Critical thinking, Teaching Pedagogy

Critical Thinking. What is it? Part 1

It’s funny how things work.excited

I was super excited to make my first post last week. ūüôā
I was hoping there would be at least one person who might be interested in a way to promote critical thinking in the classroom. I was ecstatic with the positive results from my post. However, the focus wasn’t where I expected, most of the¬†dialogue that happened was from people wondering what “critical thinking” actually is.

I received a lot of emails with¬†the same theme….“I am pressured to promote critical thinking in my classroom. I think I know what it is, but I’ve never been given any professional development in this area so I feel like I’m teaching it through my personal lens¬†and I have no idea if it is right???” A lot of comments were along similar lines.

So, I promised those¬†readers, my next post would be about critical thinking. Now, to be honest, I’m not an expert at this topic, however, I’ve been teaching a long time and I’ve done a lot of research and I’m hoping to share this knowledge with you.

To start, Barry K. Beyer (a social educationalist) defines critical book
thinking as “the process of¬†determining the authenticity, accuracy, and worth of information or knowledge claims. It consists of a number of discrete skills” (Beyer, 1985). ¬†Beyer is a leading author of many books on this topic both university based textbooks for students and easier to read books for the rest of us. ¬†If you click on the image to the right, you can check out all of the books on Amazon that he has authored and co-authored.

I’ve been in the business for awhile now and even to me, that definition doesn’t really help me implement the concept of critical thinking into my classroom (no offense Mr. Beyer). ¬†However, the key is in what he refers to as “discrete skills”. ¬†It is these discrete skills; analysis, evaluation, and inference¬†that we as Teachers need to aim to include in our unit and lesson plans. ¬†Please note: ¬†there are many theories of many different “skills” that fall under the critical thinking category, however most theorists can agree that most cognitive thinking skills can be categorized into the three groups above (Duron R, Limbach B, Waugh W, 2006).

As you can see, I’ve researched the theories that I’ve included in this blog to show credibility to my information, however the rest of this post will be written in language directly geared toward Teachers in the classroom. ¬†It is still based on my readings and research, I will just be putting into easier language and giving real-life examples from my own classroom.

So, the skills we are trying to incorporate into our lessons are:  analysis, evaluation and inference.

Analytical skilllove-699480_1920   Currently my students are working on a large presentation revolving around the Religious meaning of Easter (I teach in a Catholic School).   To heighten engagement and product quality I have allowed the students to choose the specific topic they want to inform the audience about and I have allowed them to choose the method they will present.

To get them started on the right track, I had the students do a mind map on the board of all the different ways we learn best. ¬†Students came up with the typical methods: ¬†hands on, visual, oral, etc. ¬†However there were a couple that surprised me. ¬†I was surprised at how many students say if they want to learn something well, they use YouTube….I think I’m showing a bit of my age by not expecting the popularity of YouTube. ¬†I was also intrigued by a few students who said if they are physically active (sports or gym class), they learn better. ¬†Although I was aware of the published data that proves this is a¬†true fact, I was surprised that the students were already aware of this fact.

After we had all the different learning styles on the board, I had them switch the lens that they looked through and I asked them to make a list of what things, off that mind map, that they were good at.  I asked them to think about their strengths and talents and I asked them to pick three things off the board that they could incorporate into a presentation.

notepad-117597_1280Some students are choosing to write an essay to share their knowledge (they are strong writers and love to write so this makes sense), I have a group of students doing videos (they already have their own YouTube channels, with followers, so this makes sense). ¬†And then I have a group of students who signed up to do a video and then came to me right away and said “how do I make a video”? ¬† I was a bit perplexed¬†that a student would make a decision to choose a medium for a presentation that they know nothing about.

Although I am proud of them for stepping outside their comfort zone, we did have a chat exploring the idea of whether this is a good decision for this assignment considering they will be presenting for an achievement level and this task does have a deadline that might not facilitate enough time for the steep learning curve of shooting and editing a video.  I will never tell a student they cannot choose to do something creative and fun (especially if I gave them a choice), but this experience did make me contemplate my role in facilitating students trying something new, yet realistic enough to help them understand when is it the time to choose something they know they are already good at.

I will always be letting the students decide how they deliver the information, however with guidance, I am hoping they understand that when they make a decision, the decision has to be sensible given the information that is available (in this case what presentation skills they are proficient in and the amount of time needed to learn an in-depth skill of creating a video presentation).  I did make the suggestion that if they are interested in learning video production to start it as a side project/hobby and maybe for assignments in the future, their skills will be honed to produce a wonderful product.

Allowing the students to make an informed choice is an example of promoting analysis in the classroom.  Giving the students the opportunity to make a decision that is realistic given the information at hand is one way to force them to analyse the information they have and what decision suits them best.  For students who struggle with this skill, a bit of guidance to show them HOW to make an informed decision in each case that arises are ways we can improve this skill for the students.  It all starts with forcing the students to choose and make a decision.  That in itself is hard for some autocratic teachers to do (it took me years to be comfortable handing over the decision making and problem solving reins to the students), but it is worth it in the long run!

The project is currently on-going and I have asked the strong videographers in the class to run a mini-workshop for those students who are interested in learning how to make a film-reel-147631_1280video (which in itself was an excellent experience – to watch the students pass on their skills and knowledge to other students in need – a heartwarming experience for sure)! ¬†I even had one student tell me that he’s going to try to do a video but if it doesn’t work out, he’ll spend the weekend doing an alternate presentation. ¬†I asked him if he understands he’s setting himself up for the potential of having to do double the work, and his response is ” yes, I know that Miss, but the way I look at it, is if I have to do two presentations, I will really know my content by the time I have to present it.” ¬†Yes, this is a grade 8 student, and no he wasn’t kidding with this comment, yes, I am confident that with his dedication to his studies he means this with all his heart, and yes, my heart was warmed yet again, and it’s these moments that remind me why I became a Teacher! ¬†Some days I love my job!

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article where I continue with the critical thinking skill of evaluation.

Please note:  When passing over the reins of decision making and problem solving skills to the students, not all decisions should be given over to Teenagers.  I still have my rules and routines in the classroom (like no cellphones) but if I handed over those decisions, my positive, professional learning environment would be compromised.  Our challenge as a Teacher is to find the times where students can have control over their own personal educational journey without compromising the safety or integrity of the classroom.  That is where the challenge lies for most of us!


Beyer, Barry K.  Critical Thinking: What Is It? Social Education, v49 n4 p270-76 Apr 1985

Duron R, Limbach B, Waugh W, 2006. Critical thinking framework for any discipline. IJTLHE.  17(2):160-166

Inquiry-Based Learning, Teaching Pedagogy

Stumbling Upon Inquiry-based Learning to Promote Critical Thinking in Students

Inquiry-based learning.human-724042_1920

Problem solving, questioning, wondering, building resiliency, search for knowledge.

These are the skills that we as Teachers are being asked to develop in our 21st century learners.

It’s an easy concept.  We want to teach in a way that opens a student’s mind to intrigue them to ask their own questions.  We want our students to become independent deducers who have autonomy over the direction and depth of their education.

Sounds great!  Most of us Teachers are on board because we value encouraging creative thinking and problem solving….but one of the big questions I have been struggling with for awhile now is, how?

flat-2126884_1280With the subjects predetermined by the curriculum (and no offence to anyone who created this curriculum but a lot of the topics are not inquiry friendly), how are we ever to stimulate student engagement and hold their attention, especially in the new age of entertainment and instant gratification for this generation?

I had a fantastic experience last week that I’d like to share with you, and I think I may have figured out at least one method that will work for me in the future in trying to improve my inquiry-based teaching methods.

It started with me entering my classroom, super excited to share with my students that I have been vindicated as a parent!  I filled in the back story wit20170222_162450_resizedh them by telling them I was having a problem getting my two young children to stop eating snow (we live up North and eating snow is a common occurrence at our house).  When I got out of my car the night before, this is what I saw in my driveway (I showed them the image to the right.  Yes, those are my shoes). There were three large puddles that looked like the same as this one (I thought at first they were oil slicks Рa bit of panic ensued thinking my truck had sprung a leak).

When my children and I looked closer, we realized we were looking at a puddle of bugs!¬† I vaguely remembered a colleague of mine telling me about snow fleas that lived in the snow.¬† I told my children this is what they were.¬† My daughter was mortified!¬† She looked at me and exclaimed ‚ÄúI am never eating snow again mommy‚ÄĚ!¬† I was thrilled that my message has finally gotten through about the snow eating!

So, as I am sharing this story with my students, I put the image of the puddle of the snow fleas up.¬† After I was finished my “parent of the year” (lol) story, one of my students put up their hand and asked ‚ÄúMiss, are those actually fleas, like the ones that live on my dog?‚Ä̬† Another student put up their hand and asked me ‚ÄúDid you touch the puddle Miss?¬† What did it feel like?‚Ä̬† Yet another student put up their hand and asked ‚ÄúWhy were they all hanging around in one area, why aren‚Äôt they more spread out?‚ÄĚ

I‚Äôm looking around the room and realizing they are actually INTERESTED in these little fleas (they aren‚Äôt actually fleas by the way).¬† I was astounded by how many students wanted to know more about this subject.¬† As an experienced Teacher, I knew this was what education gurus call a ‚Äúteachable moment‚ÄĚ, and I wanted to see how far the critical thinking questions¬†would take us.

IMG_7771The first thing I did when I got home that night was I collected a generous sample of snow fleas.  I put them in a jar and I placed them on my desk at school.  That jar became the topic of conversation at lunches, and after school (I had students hanging around during their time off to just chat about our observations of the jar Рand to continue to ask their questions).  I even heard students talking about the snow fleas among themselves Рfor example how they are actually called Springtails because of how they jump.

This is just a sample of the full lab

We compiled a list of questions on the board that the students had, and we researched as many answers as we could using the internet.  We decided to do a field study (we went outside onto our school campus) to find and study them in their own environment.  We found most of them by trees and even examined the population variations between deciduous and coniferous trees.  This ended up turning into a full science lab.

Since we have been working on writing a variety of paragraphs, we turned our research into an informational paragraph to inform people of our new learning.  And I incorporated a reading passage with questions to touch on the reading strand of language.

From a picture I put up on the Smartboard, I was able to plan a whole unit around Springtails that was driven by my students inquiry.  They have been engaged for the whole unit and I’m thinking about expanding the unit even more.  An oral presentation explaining what they find the most fascinating about the species, or even a drama presentation acting out a day in the life of a Springtail (ok, ok, I think I might be out of control lol).

If you look into most educational curriculums, you will not find the topic of Springtails having to be covered, however with a bit of creative thinking (living organism from the cellular unit), a cross-curricular link to the Language Arts curriculum, and even throwing in a visual art assignment for their title page for their science lab, I have found myself with engaged students, high-degree of creativity in their finished products, and some assessment and evaluation marks that will allow me to continue to see my students skills and successes grow.  A win-win for everyone.

With spring coming, I can‚Äôt wait to see what new living thing I will stumble across to engage my students‚Äô creative and inquiry thinking! ¬†I know they won’t be enthralled with everything I bring into the classroom (I’m thinking of bringing in some fungi next – I’m totally engrossed in the topic, but I have no idea what the students will think), but when I find those gems that do work, I will share them with you and I hope you can take the time to start a chat here in the hopes that we can all share our inquiry successes. ¬†Teaching is better with teamwork for sure!

Please drop me a line if you have any cool topics or items that you have had similar experiences with engaging your students!