Saturday, July 04, 2009


Stories by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin • Photos by Scott Buschman  | From California Educator - the publication of The California Teachers’ Association|  Volume 13, Issue 9 - June 2009|


 Are students learning how to think critically?
     A - Yes, if students perform well on standardized tests.
     B - No, schools just teach students to fill in the bubbles.
     C - Sometimes, but not often enough.
     D - All of the above.


    It's a troubling question. Whether students are encouraged to become critical thinkers is a growing concern as pressures mount to raise test scores and NCLB reauthorization is just around the corner. The issue has sparked new conversations about how we measure success and failure, and whether schools are doing an adequate job of teaching students how to think, instead of just mastering multiple choice exams and rote learning.

    President Obama has urged states to develop standards "that don't simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking, entrepreneurship and creativity."

    Critical thinking hasn't been entirely replaced in California's schools by drill-and-kill instruction and scripted learning, but it's in serious jeopardy, says Enoch Hale, a former high school teacher in Grossmont who is now on a fellowship at the Foundation for Critical Thinking, located in Dillon Beach.

    "The California standards state very explicitly that teachers need to actively engage all students in critical thinking in all subject areas," says Enoch Hale. "But I regularly hear from teachers asking how they can take the time to help students to think critically about content when they have the pressure of teaching to the test. Larger class sizes and funding problems also make it more difficult. Class size is linked to what a teacher can pragmatically accomplish in a classroom."

    "Teaching critical thinking is encouraged, but it's challenging to do with standardized testing and the pressure we're under to make it through STAR testing," agrees Nadine Loza, a social studies teacher at Rowland High School and a member of the Association of Rowland Educators. "A teacher's ability to incorporate more critical thinking into the classroom is really hurt by that."

    "If we can get beyond the notion of schools as testing factories, then teachers will have the freedom to strive for a higher standard of excellence," says Jeff Lantos, a teacher at Marquez Charter Elementary School in Los Angeles and a member of United Teachers Los Angeles. "Part of that higher standard would include the teaching of critical thinking. But endless test preparation has the opposite effect. It reduces inquiry. It goes against Socratic dialogue and can drain much of the passion from teaching and learning."

What exactly is critical thinking?
Educators may think they are using critical thinking strategies in the classroom, but sometimes that is not really the case, says Danny Craig, chair of the Social Studies Department at Capitan High School in Grossmont. "True critical thinking is a structured, formal way of thinking that has rules."

    Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason in a fair-minded way. It is the art of analyzing and evaluating so that when making a decision, an individual can weigh information and come to a logical conclusion without making snap judgments.

    Craig, who has attended seminars at the Foundation for Critical Thinking, emphasizes that the art of critical thinking requires teachers and students to think a certain way that is different from the norm. It's about much more than just asking students for their opinion, which may be uninformed, prejudiced or distorted.

    "It is higher-order thinking," explains Craig, a member of the Grossmont Education Association. "It teaches you how to ask questions so you can get down to the meat of the material. In history class, for example, you would expect your students to think like an historian. I'd begin by asking, ‘How does a historian think? What kinds of questions would a historian ask?' And since it's the social sciences, and you are studying the behavior of human beings, one of the first things you might do is ask, ‘How do human beings react in certain situations?' It's important to understand the way that human beings think or react so you can understand the context of human behavior in history and historical events."

    Critical thinking at its best involves Socratic questioning, based on the premise that it is questions -- not answers -- that provide the best path to knowledge. And it involves more than the most-often-asked question a teacher poses: "Does everybody understand the material?"

    Well-posed questions probe key aspects of critical thinking, such as: Clarity: Can you give an example? Accuracy: How can we check to see if that is valid? Depth: What factors make this a difficult problem? Relevance: How does that relate to the problem? Fairness: Do I have any vested interest in this issue?

    By asking these questions, students are thinking about the information and not just memorizing it. They are synthesizing, internalizing and evaluating it. And because of these things, there is a much better chance that they will remember it.

    Lantos defines critical thinking as the ability to make connections. "I'm convinced that when you're listening to good teaching, you hear a familiar refrain," he says. "It goes like this: ‘What is the connection between … and …?' Teachers need to create an academic environment in which students can sift through the mass of facts being hurled at them and begin to perceive pathways of interconnectedness."

    Lantos finds it ironic that students begin learning by making connections. "They're taught to check their subtraction by adding. They can see a rectangle can be divided into two triangles. They know there's some link between the Pledge of Allegiance and the flag hanging from the wall. The challenge for teachers is to build on that foundation, to encourage students to seek connections between, say, fractions and percentages, or between lobbying and legislation, or between Copernicus and Darwin, or between the main characters in two different novels."

Why is critical thinking important?
Rote memorization -- or learning by repetition -- can be useful for some things, such as learning the alphabet, multiplication tables or the periodic table in chemistry. And it can help students pass tests. But when it comes to mastering complex subjects, rote may only scratch the surface, making it appear that students thoroughly comprehend the material when they do not. And because the information is not meaningful or deeply understood, they are more likely to forget what they have learned after the test.

    When students are encouraged to do actual thinking about the material, deeper understanding replaces the recall of facts. Students are able to state the material in their own words, elaborate on it, illustrate it, provide examples from content and their own experience, and provide analogies, metaphors or other examples of the information.

    Those who possess critical thinking skills are excited about learning and will be better prepared for life, says Hale. They will be skeptical enough to avoid being taken advantage of by others, understand why things are the way they are in the world, and be able to understand other people's point of view.

    "The role of CTA has been very beneficial in advocating for critical thinking and has often been overlooked," adds Hale. "CTA supports critical thinking by advocating for things such as lower class size and academic freedom."

    Loza finds that students who are not used to thinking about subject matter deeply are not excited by the approach initially. Some students tell her at the beginning of the year that they just want to know the "right answer," circle it on a multiple choice test and get an A.

    "Once they are offered something challenging like this, they become hungry for it," says Loza. "It makes the class so much more meaningful."

    "Teaching them to just fill in the bubbles means we're not equipping them to analyze problems or solve them," adds Loza. "We're not teaching them to apply what they have learned in history to what's happening in the world today. The job market requires people who can look at all sides of an issue -- not people who know how to do something but don't understand why. And we need students to be critical thinkers when it's time to vote and get involved in civic responsibilities."

    Craig says he embraced the teaching method after soul-searching. "By the end of the school year, I would see seniors who had been in school 12 years and despised reading books and hated learning. I thought to myself, ‘There's something wrong when you are getting the opposite results of what you profess to want.' Instead of getting kids who want to go out into the world and learn, they hate learning and reading books.

    "I began to ask questions about what teachers do in the classroom that contributes to killing the joy of learning we're born with," he continues. "I began talking to students about a time when they enjoyed going to school and had fun. Usually they said that was back in first or second grade when they finger-painted and explored things, before all the testing. Ultimately, it boils down to a teacher's ability to engage the students so they can see there is some application of what they are learning to their own personal lives."

    To learn more about the use of critical thinking in education, visit and

Hold on to your handouts

    "Why do things bounce back when they collide?" Mina J. Blazy asks her eighth-grade science students at Desert Springs Middle School.

    Students are given a track, an energy car, silver marbles and rubber bands and told to explore, discover and create. They are not given handouts, even though they will later be given a laboratory handout designed around Newton's laws of motion.

    "If you give them the handout first, they feel like they have to answer the questions and they become stuck," explains Blazy. "Then no critical thinking takes place. But if you give them manipulatives or an experiment before you give them the handout, they have the ability to think critically. And they can come up with their own questions based on my questions. But first I let them play and they don't even realize they are experimenting on their own."

    The students are discovering Newton's second and third laws of motion, using the equipment while changing the force and the mass of the energy car. They are also having fun.

    "There are no wrong or right answers in science," Blazy reminds them. "Our job is to experiment and test. If the answers are inconclusive, students and scientists continue to test until there is a valid explanation."

    Blazy, a member of the Palm Springs Teachers Association, wants students to go beyond memorizing formulas. The goal is for them to ask questions and seek the answers. "When students learn how to learn, they become lifelong learners. When educators use a form of critical thinking in the classroom, students become engaged, and there are few behavioral problems.

    "A lot of students want to answer the questions on a piece of paper and be finished. If I ask them how to find Newton's third law of motion at the beginning of the school year, most students have developed the habit of using only the textbook or don't realize that there are other sources for finding information. They don't know how to look outside the box. It is absolutely amazing to watch their face beam with gratification when they discover the concepts the same way Newton or any other scientist found the concept."

    Some of her students have figured it out: For every action there is a reaction, and the forces of action and reaction always act in opposite directions. When she believes that the essential questions have been discussed verbally and the students can complete the task with little or no guidance, students are then given handouts and begin to work on a more formal lab.

    "I think that a lot of politics is pushing testing so much that teachers feel they have to make a choice between the pacing guide and allowing students to become critical thinkers," says Blazy. "But I think we can do both."

    Click here to visit Blazy's website.

Model critical thinking for your students

    Frame your lessons around essential questions rather than dispensing information, says Christianna Alger, an assistant professor in San Diego State University's School of Teacher Education. "At the simplest level, you can do a lot more questioning and create more space for dialogue in the classroom. Socratic seminars are a great example of ways to foster critical thinking."

    Alger, a member of the California Faculty Association, encourages a "healthy level of skepticism," in her students. "Teachers need to model critical thinking rather than putting information out there as though it is ‘the truth,'" she says.

    She also suggests to her student teachers that they foster their own critical thinking skills by reflecting on their lessons from different points of view. "What are the students thinking? What would their parents think about the lesson? When you have multiple perspectives, you can see where change needs to start."

    Alger will be involved in the university's Institute for the Teaching of Critical Thinking Skills, which will be established in the future and recently received $1.5 million from an anonymous donor.

    Follow this link for more info on Socratic Seminars

Some questions a teacher may pose to build a critical-thinking classroom environment

  • Clarity: Can you give an example? Can you state that in a different way? Can you elaborate on what you've said? Is there another word or phrase that communicates the idea?
  • Accuracy: How can we check to see if that is valid? How do we know that is correct? Where did you get your information? How can we verify or test that?
  • Depth: What factors make this a difficult problem? What are some of the complexities inherent in this problem? What are some of the most significant difficulties we need to deal with?
  • Relevance: How does that relate to the problem? How does that bear on the question? How does that help us with the issue?
  • Fairness: Do you have any vested interest in this issue? Are you sympathetically representing the relevant viewpoints of others?

Turn students into teachers

    In a normal high school classroom students are expected to do very little and teachers do most of the work, says Jack Stanford, an English teacher at Palm Springs High School. But when you put them to work, amazing things happen.

    For example, students went from writing four essays per year to writing 22 without him spending extra hours reading, critiquing and grading them. That's because students are grading each other -- and becoming critical thinkers in the process.

    Stanford, a Palm Springs Teachers Association member, created an ingenious system where students evaluate one another's essays using a detailed rubric. Writers are judged on whether their argument is convincing, their evidence is compelling, or their paper contains too many errors. Students use code names and usually those doing the grading are in a different period than those being graded. If students don't agree with the grade, they can challenge it, and Stanford has the final say.

    "It changes my role from someone who dispenses all the wisdom and knowledge to someone who makes sure that scoring is done correctly," he says. "And it takes a lot of critical thinking skills for students to organize their thoughts and grade each other. The kids like it and I think it helps them. They learn more from this than just turning in an assignment and seeing my copious comments all over it."

    "I like it because we can reflect upon what others have written and see where they need help," says Kerresa Robinson, a junior. "And you pay more attention to the comments from your fellow students."

    She finishes grading an essay and explains she has given it a score of 6 out of 9. "He had good verbs and a good plan of attack, but it needed more work. The prompt was vague and the evidence wasn't convincing. He needed more names and quotes."

    "I want them to be better readers, but first they have to be critical thinkers," says Stanford. "When they read a book, they have to be aware of the language, the rhetorical strategies of the writer, and the message. Hopefully words won't just wash over them while they read, and they will look for more than what's going to happen next."

Create stimulating multiple choice tests

    If done creatively, multiple choice tests can measure critical thinking skills. Here's a sample question on economics from Danny Craig of the Grossmont Education Association:

John asks Mr. Tweet if he can use the restroom and then walks down to the Gatorade machine by the R buildings. John decides that his number one choice would be red, followed by blue and finally yellow. If they didn't have any of those three he'd rather keep his money than buy orange. Luckily for John, the machine was freshly restocked, with all colors available, and so he bought a red. What was John's opportunity cost?

A - Blue Gatorade.
B - Blue and yellow Gatorades.
C - The $1.25 he spent to get the Gatorade.
D - There was no opportunity cost.

    Instead of asking students to regurgitate a textbook definition of opportunity cost (the second-best alternative, the option that is given up when a decision is made), this question asks for an example from students' daily experience.

Link curriculum to current events

    In Nadine Loza's history class, students study colonialism and imperialism in European history. But the lesson becomes much more interesting when she asks students to compare historical events with what is presently happening in the Caribbean nations of Guadalupe and Martinique, which are both trying to break free from French rule. Sometimes the discussions get quite heated, such as during the election, or when immigrant students compare World War II refugees to those fleeing difficult situations in their homelands today.

    "But I'm not afraid of heated discussions or giving my own opinion" says the Association of Rowland Educators member. "I am a history teacher and a thinking participant in our democracy. I want to be an example of someone who has an opinion and thinks about things."

Create a thinking map

    Thinking maps help students organize their ideas, says Betty Lightfoot, a teacher at Earl Warren Elementary School in Lake Elsinore. She believes that kindergarten is the perfect age to foster critical thinking skills and get students excited about learning.

    Thinking maps were developed two decades ago by Dr. David Hyerle to improve reading comprehension, writing, problem-solving and reasoning. A circle map shows context, a flow map sequencing, and a tree map classifying and grouping. Lightfoot draws thinking maps when teaching writing and literature to her kindergartners, many of whom are English learners.

    "Let's say you are talking about eggs," says Lightfoot, who is National Board Certified. "We might talk about what comes from eggs, sort it out and put it into groups. You might have birds, amphibians or Easter eggs. After they see groupings in a map they write it out themselves. It helps them process their thinking."

    "It's all about questioning," she says. "When I asked them about what things float and don't float, they had to come up with their own predictions and hypotheses about what would float and why. They had to create their own boats and test their hypotheses. When you encourage critical learning, students become excited and enthusiastic. They become so involved it takes away from discipline problems."

    Click here to learn more about thinking maps.

Research, re-enact, sing the subject

    Jeanette Mills graduated from UCLA a year ago. Ask her if she remembers the original 13 colonies and without batting an eye she breaks into song naming all of them correctly. That's because when she was a fifth-grader, she performed in historical musicals co-written by Marquez Charter Elementary School teacher Jeff Lantos, a member of United Teachers Los Angeles. Today, she helps Lantos choreograph in the classroom.

    During a recent visit, students were singing and dancing for a production called Water and Power set in Massachusetts in 1840, the site of America's first cotton mill factory, while Lantos accompanied them on piano.

I labored in the cotton fields,
Years of sweat and pain.
I wondered how those bosses
Could be so inhumane.

    Students must research their characters — actual people during that era — in depth. They read old newspapers from that period. They internalize and think about the events that took place, says Lantos, who has been teaching 22 years.

    "It's stealth learning, because they don't realize how much history they have learned until they get to high school," says Lantos, who has co-penned other musicals based on Lewis and Clark and the writing of the U.S. Constitution.

    "If you want instant buy-in, all you have to say is ‘Let's put on a show,' because kids love performing. And they really start thinking about that era instead of just memorizing the answers. When it comes to tests, our kids perform off the charts."

    "I love it," says student Chad Warren. "It's so much better than just sitting there and reading a textbook. We get to be active and have fun. We'll always look back and remember this when we're older."

    E-mail Lantos at for more information on these musicals.

United Teachers Los Angeles member Jeff Lantos uses theatrical “stealth learning” techniques to engage his students at Marquez Charter Elementary School.

James Steward and Adela Ramirez conduct a hands-on science experiment at Desert Springs Middle School.

ABOVE: California Faculty Association member Christianna Alger, an assistant professor in San Diego State University’s School of Teacher Education. BELOW: Jack Stanford works with Analuisa Rodriguez in English class at Palm Springs High School.

ABOVE: Betty Lightfoot, a teacher at Earl Warren Elementary School in Lake Elsinore, introduces her kindergartners to critical learning. INSET: Kindergartner Debrea Allen.

Campbell Healy and Taylor Hanson rehearse a dance at Marquez Charter Elementary School. INSET: United Teachers Los Angeles member Jeff Lantos choreographs a lesson.


Mina J. Blazy, a Palm Springs Teachers Association member, helps her eighth-grade science students at Desert Springs Middle School go beyond memorizing formulas to become “lifelong learners.”



Danny Craig Grossmont Association


Nadine Loza Association of Rowland Educators


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