Critical thinking ideas for the classroom

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How to use critical thinking in the classroom

Writing to Learn Activities: Effective and Efficient Writing to learn activities can be used in three ways: As a way of helping students practice crucial habits of thought you'd like them to master. Think about the particular kinds of critical thinking you want your students to perform. Design a low stakes activity in class that allows them to work through that way of thinking. Group work can be particularly effective here.


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For example, a psychology instructor who wanted her students to understand the role that scholarly literature played in research. She had students write three summaries of psychological literature on a topic they were exploring in groups. Two summaries were on articles on the topic that were in conversation with each other in some way one cited the other , and the third was on how the two articles together contributed to knowledge about their topic.

On top of this, each group member had to pick two different articles, so the group together developed a certain amount of expertise on the topic.

Teaching Critical Thinking

As a way of "scaffolding" larger assignments. If you divide up major projects into smaller, more manageable parts, you'll allow students the opportunity to approach the process of research and writing more effectively. You'll be able to guide students through their work, giving them resources and advise along the way. Students will be able to pace themselves, rather than procrastinating to the last minute. And, by highlighting crucial stages in the project, you'll be able to emphasize what components are most valuable to you in their work, so that students will know your expectations more clearly.

As a way of assessing student learning. Writing to learn activities can give you a chance to get immediate and rich feedback on what your students are learning. You might ask them to write down the point they thought was most interesting in class that day, or what concepts they are most struggling with. Understanding and using conditional probabilities is essential to scientific thinking because it is so important in reasoning about what causes what. But people's success in thinking this way depends on the particulars of how the question is presented. Studies show that adults sometimes use conditional probabilities successfully, 9 but fail to do so with many problems that call for it.

Physicians are known to discount or misinterpret new patient data that conflict with a diagnosis they have in mind, 11 and Ph. And yet, young children are sometimes able to reason about conditional probabilities. In one experiment, 13 the researchers showed 3-year-olds a box and told them it was a "blicket detector" that would play music if a blicket were placed on top. The child then saw one of the two sequences shown below in which blocks are placed on the blicket detector. At the end of the sequence, the child was asked whether each block was a blicket.

In other words, the child was to use conditional reasoning to infer which block caused the music to play. Note that the relationship between each individual block yellow cube and blue cylinder and the music is the same in sequences 1 and 2. In either sequence, the child sees the yellow cube associated with music three times, and the blue cylinder associated with the absence of music once and the presence of music twice. What differs between the first and second sequence is the relationship between the blue and yellow blocks, and therefore, the conditional probability of each block being a blicket.

Three-year-olds understood the importance of conditional probabilities. For sequence 1, they said the yellow cube was a blicket, but the blue cylinder was not; for sequence 2, they chose equally between the two blocks.

This body of studies has been summarized simply: Children are not as dumb as you might think, and adults even trained scientists are not as smart as you might think. What's going on? One issue is that the common conception of critical thinking or scientific thinking or historical thinking as a set of skills is not accurate.


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Critical thinking does not have certain characteristics normally associated with skills — in particular, being able to use that skill at any time. If I told you that I learned to read music, for example, you would expect, correctly, that I could use my new skill i. But critical thinking is very different. As we saw in the discussion of conditional probabilities, people can engage in some types of critical thinking without training, but even with extensive training, they will sometimes fail to think critically.

This understanding that critical thinking is not a skill is vital. Returning to our focus on science, we're ready to address a key question: Can students be taught when to engage in scientific thinking? Sort of. It is easier than trying to teach general critical thinking, but not as easy as we would like.

Critical Thinking in the Classroom | Mentoring Minds

Recall that when we were discussing problem solving, we found that students can learn metacognitive strategies that help them look past the surface structure of a problem and identify its deep structure, thereby getting them a step closer to figuring out a solution.

Essentially the same thing can happen with scientific thinking. Students can learn certain metacognitive strategies that will cue them to think scientifically. But, as with problem solving, the metacognitive strategies only tell the students what they should do — they do not provide the knowledge that students need to actually do it.

The good news is that within a content area like science, students have more context cues to help them figure out which metacognitive strategy to use, and teachers have a clearer idea of what domain knowledge they must teach to enable students to do what the strategy calls for. For example, two researchers 14 taught second-, third-, and fourth-graders the scientific concept behind controlling variables; that is, of keeping everything in two comparison conditions the same, except for the one variable that is the focus of investigation.

The experimenters gave explicit instruction about this strategy for conducting experiments and then had students practice with a set of materials e. The experimenters found that students not only understood the concept of controlling variables, they were able to apply it seven months later with different materials and a different experimenter, although the older children showed more robust transfer than the younger children.

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In this case, the students recognized that they were designing an experiment and that cued them to recall the metacognitive strategy, "When I design experiments, I should try to control variables. Experts in teaching science recommend that scientific reasoning be taught in the context of rich subject matter knowledge. A committee of prominent science educators brought together by the National Research Council put it plainly: "Teaching content alone is not likely to lead to proficiency in science, nor is engaging in inquiry experiences devoid of meaningful science content.

The committee drew this conclusion based on evidence that background knowledge is necessary to engage in scientific thinking. For example, knowing that one needs a control group in an experiment is important. Like having two comparison conditions, having a control group in addition to an experimental group helps you focus on the variable you want to study. But knowing that you need a control group is not the same as being able to create one. Since it's not always possible to have two groups that are exactly alike, knowing which factors can vary between groups and which must not vary is one example of necessary background knowledge.

In experiments measuring how quickly subjects can respond, for example, control groups must be matched for age, because age affects response speed, but they need not be perfectly matched for gender. More formal experimental work verifies that background knowledge is necessary to reason scientifically. For example, consider devising a research hypothesis.

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One could generate multiple hypotheses for any given situation. Suppose you know that car A gets better gas mileage than car B and you'd like to know why. There are many differences between the cars, so which will you investigate first? Engine size? Tire pressure? A key determinant of the hypothesis you select is plausibility. You won't choose to investigate a difference between cars A and B that you think is unlikely to contribute to gas mileage e. Other data indicate that familiarity with the domain makes it easier to juggle different factors simultaneously, which in turn allows you to construct experiments that simultaneously control for more factors.

For example, in one experiment, 17 eighth-graders completed two tasks. In one, they were to manipulate conditions in a computer simulation to keep imaginary creatures alive. In the other, they were told that they had been hired by a swimming pool company to evaluate how the surface area of swimming pools was related to the cooling rate of its water. Students were more adept at designing experiments for the first task than the second, which the researchers interpreted as being due to students' familiarity with the relevant variables.

Students are used to thinking about factors that might influence creatures' health e. Hence, it is not the case that "controlling variables in an experiment" is a pure process that is not affected by subjects' knowledge of those variables. Prior knowledge and beliefs not only influence which hypotheses one chooses to test, they influence how one interprets data from an experiment. In one experiment, 18 undergraduates were evaluated for their knowledge of electrical circuits.

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