‘Real’ Critical Thinking

I recently participated in a workshop for those of us presenting staff development to our peers during our fall workshop this August. The session I am presenting is about fostering critical thinking skills in the classroom. It fits with the modern education trend toward “higher level thinking” and being able to explain, communicate, and justify your thoughts. In math class this means understanding the meaning behind all of the algorithms, theorems, or formulas we are teaching. It means allowing students to struggle (with guidance) rather than spoon feeding answers.

As I sat in the workshop we were asked to take a self-assessment that was supposed to measure our inclination toward critical thinking. It was a set of questions to reflect on how we tend to approach problems or information that is at odds with what we already believe to be true. After we took the reflection they asked how we could incorporate something like this into our fall workshop sessions, our building, or our classroom with students. The very first person that stood to talk said something like, these questions are pretty abstract so I think we could incorporate this if we simplified it a little and gave the students clearer, more specific directions. The second person stood and echoed the same thought. The facilitators of the session said…”great ideas!”

ARE YOU KIDDING ME? We just spent a half hour talking about getting kids to think more abstractly and deeper about questions and the first response is to simplify the questionnaire for the students. And what’s even worse is that no one in the workshop challenged this idea (including me). No one had the guts to say, if you’re going to do the exercise then give them the benefit of the doubt but don’t dumb it down, because that contradicts the whole idea.

Later in the workshop we were given time to plan with other presenters of the same subject area and modify with our own examples and anecdotes. We were told to add our own activities and power point slides (yes we are giving a critical thinking presentation with power point slides and yes I understand this contradiction and irony. The frustration is unbearable). The afternoon was spent finding interesting problems that we can give to our participants and then we would model how to facilitate critical thinking in the classroom as if they were our students. The problem with modeling critical thinking conversation with a bunch of math teachers using math problems…it’s easy. Math teachers love interesting math questions and will spend the entire session completely engaged. Oh, and they won’t learn anything about engaging students in algebra 1.

I have not solved this quandary yet. In fact, this post has sat in my ‘drafts’ for weeks while I though about this presentation. I have one more month to work with a colleague and figure it out and I plan on posting about the experience right after. Say tuned the week of August 3.

-Lance

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