I sometimes think that my school indulges my madness too easily. A few years ago, I suggested that we offer Chess as an Option subject for our Grade 8s and 9s. I firmly believe that the lessons chess has to teach about structured, consequential thinking, pattern recognition and even creativity make it a crucial subject at any school. This year, I wangled a couple of periods for a Thinking Skills class for the Grade 8s. The intention was to teach critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving and metacognition.
Our school year in South Africa begins in January. It is now the middle of the year, and despite rigorous planning, we have gotten stuck on critical thinking in the Thinking Skills classes. The field is just so huge. And the students just seem to want to go deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. And I still have so much left to teach them…
Our big project for the year so far has been on conspiracy theories and the paranormal. Students were assigned topics on ESP, aliens, mermaids, and a variety of other out-there topics. By and large, what I’ve gotten back from the students has been brilliant. (Except perhaps for the group which insisted that mermaids were real because they saw it on Animal Planet. Oh woe is me.)
Despite the success I’ve had in my class in teaching critical thinking skills, I can’t help but wonder what other teachers think about teaching kids to be little skeptics. Is it appropriate? What are the benefits (if any)? Does it have any lasting value? Could it perhaps even be dangerous?
With this in mind, I sought to gather some perspectives from teachers in different countries and from different backgrounds.
How It Worked
The format I used was one suggested by my friend David Theriault: the #SlowChatEd platform. Essentially, this hashtag is used in the same way any hashtag is used in a Twitter chat. Only it’s a whole lot slower and more in depth – and you don’t feel like its a frantic rush.
You can read more about the #SlowChatEd concept here.
I published six questions over six days and summarised my favourite insights on Storify. Please navigate to the link below to have a squiz:
Here’s what I took from the experience:
There were some of what I call ‘soft opinions’. That is, thoughts and ideas that have become hackneyed in educational circles… like how we need to get kids to ‘think outside the box’ and that we need to ‘teach kids how to think, not what to think’. This may be because Twitter limits what an individual can say to 140 characters. It may also have been that people were seldom around long enough to pick up on the thread of a conversation or to spend time elaborating. As much as I prefer the #SlowChat Ed format, the regular, more frantic chats seem somehow to draw out more insightful contributions simply because people are engaged for a full hour.
Having said that, there were far more insightful thoughts than softer ones and some truly memorable moments.
There were some wonderful definitions of critical thinking. All of which are extremely useful. However, I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on the ‘critical’ aspect, and less on the ‘thinking’ part. Many participants seemed to think that critical thinking was the same thing as independent reasoning, and did not seem to realise how structured and methodical critical thinking truly is.
Google came in for some early flack, but participants did mention how important it is to use Google correctly. I am a big believer that kids need to be taught how to identify a credible source and how to use services like Google scholar. I am convinced that this does not happen in many schools. And it should.
Interestingly, the participants were unanimous in declaring that it is never too early to teach kids critical thinking. The trick, I think, is to offer critical thinking instruction in age appropriate ways.
I loved that participants suggested words other than ‘dumb’. As provocative (and true) as it may be to ask ‘Are schools making kids dumb?’ (my first question), participants correctly pointed out that it would be more meaningful if we used words like compliant, passive and docile. I think that these are more accurate and useful ways of thinking about what a lack of critical thinking in most schools is really doing to our kids.
An encouraging trend emerged in participants identifying teachers as the major reason why kids were not able to develop critical thinking abilities.
It was enjoyable engaging with interesting people from around the world. I was, however, left feeling that there is definitely a need to put something together to help teachers to teach kids to think critically in a methodical, relevant way.
Watch this space…
I’ve created a number of posts on critical thinking:
I also share a great deal on critical thinking on Twitter.