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Spark Critical Thinking by Asking Students Essential Questions

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Nov 30, 2013 6:00:00 AM

essential questionAs an aspiring educator, I knew exactly what kind of teacher I would be: I would facilitate dynamic discussions; the students would not only read all of the assigned texts, they would devour them. Sure, teaching would be work, but I mostly saw myself as a facilitator—someone who would ask all the right questions and look on as my students marched towards intellectual victory.

You can probably see where this is going. Once I was handed the keys to the classroom, I was surprised when things didn’t magically fall into place like they were supposed to. (Does this sound familiar?)

It wasn’t that things were disastrous, but they just weren’t the way I imagined. Why weren’t students talking? Why weren’t they as excited as I was about what we were reading? Why weren’t they making connections and thinking critically about what they read?

It wasn’t until later that I discovered that I (not the students) was the reason our discussions fell flat. To spark discussions and critical inquiry, I asked my students a lot of questions. Questions are good, but most of the questions I asked students were what we would call nonessential questions.

To give you a clearer sense of what I mean by essential and nonessential questions consider the following examples from Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins’ book, Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding.

Essential question: “How do the arts shape, as well as reflect, culture?
Nonessential question: “What common artistic symbols were used by the Incas and the Mayans?”

Essential question: “Is there ever a ‘just’ war?
Nonessential question: What key event sparked World War I?”

Essential question: “What does it mean to be a ‘true’ friend?”
Nonessential question: “Who is Maggie’s best friend in the story?”

As you may have noticed, unlike nonessential questions, essential ones are timeless. Some can even be grappled with indefinitely; they are neither immediately apparent nor can they be answered with a fact or a simple yes or no response. Essential questions force us to interrogate our presuppositions, dig in, explain, defend, question and—hopefully—grow.

If you still sketchy on the difference between essential and nonessential questions, here are seven of McTighe and Wiggins’ defining characteristics of a good essential question.

A good essential question:

  • Is open-ended; that is, it typically will not have a single, final, and correct answer.
  • Is thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion and debate.
  • Calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.
  • Points toward important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.
  • Raises additional questions and sparks further inquiry.
  • Requires support and justification, not just an answer.
  • Recurs over time; that is, the question can and should be revisited again and again.
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Moving Beyond the Right Answer: 4 Critical Thinking Strategies

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Oct 29, 2013 11:03:00 AM

When our students successfully solve a problem or answer a difficult question on the first shot, it’s tempting to offer them praise and move on. Positive reinforcement is an important part of our job, but according to Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion, correct answers still leave ample room for teachable moments. One way Lemov challenges students to move beyond the right answer is by asking them to Stretch It.

critical thinkingHere’s how Stretch It works. When a student answers a question correctly, the teacher offers a reward in the form of a different—or tougher—question to ensure that the student is able to get similar results again and again.

Why do this?

First, asking students to Stretch It challenges them to “push ahead, apply their knowledge in new settings and think on their feet.” Second, it sends the message that the reward for achievement is more knowledge, something far more substantive than praise. Third, it gives teachers a real sense for whether or not a student has completely mastered a concept.

Here are four ways teachers can put Lemov’s Stretch It concept into play.

Moving Beyond the Right Answer: 4 Critical Thinking Strategies

Ask how or why
One of the best ways to assess our students’ mastery of a concept is by challenging them to articulate the thinking process—that is, how they came up with the answer. Here’s how you might put this strategy in place.

Teacher: How far is it from Durango to Pueblo?
Student: 600 miles.
Teacher: How’d you get that?
Student: By measuring three inches on the map and adding 200 plus 200 plus 200.
Teacher: How’d you know to use 200 miles for each inch?
Student: I looked at the scale in the map key.

Ask for another way to answer
There are many ways to answer a question. Challenge students to approach problems and concepts from a different angle.

Teacher: How far is it from Durango to Pueblo?
Student: 600 miles.
Teacher: How’d you get that?
Student: By measuring three inches on the map and adding 200 plus 200 plus 200.
Teacher: That’s very good, but I’m curious: Is there an easier way than adding 200 three times?
Student: I could have multiplied 200 times three.
Teacher: What would the answer be then?
Student: 600.
Teacher: Very nice. That’s probably a more efficient way.  

Ask for a better word
Students often begin the mastery process by grappling with concepts in simple, and often vague, language. When appropriate, challenge students to substitute their word choices with more specific ones.

Teacher: Why did the main character gasp, Janice?
Student: Because the water was cold when she jumped in.
Teacher: Can you answer with a different word from cold, one that shows us how cold it was?
Student: “Freezing.”
Teacher: That’s a good one—how about using one of our vocabulary words though?
Student: Sophie gasped because the water was frigid.
Teacher: Very nice!

Ask for evidence
The older our students get, the more we challenge them to interrogate their presuppositions and commonplace answers. A good way to get students to move away from oversimplifying complex issues is by asking them to describe evidence that supports their conclusion. When appropriate, stress the process of building and supporting a sound argument.

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Six Thinking Hats: A collaborative learning strategy that works

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Aug 10, 2013 6:00:00 AM

collaborative learningFor those of you unfamiliar with Edward de Bono, he is the physician and author behind “parallel thinking,” the term used to describe a learning method in which all members of a group collaborate to explore—rather than argue or endlessly debate—a subject.

He writes about this concept in Six Thinking Hats, a book that essentially aims to improve communication and make decision-making in groups more focused and collaborative.

We’ve found his process particularly useful for group work and problem-solving exercises when we are discussing hot or controversial topics. Here’s how it works:

Six Thinking Hats: A collaborative learning strategy that works

First download edgalaxy’s free PDF printout; it has six cards, one for each “hat” of de Bono’s strategy. Then divide students into six different groups, giving each one a card.  

Each of the “six thinking hats” in this method offers a unique way of looking at an issue:

White hat (information): When wearing this hat, students explore the facts of the issue. They may ask questions like:

  • What do we know about this issue?
  • What information is missing?
  • Where can we find this information?

collaborative learningRed hat (feelings): When wearing this hat, the group discusses how they feel about the issue. Does it unsettle them? Engage them? Do they relate to the issue or feel invested in it? Why or why not?

Black hat (judgement): Groups wearing this hat should consider the risks or negative effects of a decision. Logic should guide this group’s reasoning.

Yellow hat (benefits): Members who have this card should consider the positive effects of a decision; logic should also be used to draw conclusions.

Green hat (creativity): This group is responsible for coming up with solutions to “black hat problems.”

Blue hat (thinking): The blue hat group should be thinking about thinking.  In other words, they must consider what type of thinking is needed to understand this issue. Do they need to summarize, compile lists, ask questions, create a timeline?

Thinking hats provide students with a clear focus—which makes grappling with ambiguous topics not only less intimidating, but manageable, making argument and endless discussion a thing of the past.

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365 ways to teach critical thinking

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jul 20, 2013 6:00:00 AM

critical thinkingHow many times throughout the course of your teaching career have you said to students, “Come on now, think critically about this?” We’ve lost count, but one thing we never forget is the importance of teaching our students to persuade, to evaluate arguments, to recognize contradictions and identify assumptions (all critical thinking skills).

Thanks to an online resource (and now a book) called 365 Ways to Make You Go “HMMM…,” our students are honing their critical thinking skills—and they don’t even know it.

Every day, you’ll find a new “hmm-provoking” question on the site. We find that this is a fun way to close out the week and if we have enough time at the end of class, we’ll often spend the last five minutes working through one of the questions. Here’s a sample question:

critical thinkingIn which direction is the bus traveling? (The only possible answers are “left” or “right”). Explain your answer.

Here are two of the answers posted by students:

  • It could go left if it was an American bus because they drive on the right-hand side

-Joey in Year 5

  • It is going to the right because English buses have the door on the left-hand side but since you can’t see the door, it is going right.

-Ofili, Millennium Primary School

Each question asks students to be creative; to think about ordinary things is unordinary ways—and this isn’t the only resource you’ll find on the website. Click here to review some of the other great teaching sources they offer.  

If you’re looking for more ways to teach critical thinking skills, check out two of our recent blogs, Dear Elvis, How Do I Teach Critical Thinking? and 2 Lesser-Known Benefits of critical thinking: FUN...and Ice Cream.

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5 tips to facilitate better group work and in-class discussions

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jul 16, 2013 12:12:00 PM

group workUnlike a traditional lecture in which information is delivered, group work and open discussions invite a myriad of perspectives and remove the teacher from the stage—which means that things can quickly derail if the instructor is not attentive, responsive and flexible. 

While running group work and open discussions can be challenging, we believe that both can help students learn more about themselves, their peers and their world than they could from hearing a lecture.

While we can’t promise that these 5 tips from Steven A. Schiola’s book Making Group Work Easy will make classroom facilitation simple, we do believe that they will at least get you started.

5 tips to facilitate better group work and in-class discussions

Effective classroom facilitators are deep listeners
Deep listening involves much more than simply hearing what’s going on around you. First, deep listeners are fully present; they aren’t simply catching the gist of what the speaker is saying. They are connected both in body and mind. Second, deep listeners listen in order to completely understand the other person’s point. Third, deep listeners reflect back what they have heard to demonstrate that they understand. Fourth, deep listeners ask clarifying questions. Lastly, deep listeners hear undiscovered ideas—or those that are implied, but left unsaid—by the speaker.

Effective classroom facilitators read nonverbal cues
Before we dive into open discussions, we often like to place our students in groups where we give them a series of tasks that they must complete together. Once each group has finished, we come back together as a class and discuss our conclusions on the topic. As students work together, there are several nonverbal cues we are looking for:

  • What does each group sound like? A low murmur usually indicates that students are engaged and on task. When the volume begins to rise, usually students are wrapping up or finished with their tasks.
  • What does each student look like? Is each member of the group engaged? Is one student doing too much? Do students fully understand instructions? Are they stuck?

Effective classroom facilitators ask clarifying questions
Successful classroom facilitation does require intuition, but it doesn’t rely on it. Intuition will tell us when students are confused or uneasy with a topic, but clarifying questions will confirm it. If students seem bored, uneasy or confused, say something like, “I’m getting the sense that some of you are feeling uneasy about this topic. How do you feel about this topic?”

Avoid making assumptions on observations alone; you may be misreading your students. Posing a clarifying question will help: “I’m seeing that a number of you are kind of slouched in your seats and looking around. How are you are feeling _____?”

Notice how both of these questions are open-ended: They require students to respond and clarify.

Effective classroom facilitators are flexible
When you invite new perspectives, chances are that your students are going to unearth new information and lead you in a different direction than you originally planned. Effective facilitators always have a plan, but they are never afraid to temporarily abandon it to see where detours lead the group. Often what seems like a detour or a dead end ultimately leads back to the plan or to more enlightening destinations than you would have anticipated on your own.

Effective facilitators are humble and know that a successful outcome is about the group
Remember that you are there to facilitate, not do all of the work for your students. It may be tempting to give your students the answers or resolve the conflict for them, but that’s not the facilitator’s job. Your task is to guide, challenge and redirect students so that they have to work together to solve the problem. Your students may become frustrated when you refuse to give your opinion or give away the “answers.” But we believe that it’s when students struggle that they learn the most about themselves and each other.

If you’re looking for further reading on seminar-style classes, we highly recommend Michael Kahn’s article, “The Seminar.” You can find it by clicking here.


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