Students are bombarded with content. Knowledge increases exponentially, and the entire storehouse of human knowledge gained over the last six thousand years is now doubled every five years, or less. The old educational philosophy of filling empty heads with the cumulative wisdom of the ages is yielding to a new pedagogy. Knowledge as a product is now being replaced with knowledge as a process.
This is not to say that our accumulated knowledge is irrelevant. Quite to the contrary, it is essential. Without the inductive and deductive reasoning developed by the Ancient Greeks, and without the scientific method, refined by the Enlightenment thinkers, we would have no foundation upon which to build a new process-centered design, commonly referred to as critical thinking.
However, we must begin to practice what we preach. If we are to equip Twenty-First-Century students with the tools they need to add to our “knowledge pool,” we need to re-evaluate how we spend our time in the classroom. The standards-based movement, prevalent in many American schools today, is primarily product-driven. Despite much talk about differentiating instruction, according to the needs of students as indicated by diagnostic assessments, the primary delivery of knowledge in most classrooms remains product-centered. And all students learn the same product, the same way, and on the same timetable to perform (hopefully) the same way on standards-based assessments. The pressures on teachers to conform to this antiquated model of knowledge acquisition are formidable.
Change Their Way of Thinking
One way to implement change is incremental. A small, but effective way to start introducing critical thinking into the classroom is with the traditional “opener” activities. These “bell-ringer” activities can establish an important framework for learning and a mind-set for the day’s activities, even if they are product-centered.
To accomplish their process-centered mission, critical thinking openers can help a teacher teach a schema for thinking that students can learn, practice, and apply with the coaching assistance of their teachers.
The word schema comes from the Greek word “σχήμα” (skēma), which means a mental planning process. The schema that I propose is not original, by any means. It involves four simple steps: Observation, Interpretation, Application, and Revision. Observation is What do you see? Interpretation is What does it mean? Application is How can it be used? Revision is How can it be changed?
To provoke process-thinking, students need a context from which to explore the schema described above. One great way to stimulate young minds is with famous literary quotations from the greatest thinkers and writers of all time, including contemporary minds from all knowledge disciplines. The web is filled with great quotes (as are some of your students). Simply post the quote and explain the context and/or vocabulary as is necessary. Introduce the critical thinking schema one at a time. Then, have students take time to think, write, and interactively discuss the components of the critical thinking schema in response to the literary quotation.
Explore individual responses, paired responses, cooperative group responses, whole class responses, and your own responses as teacher-coach. Combine instructional methods. For example, starting off with a teacher “think aloud” on the Observation will stimulate paired written responses on the Interpretation, which will provoke terrific whole class discussions on the Application, which will engender creative and original individual ideas on the Revisions.
Teacher Think Alouds
To learn the four critical thinking schemata, teacher modeling is essential. Creative thinking and problem-solving is certainly not exclusively a natural process. Developing thinkers do not have a priori understanding about how to effectively observe, interpret, apply, and revise. Thus, teachers play a crucial role in helping to develop good thinkers.
Teaching students to carry on an internal dialog while they think is vitally important. As “talking to the reader” significantly increases writing coherency and “talking to the author” significantly increases reading comprehension, so does internal dialog significantly increase effective thinking. In fact, good thinkers are adept at practicing internal metacognitive strategies. Students who consciously practice these self-monitoring strategies develop better problem-solving skills than those who do not. Students need to learn how to flexibly adapt these strategies by observing teacher modeling and then practicing what has been demonstrated.
Think Aloud Sample Lesson
1. Select a short, high interest literary quotation from a story familiar to all students. Post the quotation on the board, LCD, Smartboard®, or overhead projector.
2. Tell students that they are to listen to your thoughts carefully, as you read the quotation and that they are not allowed to interrupt with questions during your reading. Read the quotation out loud and interrupt the reading frequently with concise comments about the vocabulary, word choice, syntax, and historical context. Re-read difficult parts and make comments about the ideas that are presented. Ask questions of the author, especially about parts of the quotation that you do not fully understand. Some teachers like to use other voices for the internal dialogue and their normal voices for the reading.
3. After reading and thinking out loud, ask students if they think they understood the quotation better because of your verbalized thoughts rather than just by passively reading without active thoughts. Their answer will be “Yes,” if you have read and thought out loud effectively.
The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.
Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)
Grades 4-8 Programs
Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.
The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) “pie”: the five Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4−8; the five Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4−8 programs (digital formats only); and the non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).
Reading, Study Skills, Writing