Critical Thinking: There's No App for That

March 15th, 2018

If you want students to develop their critical thinking skills... You must start by using yours...

Most technology specialists will agree that technology is a means to an end; a set of tools meant to transform teaching and learning; a fast track to better pedagogy.

Still, when a teacher comes to us asking how to improve communication, collaboration, or creativity in their classrooms, it's hard to resist giving a "There's an app for that" answer. Want to improve collaboration? Try Seesaw, or any of Google's G Suite of apps. Better communication? Flipgrid, Padlet, Chatterpix and many more can give your students voice. Need students to have a creative outlet? Powtoons, Book Creator, iMovie, Autodraw - the list is endless.

But what about that 4th C... Critical Thinking?

I've had several teachers ask me how technology can improve their students' critical thinking. While there are several tech tools that can help you get there, there's no plug-and-play solution that's going to fast-track you there. Designing tasks for critical thinking starts with you, the teacher, thinking critically about your lessons, letting go of old methods, and redeveloping your students' tasks for 21st Century Learning.

How about an example!

In the form of a short story, of course, I present to you:

The (dreaded) Soil Unit.

I once started at a new school partway into the the 1st quarter (spoiler alert: I don't suggest this to anyone!). As I scrambled to gather myself and hit the ground running, I found myself temporarily keeping my head above water by just blindly following the curriculum the other 7th Grade Science teachers used. That meant following lessons out of the (barf!) textbook.

In this glorious 6 weeks of Soil study, students tried to help "Chris," a fictional student, solve a hypothetical problem about his school garden that couldn't grow crops. We took two (provided) soil samples used in different sections of Chris's garden and spent weeks running a series of simple tests on them, happily collecting data and making simple observations along the way (Oooh, grainy... Hey, that stuff floats... Venn Diagram time!). There was hands-on stuff... messy, soil + water + one-sink-without-a-strainer hands-on stuff. Which wasn't so bad, but it was pretty simple stuff. I tried to jazz up the assessments a little. We even found a way to waste time learning the triple beam balance (this hilarious DonorsChoose project says all you need to know about THAT tool).

So when the Soil Unit was over, I asked two of my highest achieving students what they thought.

"Oh, we all hated it."

What?! You all got A's!!!

"Yeah, I mean we got A's, but come on Mr. Santos, it's us. We get A's in everything. Please don't make next year's kids do that unit. It was the worst."

I can't imagine what the "D" students were saying. I mean, if there's one thing I know about 7th graders, it's that their feelings for 6th graders range from indifference to disdain to contempt. So, seeing how this soil unit evoked unprecedented feelings of sympathy and unity across grade levels was the final wake-up call I needed.

This unit needed a makeover.

Analysis: The activities tried to be authentic by turning students into soil scientists, but the kids weren't buying it. Believe it or not (brace yourself), most 12 year olds do not aspire to hold a microscope up to piles of dirt for a living. There was a moderate level of complexity to the concepts they were learning... and observation skills are critical, of course... but really, we only brushed the surface of why Soil Science matters. The dusty, soil-coated surface.

Meaningful? I truly hope none of them were deluded enough to think "Chris" was a real kid somewhere anxiously awaiting our test results (his school has a garden, but no triple beams or running water?). And this was never really an open-ended task - the two soil samples were literally potting soil vs. sand - any kid who had been to a beach could predict which was better for crops on day 1. This whole unit fell under the category of "why bother."

So, the next year...

I started my new and improved soil unit with a social justice focus. I had to ask myself - why does soil matter? Why might it matter to my students? How can we make the study of soil lead to something interesting and worthwhile?

Fortunately, I found this TED Talk by a "Guerilla Gardener" who is fighting food discrimination in South Central L.A. So that's where I started the unit - with a passionate hero speaking passionately about his actions to make the world better. We learned about urban food deserts, and even used a map like this one to identify examples not far from our own school - a shocking revelation to many students.

They were hooked.

You see, as self-centered as pre-teens and teens may sometimes seem, they're actually very sensitive to equity issues.

Middle schoolers, by nature, are experts and activists constantly fighting for social justice.

Don't believe me? Hand out king-size candy bars to 3 random kids tomorrow, then watch the societal revolution that begins to unfold in your classroom. I can already hear the chants of "This is what democracy looks like" as they plunder your secret Snickers drawer and use the Bunsen burners to light your poorly constructed effigy ablaze.

In all seriousness, empathy is an important emotion to build upon at this age, and it was a great place to start for redesigning this unit.

With their interest piqued, I channeled their curiosity into some research time. I curated several articles about alternative forms of gardening - vertical gardens, indoor gardens, hydroponics - which they found fascinating, in part because I allowed them to choose which articles they wanted to read. I dare say that I saw some budding botanists growing in my classroom (sorry not sorry for the Science teacher jokes) as they marveled over the creative ways gardens could be fit into urban spaces.

I even found places to insert some labs from the "old" unit.

See, I can play nice! There was nothing inherently wrong with the labs from the textbook. Any Science teacher will tell you that hands-on investigations are the cornerstone of a successful Science class! The problem was the context - or lack thereof. We needed a better vehicle through which to present the need for studying Soil Science.

Helping a fictional character with a failed school garden? "Meh."

Learning how to grow our own crops to improve the health of underprivileged neighbors?

Now that's purpose.

So eventually we arrived at the grand finale:

Design a community garden!

I asked students to:

  • Choose the crops (Will they match our climate? When should we plant them? How much space do they need? How much sunlight?);
  • Choose a soil (I kept the original N-P-K lessons from the textbook - see, I can play nice!);
  • Choose a location (the school? the park? an empty lot?);
  • 3D model a garden using Sketchup (That was before Tinkercad existed) and include the dimensions;
  • Estimate the costs, using real materials they found on the interwebz;
  • Figure out how to redistribute the (agricultural) wealth their garden produced; and
  • Present their solution, and convince me we should build it.

And build it, we did.

The best solution came from a team of young ladies who even persuaded the principal to purchase this indoor greenhouse and place it in the center of our school courtyard. The consolation prize to the "not best solution" teams was that they could try to grow the crop(s) of their choice in the greenhouse using a little Bottle Biology.

Was every project that got turned in "perfect"? Not by a long shot. Just like the Venn Diagrams and Q&A worksheets of the old unit weren't all perfect.

Some project were good, many were so-so, a few were, well, kinda not good. But that's OK - this was the first time most of them had done something this involved. And I doubt they'll remember the grade they got in 10 years.

What they will remember, I believe, is this:

They tried to solve a real-world problem and developed a fun solution

And it was the best solution they could come up with given their resources and abilities at that time. And, they had to think. Multiple times.

After capturing their attention with a real-world challenge, I engaged their critical thinking skills and pushed them to find tough solutions to an open-ended problem.

The first step to increasing student critical thinking was for me, as a teacher, to think critically about what I was asking my students to do, and why.

Technology supported this project - the 3D modeling, the online research, the presentation software - but the questions I asked and the resources I curated are what helped stretch their thinking.

There's no App that turns on critical thinking. For this "C", you've got to lead the way.

Building critical thinking in your students starts with you, dear teacher, becoming a critical thinker yourself. After analyzing many of my old units (which are admittedly bad - I'm so sorry middle school students of the '06-'09 era!!!), I've now got a pretty good eye for improving critical thinking.

In fact, I've condensed my thought process into a lens through which you can analyze your own classroom tasks.

Take a look at your next few lessons, and ask yourself if the work you're asking of students will pass my "CLAIM" test. You may find some great opportunities to improve their Critical Thinking - and maybe even the other C's!