"How do you help students develop critical thinking skills?"

I've been contributing responses to a San Diego Union Tribune project called Education Matters. One of the recent questions was "How do you help students develop critical thinking skills?" I didn't want to write a textbook answer. I wanted to tell a story about working with students. I wanted to show how challenging, messy and time consuming that process can be. This was my answer.

“Ahh, Ms. Roberts. This is making my brain hurt.” Music to my ears. My 9th grade students are working through a very short, three paragraph article about the increase in cheating in American high schools. All they have to do is figure out what the author is saying and doing in each paragraph. The saying part should be fairly simple for them; it’s just a short summary of what the paragraph says, but it’s harder than it should be because the group I’m working with insists on guessing.

“The author is saying that kids at private schools steal from stores.” (This is not accurate.)

“What words make you think it says that?” I ask. I know why the student guessed this. Private schools and shoplifting were both mentioned in the paragraph, but my student isn't grasping how the two relate. The group needs a way to get the who and what of the paragraph into a single sentence. I’ll start with the who.

“Who is this paragraph about?” One student suggests private school students, another says public school students, another says boys and girls. “How can we bring all that together?”

“Oh, this paragraph is about lots of kinds of students!” Ed is really proud he figured this out. I’m checking the clock to see if we really have enough time to finish working with this paragraph.

“Okay, so what are all these students doing?” Again the answers fly at me one word at a time, stealing, lying, cheating, being honor students. This last one is out of context. The paragraph mentions honor students as a sub-group and she is guessing again. I try to slow them down. “Can someone give me a sentence that sums up what these students are doing?”

“Students are stealing, lying, and cheating.”

“Can we group stealing, lying, and cheating into a larger category? Those are all forms of…?” I’m fishing and I know it. I want them to tell me these are all forms of dishonest behavior. I want them to do a bit more synthesis.

The girl who mentioned the honor students gets it first, “Lots of kinds of students are doing bad stuff.”

She’s got the synthesis, now we are going to take on some academic vocabulary. In the growth mindset learning community we have built for ourselves, the term for making something sound more academic is “big smart.”

“Yes, Janie, you go it, ‘lots of kinds of students are doing bad stuff’ now how do we make that sound more big smart?” She’s not offended. She knows she started with some simple vocabulary and we are going to make it better.

Ed wants this one. It takes him a few tries, but eventually he gets, “Various types of students are all behaving dishonestly.”

I’m worried that the easy part of this was not that easy. Now they need to understand what the author is doing in the paragraph. This is harder because it is action divorced from specific content and students need to use some rhetorical verbs like claims, explains, specifies, promotes or a whole host of other possibilities. And they can’t fake this. If they tell me the author is comparing when he is really predicting I will know they are confused. Also, their knowledge of rhetorical vocabulary is still limited. We need to find a word they know that also fits with what the author is doing.

Meg picks a word off the chart on the wall and tries it on, “He is proposing that students are lying and cheating?” She even says it with a question in her voice. She knows that proposing is not the verb she needs here. The trial and error method works for them this time as they work through some possible verbs looking for the best one.

“He is stating dishonest things kids do.” This is better, but Ed comes in again with a vocabulary tweak. “The author is stating that students do a variety of dishonest things and he is showing that this happens both public and private schools.” His peers literally applaud.

The team adds it to their graphic organizers. The bell is about to ring and I just spent ten minutes with one team, working through one paragraph of a short article. And I’m not confident that they can do this independently next time. We have more work to do.

Looking behind a text to its functionality is just one strategy for helping to develop my students critical literacy and critical thinking skills. It has to start with comprehension, tricky in a time when my students would rather skim for key words and then play multiple guess, as though I have a scantron printed on my forehead. When I get it right, the outcome is students who can read, comprehend, and investigate an author’s purpose. Then we can take that further into a discussion of the issues and articles we have read. I know it’s working when my students complain that they are now analyzing and questioning everything they read. More music to my ears.