Friday, June 24, 2016

Inspiring Critical Thinking in the Elementary Classroom

When I began my journey in sixth grade, I was CERTAIN I was going to be the hero of tech integration.  The master of creativity.  The queen of innovation.  What I quickly found out was that a) students are already tech savvy- they just need access b) creativity had been squelched from their academic lives and c) innovation isn't something you teach. It's something you inspire.

So I decided I needed to go back to square one and tackle one singular issue.  My students were simply content, and desperately wanted, assignments and projects that were fill-in-the-blank, multiple choice, and cookie-cutter. Thankfully, I wasn't quite as content to spoon feed them what they thought they wanted.

Injecting the 4C's (communication, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking) in a classroom shouldn't be tricky.  It's really more a mindset change above all else.  Let me share with you how I go about the business of inspiring critical thinking skills within my classroom.

Answer a Question With a Question

For too long, we as educators have been the masters and keepers of content knowledge.  I want my students to see me as an expert, but not as the end-all be-all.  Teaching students to think critically about their questions and work is a great place to start.

My students were boggled at the beginning of the year when they would ask me a question and I would turn it back to them with another question.  For example, "Mrs. Copple how many photos should I have in my iBook?" My response, "Well Susie, what story are you trying to tell with your project? Do you feel what you have added so far completely tells that story?" The looks on their faces in August were nearly priceless, but by the end of the year I began to see them using each other as sounding boards more often and thinking more critically about their work before coming to see me.

Grant them Access to the World 

In a digital age, students should have free access to Google and YouTube.  When my own children (ages 9, 7, 4, and 18 months) want to know how to do something, they use one of the aforementioned tools. Then they will work diligently until they can resolve their issues.  Allowing students to freely search for answers using their favorite methods is so important.  This seems so simple, yet many teachers are afraid to let go of the "right" to dispense all knowledge within the classroom.
The amazing Sylvia Duckworth shows it best in this sketch-note. 
If you're looking for safe ways for your students to have access check out the following tools that will keep their curiosity in check.

Kiddle, KidRex, and Google Advanced Search

Kiddle and KidRex filter out most "junk" for younger learners.  Even K kids can perform their own research.  Teaching older students the skill of Google Advanced Search is a more critical skill and produces better results.

Applying STEM Regardless of Subject

Last year I taught a Social Studies/Digital Literacy split to sixth graders.  I was bound and determined to continue incorporating STEM education into my classroom! STEM is an amazing platform for putting students in the driver's seat of learning, and when that occurs critical thinking is at the forefront.  There is no greater joy in my classroom than when I see students think critically through collaboration to solve problems.  STEM also encourages perseverance through failure and promotes a culture of "we're all in this together."  The premise of STEM is to introduce the students a problem they must solve.  These problems are not easily solved through a quick search, but must show application of knowledge through the process of creation and critical thinking. 

For a full blog post about STEM, check this link HERE
Students are thinking critically about how to build a Roman aqueduct
that will provide their city with drinking water. 

Provide Learning Opportunities that Involve Creation

Anytime students are asked to create vs. fill-in-the-blank, you will get more authentic examples of their learning because students must think more critically.  There are literally dozens of creation apps I utilize in the classroom.  For a few of my favorites, check out this blog post HERE.

Practicing Reflection and Modeling Your Own

When there are no easy blanks to fill in, assessment is turned on its end.  In a classroom that embraces the 4C's, in particular critical thinking, it is important to understand that assessment comes through careful observation of the student through activities fueled by creation.  However, a key component to critical thinking skills requires the learner to reflect on their work.  Modeling and scaffolding reflection is a skill just as important to facilitate in the classroom as is reading and writing.  How do you model reflection in your own teaching?  Below I am sharing my favorite digital tools for reflection, but I also want to encourage the use of face-to-face reflection.  Sitting with your students in a circle and discussing what went "right" or "wrong" in a lesson/activity/project builds classroom culture conducive to critical thinking. 

This is sometimes a terrifying thing for teachers to do.  Admitting that we aren't perfect isn't always easy, but crucial in building relationships with your students.  Students are brutally honest.  Be prepared to take any and all criticism to heart!  The most important part; however, is to make an honest effort to make the changes discussed throughout the process! 


KidBlog is a safe way for your students to broaden their reflection audience to their peers.  I have my students blog frequently about their work on activities, their favorite parts of class, and their least favorite things I do!  Be prepared!

LMS Discussions

Our school uses Canvas by Instructure as an LMS (Learning Management System) and it has a great Class Discussions feature. I utilize this frequently because it's a quick and easy way to get student responses.  Students are also able to comment on each other's posts which makes it feel a little more like social media.  You can see the types of questions I might ask in a reflection and a student response. 

iMovie Reflections

By the end of the year, I began to take away standard reflection questions.  As part of scaffolding, I wanted to see how my students had grown in the reflection process.  I asked my students to create an iMovie that not only detailed the process of their group STEM challenge through photo and video, but to also provide reflection interviews at the end.  These turned out to be my favorite reflections of the year! 

Google Forms

Google Forms are simple, visually appealing, and provide great feedback for you the teacher.  Below you can see a project reflection form I had my students complete.  Building surveys is a snap with Google's easy format and there are a variety of ways to share the form with your students including embed code. Feel free to practice filling out the form! 

Get Out of Their Way

Lastly, in order for us to inspire critical thinking in our classrooms, we have to provide them the opportunities to shine.  Step back.  Let them struggle.  Think.  You'll be amazed with what they can accomplish!


No comments:

Post a Comment