Teaching Kids to Think

A few weeks ago, I sat in this professional development class. The topic was student feedback, and how we as educators, can use strategies to increase student learning without also increasing teacher time. The strategies were great–things like asking your students to write a checklist before you grade, so you know what kind of feedback you want, or using tech tools, such as Dragon speech or online submission, to speak or type feedback, so that we can maximize student feedback and growth, and minimize teacher work time.

In my own class, I always struggle with how to set up these feedback sessions so that the time is productive. As any good teacher would do, I always devise these checklists for student peers to check for–are their words spelled correctly? do they follow MLA format? are the quotes integrated?–as a teacher, when I give my students peer feedback time, I’m always really encouraged that I watch them marking up each other’s papers, that I can hear the conversations regarding their writing, and that they are asking clarifying questions–and then I’m disappointed when the papers come in, and it seems like all of that was a waste of time and we are back to un-integrated quotes, poor thesis statements, ambiguous arguments (although, I do have to put some ownership back on the students–it could be that the peer feedback assignment was helpful, but the writer just did not go home and revise before turning it).

So, as I sat in this professional development course, all I could think about was how, when we give our students these checklists and peer feedback instructions, we are certainly targeting the grammatical and mechanical errors in writing–but how do we teach our students to think? to be able to recognize whether or not the evidence supports the thesis statement? if the argument is sound and error proof? As teachers, we often give grades and feedback based on these grammatical and mechanical errors, because those are trivial, easy to spot, we can qualify if the part of speech is used correctly or not–but testing students’ ideas is much messier, much more difficult to concretely defend, more time consuming.

So, how do we get our students to think (rather than just spot comma splices and un-capitalized words)?

  1. Ask good questions in class: I always love going back through my first years of lesson plans because they are so, so bad. I look at the discussion questions I gave my students and understand exactly why their discussions hit dead ends and why their end of the year assessments were so low. It was because I did not ask good questions, and by not asking good questions, the students were not challenged in their thinking.

    I believe there is a strong connection between reading, writing, speaking, and discussing. The more I read, the better writer I become; the more I discuss, the better my ideas can be, the better writer I am, the better I read; we read to have a platform to bounce ideas off of, we discuss so that we can generate ideas, we write so that we can practice defending those ideas. So, if I want the content of my students’ writing to be better–I want them to have more concise arguments, better examples, stronger explanations, then I must give them practice answering good questions that expand upon their thinking.

    A good question goes beyond the “who, what, when, and where”, and asks the students to consider why and how; rather than asking on who do you like more, we might ask, “how does Capote create empathy towards Perry?”; instead of asking, “what narration style does To Kill a Mockingbird use?, we might ask, “why does Harper Lee write in first person past tense?”; instead of asking, “what evidence is used to support the claim?”, we might inquire, “how does the evidence support the argument?”. Ultimately, in asking those good questions, we are still asking the students to identify the who, what, when, and where–but we are also asking them to explain how and why those things function, and thus, deepening student thinking that will (hopefully) deepen student writing.

  2. Defend their answers: I always tell my students that, I don’t care what you think, as long as you can defend your ideas with something other than, “well, because my parents said so”. You could tell me that you were visited by aliens last night, and if you could provide some solid, logical evidence, then I’m in support of your ideas. So, any opportunity for students to practice defending their ideas will develop their thinking skills that will (also hopefully) translate into their writing and their explanations in that.

    I love teaching freshmen, because this is often the year of the steepest learning curve. My current freshmen just turned in timed essays, and it was inspiring to see how, in just over a course of a year, they have gone from writing mere summaries of a passage, to actually including some points of explanation and analysis, and part of that improvement is from the continuous practice of defending their answers; whether it is in discussion, writing, small groups, large groups, or casual conversations, and I hear the students make a statement (“Shakespeare is making fun of love”, “We should limit exposure to social media”, “Americans smell funny”), I simply ask, “Why do you think that?”. It’s interesting too, because sometimes, when asked to actually defend their answers, students will back track and realize that they actually think the opposite thing–but this is what discussion is for–to practice generating and supporting ideas before the ‘formal’ event of writing. And, because analysis and explanation is such a critical part of writing, asking our students to defend their answers gives them the practice to do this in that more formal setting (and, it’s also a form of identity formation–being able to articulate why I think something and where that idea came from).

  3. Make connections: I’ve been teaching Theories of Knowledge, a requirement of the IB Programme, and part of the curriculum involved connecting two potentially seemingly unrelated ideas together. Just the other day, my seniors were discussing the purpose of art; I gave each group two statements (art for economic gain, art for aesthetic appeal, art to develop skills, art for personal expression, etc), and they had to create a piece of art that represented that statement, and each piece must use a different mode (so, one could be a art, another could be a sculpture; one could be a poem, another could be a painting), and it actually turned out to be the best way I’ve been able to explain art for different purposes. We will do other things, such as give the students a statement (can we divorce the artist from the art, the athlete from their performance, the politician from his personal life), and ask the students to defend, using two different discourses (math, science, literature, history, human systems, etc). But, asking the students to make connections on these seemingly unrelated topics builds upon those critical thinking skills, which in turn, creates stronger associations, deeper thoughts, and (hopefully) better products.

As John Green once said, “Public education does not exist for the benefit of the students or the benefit of their parents. It exists for the benefit for social order. We have discovered as a species that it is useful to have an educated population. You do not need to be a student or have a child who is a student to benefit from public education. Every second of every day you benefit from public education. So let me explain why I like to pay taxes for schools even though I don’t personally have a kid in school: It’s because I don’t like living in a country with a bunch of stupid people.”

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