teachers' part that bringing in large doses of critical thinking is actually going to bring about desired results, and who has time for the extra planning?  If I need to teach main idea and details, I have a direct strategy for that.  How can I be sure that using open-ended activities and critical thinking will get the students "test ready?" First, I think you have to hit a skill from several angles.  The critical thinking activity might be an introduction and then again as a review.  It might be part of the practice phase of a new skill.  I believe if we use the critical thinking components and plan intentionally to consider students' thinking skills in our planning and implementation, we will see results.  We will see more confident students who believe in their abilities. (Kids grow when they use their brain in more ways than answering multiple choice questions.)  Then the next step could be your tried and true strategy.  Next could be the practice in a small teacher-led group for those who still don't have "it." We have to learn to make Blooms part of our lives and our plans...again.  Plan your questions/discussions ahead of time.  Allow the kids to talk and give them something important to talk about!

     We have to change our mindsets when it comes to critical thinking.  It takes work to plan an activity that has both real-world relevance and requires higher level thinking. Here is a tool shared with me by one of my wonderful coworkers (thanks Stephanie H.!)  It is a tool from Byrdseed (LOVE HIS WORK) that will help you to come up with real objectives that take kids deeper with focus on process, depth, and products.  I simply LOVE this tool!  What a help with planning! You're welcome.                http://byrdseed.com/differentiator/#

      Here are some questions to ponder as you move on a determined path to teaching your students to think more critically:

  • How are our classrooms structured?  In what ways is thinking encouraged?  (Of course you encourage thinking...but is it presumed that your kids know that they can think beyond a right or wrong answer?)
  • Do kids know what you mean when you say "create," "propose," "evaluate," and etc...
  • Do kids read with the idea of being responsible for sharing their thoughts about the story or article? (e.g., not just answering multiple choice questions to prepare for "the test") 
  • Do students know how to look at a topic through multiple perspectives? 
  • Do you provide time for them to think?  Time to discuss with their peers?
  • Do they know how to disagree with each other appropriately?
  • Do they feel free to disagree; do they even care to disagree?
  • Can they defend their positions; do they want to defend their position?
  • Can they change their minds if they are persuaded?
  • Are they passionate about their thoughts and ideas?
  • Do you give them consistent opportunity to use oral language to express ideas?
  • Do they automatically know to back up their ideas with evidence from text or other sources? 

That passion is partly up to you, teaching friends. Using oral language goes beyond just answering a single question out loud.  I like to use Socratic Seminar to teach kids to think critically while they read fiction or nonfiction. It has all the opportunities for oral language that I need to incorporate and critical thinking is built right in.

What's Practical... 

     Inference is naturally a critical thinking skill.  Maybe that is why it's so hard to teach. Maybe that's why kids struggle with it, because they have yet to learn how to think critically.  I teach the definition of "inference" explicitly at the beginning of the year.  We never stop working on it all year. They understand that an inference is not just what they think, but requires text evidence.  To teach inference, I use a pre-reading activity in combination with Socratic Seminar.  In the pre-reading activity, I may give them excerpts from the story and have them use the text to make an inference about the story or characters. They then confirm those inferences while reading. We underline clues that led us to the inference.  Socratic Seminars bring in the oral language and critical thinking every time!  I also like the idea of using Critical Friends (free from Ms. Furnas on TPT!) when students present a project or have researched a topic.

     Teaching summary seems straight forward enough.  How do we provide critical thinking opportunities for something so basic as characters, problem, solution?  How about assigning students at tables/in groups a writing assignment after reading a story?  Assign students to write three answer choices for "best summary" of a story you have just read.  Instruct them to create one of them to be "the best",  another the "pretty good", and the third one "not so good."  They then could share their work and the class chooses the correct summary from each group!  What if students had to combine pre-written sentence strips to create a good summary. Include some sentences that didn't belong at all. They would have to distinguish between the sentences that belonged and those that didn't.  This works well with main idea/details too.  So many ways to get higher level and critical thinking into our day!

     I am convinced that keeping a Blooms list of verbs in your view at all planning times and intentionally planning for critical thinking in our classrooms are the best ways to get results on those stubborn tested standards.  (BTW, if you do nothing else today, join this website and get some great information on critical thinking and serving gifted students! http://www.byrdseed.com/

     The good news is teaching critical thinking goes even beyond our classrooms. Adults who can solve problems and work collaboratively are the people employers want to hire.  We become an even more integral part of a child's future when we teach them to think.  I'm certain that teachers are the hardest working people on earth.  We just have to believe that teaching kids to think is going to produce the results we dream of for them. BELIEVE!

Smith, Vernon G., and Antonia Szymanski. "Critical Thinking: More Than Test Scores." ERIC - Education Resources Information Center. NCPEA International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, Oct. 2013. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.

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