Learning Activities To Promote Critical Thinking

June 12, 2014, Volume 1, Issue 5, No. 8

Driving Question:  What Does Critical Thinking Look and Sound Like in an Elementary Classroom?

The other day, I walked into one of our primary multi-aged classroom communities. I noticed many wonderful things. It was clear the students were engaged in what they were doing.

These young students were working on an inquiry unit related to force and motion. Students were engaged in reading paperback books, articles and e-books individually and/or with partners. Other students were using their iPads to view videos related to force and motion. Many of the students were recording notes on their iPads or on paper while watching the videos or reading. A few students were experimenting with different materials such as ramps, matchbox cars, marbles, etc. to experiment and learn about force and motion.

Later, students met in small groups and engaged in discussions related to what they learned or discovered through these activities. Their conversations led the students to synthesize their new learning, reflect on the learning experiences they had, and make connections to how this new information relates to the essential question of their current inquiry unit.

It is clear that these students were working on thinking critically.

For us, critical thinking happens when students analyze and evaluate evidence, arguments, claims and beliefs. They can then learn how to make judgments and decisions based on others' points of view, interpret information and draw conclusions.

Fostering Critical Thinking
Four main approaches have made the biggest impact on our children's critical thinking:

Inquiry
"One way we try to foster critical thinking skills in our classroom is by allowing our students to be creative and to inquire about topics that are of interest to them." Katie Hart, Professional Educator

We incorporate cross-curricular inquiry to foster deep learning. The students work through the phases of immersion, investigation, coalescence and demonstration of learning. Throughout these phases the students are able to wonder, build background knowledge, develop questions, search for new information, synthesize information, demonstrate an understanding and share their new learning with others. Throughout inquiry, the students tie everything together through an essential question which helps them probe for deeper meaning. These questions are open-ended, encourage collaboration and foster the development of critical thinking skills.

Questioning
"We push students to dig deeper in their learning by asking guiding questions and providing a variety of resources for students to independently find answers. Throughout their learning, we encourage students to ask and answer their own questions through small group discussions, conferring, working on their Personalized Learning Plans and using graphic organizers." Elizabeth Hatab and Sarah Suesskind, Professional Educators

Questioning plays a critical role in cultivating critical thinking skills and deep learning. Questioning models for students how they should think. Our professional educators use open-ended questions to encourage discussion and active learning. We also incorporate questioning into our everyday discussions with students.

Problem Solving
"In the 4K/5K classrooms, we don't just give students answers to issues or problems they are having. Instead, we turn the problem onto them and ask how could they solve this problem. This allows the child opportunities to solve their problems independently." Teresa Lutzen, Professional Educator

Problem solving extends our inquiry work. It is important that our students think for themselves. In problem solving they apply the critical thinking strategies they have learned.

Collaboration
"Integrating meaningful learning experiences that promote critical thinking skills is essential in cultivating a classroom of 21st Century learners. One way we do this is by actively involving the students in their learning through collaborative work. This helps the students take ownership of the learning and think critically about issues." Patti Kaisler and Rebecca O-Grosky, Professional Educators.

Our student-centered learning environments are varied and flexible to accommodate the needs of learners and provide ongoing opportunities to build a collaborative community of students and staff. Our environments promote collaborative, individual, small and large group learning.
Students learn in collaborative flexible groups based on need. When students collaborate together they learn how to communicate with others effectively, work as a team, practice self-discipline, and improve social and interpersonal skills. Through collaboration, students are able to have a better understanding of what they are learning and improve critical thinking skills.

And Beyond
There are many other ways that we foster critical thinking among our learners, but these are the four that have made the biggest impact for us. Critical thinking is a key skill that our students need to have in order to become life-long learners and self-advocates for themselves.


Stacey Lange is an Academic Dean at Walker Elementary School and is part of the instructional services team for the West Allis–West Milwaukee School District. Her district, West Allis-West Milwaukee, is part of the Next Generation Learning Initiative, an effort that involves all teachers working to transform learning for all students. Her school is a P21 Exemplar.  @LangeStacey


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There are few buzzwords in K-12 right now as big as "rigor." The Common Core has been hailed by advocates as a more rigorous set of standards, but a big question that keeps popping up is how to measure that rigor. A good place to start is with evidence, which is what many of the new tests plan on incorporating into their structure. 

Using evidence — the ability to support and explain your point — is not only a good way to measure rigor, but an important skill for students to learn. It gives insight into a person's train of thought and how they came to their conclusion, additionally opening opportunities for more innovative, but also structured, thinking patterns.  

Placing emphasis on how a student backs up what they believe, and not "the answer," takes pressure off of a student to get the "right" answer — or what they think the teacher wants to hear. This, in turn, encourages students to be creative with their thinking. Through emphasis on evidence, teachers can facilitate an environment where deep, critical thinking and meta cognition are the norm. 

Below are some activities to help teachers incorporate curiosity, evidence, and critical thinking into their classrooms.  

1. Gap Fill In

Students are shown a picture, projected in the front of the room, if possible. At the top of their paper, students should write: "What is happening in this picture?" At the bottom of the page, they should answer (very simply, in 1-2 sentences) with what they believe is happening in the photo.

In the middle of the page — and this is why it's called "Gap Fill In" — students write down all of the steps they took to arrive at that answer. Students are encouraged to write down the evidence they see that supports their conclusion.  

GOAL: This activity not only uses evidence, but supports meta cognition skills by asking what prior knowledge brought you to your conclusion. This is a good activity to Bell Work or "Do Now."

Example Gap Fill In image (images should be modified to match grade level)

2. Fishbowl 

Set up an inner circle (or fishbowl) and an outer circle in your classroom. Students should not be sitting in this setup yet, but rather in their regular classroom seats. The class should be presented with a question or a statement and allowed to reflect individually for a few minutes.

During this reflection period, count the class off into small groups by 3s, 4s, or 5s.

Students should now transition to the fishbowl setup. In the numbered groups, have students facilitate a conversation while others on the outside observe without comment. (For example, a teacher may have all 1s go to the fishbowl, while the rest of the class sits in the outer ring.)  

Once the inner group has discussed for a bit, have the outer group evaluate two things: Their process (Did they listen to one another?) and their content (Did they provide evidence or just opinions?).

GOAL: This activity helps students understand how and if they use evidence, as well as hear the difference between giving an opinion and backing an opinion with evidence.  

Debate

Introduce a statement written in a clearly visible location. (Example: "Prisons are effective in stopping crime.") In each corner of the classroom, positions (Strongly Agree, Strongly Disagree, Somewhat Agree, Somewhat Disagree) should be posted and students should be asked to move to whichever best represents how they feel about the statement.  

Without help from the teacher, students should move into a self-facilitated discussion where everyone is to discuss why they have selected their position. During this time, the teacher should transcribe the speech of the participants. If possible, this should be done in real-time with the transcription projected onto the board during the debate.

After a decided amount of time (5-7 minutes), the debate will be concluded and students will return to their seats for debrief, during which the class should evaluate the debate using the transcription as evidence.

Ask the class: Was the debate good or bad? Use evidence from the transcription to support your analysis.  

After the first classroom debate, the teacher should present the rules for the debate. It is recommended that the teacher conduct the first debate without rules, so students can have a comparison for what works and what doesn't work.

Rules for debate:

A. SEEK first to understand the statement, EVERY WORD.

B. PROJECT your voice; don’t yell.

C. Your PERSONAL experience is NOT the rule. Connect it to bigger example.

D. RESTATE the previous point made, make your point, and move on.

E. General examples, ok to start; SPECIFIC EVIDENCE, this kid’s SMART!

GOAL: This activity allows students to not only debate a point, but, like the fishbowl, analyze their communication skills. Additionally, by keeping the transcription log, students can actually see how they progress throughout the year.  

These activities can and should be morphed to match the culture and needs of the individual classroom.  This specific list comes from activities used in the Allied Media: Detroit Future Schools curriculum.  

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