How to Teach the 21st-Century Skills and Content Knowledge
Content knowledge and 21st-century skills? Can educators teach both to 21st-century learners? The answer is yes, they can do it all, and at this point, they must.
Not long ago my husband and I got into a conversation about the importance of 21st-century skills. What is more valuable, skills or content knowledge? I argued (and have argued here before), that you can't have one without the other, and it is one of our greatest responsibilities as educators to provide opportunities for development in both.
Teaching 21st-century skills is essential for 21st-century learners. That is the truth of it. Content knowledge is important, but soft skills are as well. As the world around us transforms, the value of and need for particular skills shifts.
Why are 21st century skills important for 21st-century learners? In short, soft skills are essential for modern day life and the workplace. Therefore, teaching 21st century skills to students, in my opinion, is as important as teaching content. But why?
Let me paint you a little picture...
I went through my teaching licensure program in 2007. At that time, the main objective was to train us to be leaders in inquiry-based learning. I never questioned why inquiry was so heavily emphasized, I just did what I was told (ironically).
Inquiry allows learners to construct an understanding of the content or concepts through observation, questioning, exploration, experimentation, and so on. As you saw in my last blog post, there are many ways to implement inquiry-based learning experiences into your curriculum.
After 13 years in education, I now understand why my professors were obsessed with inquiry. I knew the what and the how; what inquiry was and how to facilitate inquiry learning experiences. But I didn't know why, and I didn't ask.
But the "why" is equally as important. If you don't know why you're doing something, why would you do it at all? I trusted that my professors had a great reason for harping on inquiry, and I'm glad I did, because the "why" is powerful, especially when it comes to teaching 21st-century learners.
Inquiry-based learning offers so much more than content development. It creates opportunities for building skills that are CRITICAL to thrive in this fast-paced, technology heavy, information inundated society that we live in. This picture that I've painted is the now and it is the future for our students.
So the "why" do inquiry-based learning for me lies heavily in the skills that come out of it. Inquiry experiences help students build a hefty portfolio of skills, but I'm going to go over a few of my favorites. Before getting into this post, it might help to go back and read my inquiry intro post.
Top Five 21st-Century Skills Gained Through Inquiry-Based Learning
Inquiry encourages resourcefulness. The process requires students to gather information on their own rather receive information through direct instruction. Some inquiry experiences, such as project-based learning, ask students to explore topics and investigate questions by reaching out to community experts and organizing authentic learning activities. Utilizing and collaborating with the community is one way to practice being resourceful.
This is absolutely one skill that cannot be acquired through didactic instruction. For students to be self-directed, they need to self-direct, to make their own choices as part of the learning process. Inquiry-based learning sets the stage for self-direction. Students can choose their questions and determine how they will gather information. This is especially true with self-directed project-based learning and scientific open-inquiry investigations.
3. Critical Thinking:
This 21st-century skill comes up often. Critical thinking is arguably the most important 21st-century skill because it applies to so many facets of life. Inquiry-based learning is an effective way to advance critical thinking skills. Problem-based learning, scientific experimentation, STEM, and project-based learning all pave the way to questioning. They encourage students to challenge what they think they know. Students objectively evaluate their experiences, observational phenomena, and real-world issues.
I often hear people say that they're not creative, they weren't born that way, or they're not the creative one in the family. This just isn't true. Creativity is a skill that can be developed with practice and opportunity. Inquiry-based learning is that opportunity. STEM and maker education are two great learning experiences that promote creativity.
For example, one of my STEM challenges is for students to develop a plant prototype that can successfully "cross-pollinate" with "wind". Students design and build their own prototypes, try them out, fail, make creative adjustments, and try again. There would be little opportunity for creative thinking if I had given a PowerPoint presentation on wind pollinator adaptations instead of facilitating this STEM activity.
There are so many great learning experiences that promote problem-solving, problem-based learning being the most obvious. With PrBL, students heavily investigate and assess one issue, question people on a spectrum of perspectives related to the issue, and figure out the most effective way(s) to solve the problem. STEM and design thinking are also great inquiry activities that utilize problem-solving skills. Students investigate the concepts and put those concepts into practice. If something doesn't work as they thought, they ask how the problem can be solved and fix it.
Before I go, check out this simple inquiry activity. The video below shows a mixture of cornstarch and water. When handled, it feels like a liquid at times and a solid at other times. It is a non-Newtonian fluid. A Newtonian fluid is one described as having the properties of an ideal liquid. A cornstarch and water mixture is not that! This challenges our observations and experiences around states of matter, inspiring questioning and the desire to explore the concept!
This video along with the guiding questions is an example of an inquiry activity that offers the opportunity to practice resourcefulness, self-direction, critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving, among others. Try it out and use it as inspiration for your own inquiry activities!
If you appreciate this kind of guiding prompt, subscribe to my email list to gain access to my free experiential learning resource library, which includes short activities like this one. You also receive a free Project Assessment e-Portolio that students can use to showcase their cumulative work in one space.
1. What do you observe?
2. What does this video make you wonder?
3. What do you believe the mixture is made of?
4. Does the content of this video remind you of something else or an experience that you have had in the past?
5. Do you think the material is a liquid, solid, both, neither, something else entirely?
6. If you aren't sure, how could you find out?
There are so many more skills that can be refined by doing inquiry-based learning. I encourage you to check out my 21st-century skills portfolio resource (printable and digital options) where students can compile evidence of skill-building and showcase their achievements. Inquiry activities could be that evidence!
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Summer is a great time for 21st-century learners, especially high school students, to bolster their resumes for colleges and careers. It's even good for younger students to think about, not necessarily in terms of college and career readiness, but for developing life skills such as work ethic, team work, and responsible citizenship.
Summer is a great time to do this simply because there is more time and there tends to be more opportunities available for young people, as it is assumed they aren't in school over the summer. This is obviously not the case for everyone. It doesn't have to be summer, nor do students have to be on break to work on personal growth and bulking up their resumes.
The year 2020 has been a doozy. In a matter of six months there has been a pandemic, school closures, economic collapse, "murder hornets", countless instances of racial injustice, and an uprising, one that has been a long time coming. I've been thinking about how these unprecedented events have impacted the lives of my students and what power they have to shape the uncertain future of this world.
Here comes another "C"! Have you noticed that many of the skills I've been covering in my 21st-century skills series start with a "C"? Those are the 4 C's of education; critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration. There are many 21st-century skills, but the 4C's lay the foundation for the others, in my opinion.
The focus of this post is collaboration; working with others to achieve a common goal or purpose. It is imperative that students possess collaboration skills that will meet the demands of living and working in the 21st-century. Help them build a strong community network and to take advantage of all that their community has to offer. For partnerships with local citizens, business owners, legislators, city officials, non-profits, educators, town libraries, historical societies, and so on, and promote collaboration between them that work to meet the needs of the community.
Design your curriculum around community collaborations. Rather than learn about government from a textbook, for example, have students work directly with government officials to write a bill. Connect with farmers and conservationists to develop a plan that both protects livestock from wolf predation and wolves from extinction. The relationship between students and community members is mutually beneficial. By bringing community collaboration into your curriculum, students become an asset to the community rather than a fixture, and the community becomes a key player in the education of its children.
Start making student/community collaborations a priority in your curriculum by implementing some of the suggestions below. It's important to note that this cannot fall on the shoulders of teachers alone. For the following student/community collaborations to be successful, everyone will need to pitch in. Collaborate! Pull together principles, administrators, board members, parents, community members, and most importantly, students. Better yet, let your students take the lead. Yes, kids can be the driving force of most of the collaboration opportunities listed below.
10 Ways to Add Collaboration Skill-Building to Your Curriculum
1) Build YOUR Community Network:
If you are a parent or educator interested in including community collaborations in your curriculum, start by joining a town committee, club, or board. This will provide exposure to the needs of the community as well as establish a solid network for future collaborations between your students and the community. A few weeks ago I posted about a project one of my students was doing about horror films. Within minutes, someone in my network responded to the post offering this student the opportunity to work alongside a community member curating a horror film festival. Make some connections and start putting your ideas out there. Assure potential collaborators that students are contributors. They need your students as much as your students need them.
2) Write a Class Newsletter:
A few years ago several of my students noticed some animosity between our student body and some of our direct neighbors. My advisory got together to brainstorm ways to bridge the gap. My students decided that they would write a newsletter about our school with student and project highlights, upcoming events that neighbors could attend, ways for neighbors to get involved, and so on. My students created the newsletter, made the cookies, and personally delivered both to our neighbors. This small gesture helped our students build a stronger network for future collaborations.
3) Start a Community Garden:
Several of my coworkers had the idea of starting a community garden. They connected students with local horticulturists, farmers, and nonprofits to build a produce garden right on school property. Our students collaborated closely with community experts to build a beautiful and prosperous urban garden.
4) Start a Community Club or Committee:
Have students start clubs or groups that extend out to include community members. A few years ago, several of my students started a community cleanup crew for an assigned PBL project (FInd the resource here - Start a Club). Together our students and the local community organized and participated in regular neighborhood cleanup events.
Students might also consider organizing a committee specific to addressing community needs. Students and citizens, local business owners, city officials, non-profits, conservationists, colleges and universities, etc. would come together to tackle community issues and needs. Check out my Community Action Projects on TpT for guidance.
5) Host Community Events:
Start networking with community members by not only hosting events open to the public, but also including students and community members in the planning and organizing of the events. Our students have organized movie nights, spaghetti dinners, cook-offs, chess tournaments, exhibition nights, a gallery for local artists, and more. Collaboration with the community was integral in the success of these events.
6) Host a Speaker Series at Your School:
One of my coworkers and a group of students organize a speaker series at our school every year. The student committee observes and identifies important community topics and issues, they reach out to experts on those topics, they invite them to speak at our school, and open the doors to the public. The student committee collaborates with local citizens to narrow in on interests and needs, and organizes speakers to meet those needs. Students also collaborate with community experts to speak.
7) Transition to Project-Based Learning:
PBL is community centered by nature. It requires collaboration on many levels. PBL emphasises authentic learning experiences. Students are expected to collaborate with community experts, have real-world learning experiences beyond the walls of the classroom, create a final product that makes a positive impact on the community as a whole, and share their work with an authentic audience. Collaboration is an integral part of PBL. Collaboration skill-building is especially effective when the experience is student-led. Check out past posts on PBL right here, and head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for PBL resources to get you started.
8) Start a Mentorship Program:
One of my coworkers has been hard at work for years developing a mentorship program between our students and members of the community. The students and community members not only develop a friendship, but the mentors get involved in our students' projects, bringing their network and their collaborators to the table.
9) Start an Internship Program:
There are so many reasons to encourage student internships, and building collaboration skills is on the top of that list. The same coworker that works diligently on our mentorship program is also heavily involved in opening up internship possibilities to our students. Several of our students apprentice at Urban Boat Builders where a diverse array of collaborations are at play. Students can further strengthen collaboration skills by finding and arranging their own internship opportunities.
10) Organize Legislative Days:
Encourage learners to collaborate with their local representatives to make positive change in the community. Every year MAAP organizes "Legislative Day" where students from all over the state travel to Capitol building in St. Paul to discuss community issues with their legislators. These conversations often turn into long-term collaborations. One of my students, for example, worked closely with her legislator to create a bill that would help ex-convicts be productive citizens by making job opportunities more accessible.
Of course there are many more ways to help learners develop collaboration skills including problem-based learning, place-based education, hosting exhibition nights, educational travel, service-learning, etc. It can be as simple as taking what you are ALREADY doing with your students and adding community partnerships to the mix.
Next week I'm heading to Zion National Park with my family. I'm unsure at this point if I will have a post ready for next week. Keep an eye out. At a minimum, I'll post when I get home. Stay-tuned for a post on all of the ways to enhance learning while traveling.
Good luck to you, and as always, feel free to reach out for questions or comments. Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram and LinkedIn.
Last night my three-old tried to climb out of the bathtub by herself. I helped her back in the tub and explained to her that the bathtub ledge is smooth and wet, and therefore, slippery. She then removed the bathmat from the tub floor and swung it over the ledge, and again, began to climb out. She explained that the rough texture of the bathmat made the edge of the tub less slippery so that she could climb out safely by herself. My 3-year-old did this. Toddlers have the capacity to problem-solve, as do preschoolers, elementary students, middle schoolers, teenagers, and so on. With a little guidance, they can be problem-solving champs!
Every facet of life necessitates the ability to recognize problems and come to solutions, such as building and nurturing healthy relationships, raising children, home maintenance, success in careers and college, personal health, and more complex global issues like pandemics and natural disasters. The world around us continues to evolve in profound and unprecedented ways. Educators have an imperative responsibility to help nurture and strengthen that skill. Twenty first-century humans, regardless of age, regardless of context, must know how to face problems, how to work through the unexpected in a world of perpetual uncertainty, and come to logical and effective resolutions.
As I've said in my other posts on 21st-century skills, content and skill development are not mutually exclusive. You do not need to put your content to the side while you work with learners on problem-solving. Check out the following learning activities that incorporate problem-solving by design. There are other options not listed here, but the ones mentioned below are those that I've spent time fine-tuning because I've seen powerful results.
If you happen to be interested in helping learners develop a variety of skills, check out 21st-Century Skills Portfolio in my TpT store. Otherwise, give some of the learning activities below a shot.
Learning Activities That Build Problem-Solving Skills
I choose experiential learning activities for my students as often as humanly possible, which means learning is student-directed, learners are actively involved, and reflection is built into every experience. The following activities, include each of these elements, which is why I turn to them to help learners practice problem-solving.
This is one of my favorite learning experiences for building problem-solving skills. In problem-based learning, students observe real-world, complex, open-ended issues and develop a plan to solve the problem. Learners come to solutions by researching different perspectives, conducting experiments, talking with experts, analyzing the variables, determining several options to solve the problem, and weighing the pros and cons of each option. The results is a powerful combination of content knowledge and many 21st-century skills, including problem-solving. It also crosses disciplines; always a plus.
For example, buckthorn is an invasive species that is devastating forest communities around Minnesota. As a problem-based learning activity, students would research the natural history of buckthorn as well as the structural and behavioral adaptations that have allowed them to be so successful. Learners would look into solutions currently in place. They would research ways to eradicate and prevent the problem. They might even develop original solutions to the problem. They would then weigh their options and develop a comprehensive plan to solve the problem of buckthorn takeover in MN. That is problem-based learning at it's finest.
Head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for my problem-based learning resource on invasive species and other problem-based learning resources.
Inquiry-based learning is when students make observations about the world around them, ask questions, and come to their own conclusions through experimentation and/or investigation. Inquiry-based learning starts and ends with the students. When educators rely on lecture and other forms of teacher-centered relaying of information, learners aren't problem-solving. Open inquiry often results in dead ends, unanticipated results, uncooperative sources, etc. that demand that learners take a step back, reflect, analyze the problem, and try something else. For more posts on inquiry, click the inquiry-based learning link to your right.
You can also check out a variety of inquiry-based learning resourcesat my TpT store.
Project-based learning is a wonderful tool for developing problem-solving skills. Innovation, authenticity, and community impact all set PBL apart from other styles of teaching. Learners are immersed in the community by default, so have many opportunities to observe and identify problems that are relevant and close to home. This is especially true when projects are designed to impact the community. My community action projects on TpT ask students to identify problems/issues in their own communities and take action. Click here for other PBL resources on TpT, and here for most posts on project-based learning.
Design thinking is a great way to practice problem-solving skills, and "making" is one way to utilize design thinking. The best maker activities that incorporate problem-solving are those that ask students to design and create something that literally solves a problem. I had a student in my environmental science class that designed and created an entire line of clothing from upcycled materials to reduce clothing waste, for example. Making also naturally leads to problem-solving. Prototypes rarely match final outcomes. Students start with a vision, they try some things out, use materials that they think will do the trick, inevitably run into obstacles, reflect, try something else, and so on and so on, until they have created a working final product.
A few days ago I asked my kindergartener to build a contraption that could rescue a "monster" from lava. His goal was to make something using household items that could pull his monster toy to safety without stepping in the lava (crossing the line). I have had my high schoolers do a similar activity, but it was related to natural selection. They learned content while practicing problem-solving through trial and error.
Check out some of my maker PBL challenges that combine elements of project-based learning and design thinking.
Play, especially when unstructured, is highly influential when it comes to skill development. In play, children themselves create rules, they make-believe, work together, and work through their own dilemmas. Social emotional skills emerge such as empathy, compassion, self-control, and expression of feelings. Twenty-first century skills come onto the scene as well including team-work, communication, flexibility, creativity, and problem-solving.
My oldest child started kindergarten this year. I have had doubts about sending him to a play-based preschool. The transition from two diametrically opposed learning environments has been jarring for everyone. Then I remind myself that his ability to cope with this new experience, to persevere through the transition, to express his fears and worries, to communicate with his teacher, and problem-solve can in part be credited to his preschool experience. I urge you! Let them play!
There are of course many other ways for children to practice problem-solving such as travel, service learning, STEM and STEAM, nature-based learning, team-building activities, current events discussions, analyzing case studies, and even casual conversation. Not all learning experiences are organized and structured. We learn about the world around us by living in it. What will NOT boost problem-solving skills are lectures, drill worksheets, and textbook readings. Those methods of instruction involve very little independent thinking. I understand that they have their place on occasion, but not when it comes to fostering generations of problem-solvers.
Ask yourself what you are doing with your students to help them build problem-solving skills. If your answer is "not much", consider trying out some of the activities here, or asking yourself another question; why not? If you need convincing, head back to some of my other posts about 21st-century skills. If your answer to the first question is a resounding "so many things!" I would love to hear about your experiences! Happy problem-solving!
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Several years ago a student in my psychology seminar came to me with an idea for her psychology project. She had made an interesting observation about her own family. Those observations lead to a question; she wondered why her and her siblings were so different from one another. She settled on a project about birth order theory, developed by Alfred Adler.
Her original project idea was to research birth order theory and conduct her own study. She put together a survey, passed it out, collected it, slapped her results on a poster board and called it a day. We went through her board together. I asked her questions about the topic, most of which she couldn't answer. Her survey was only distributed to her classmates, which made her sample size less than 20 students. No graphs, no charts, no conclusion was included. I asked her if she thought this was her best work. She didn't answer me, and stormed off, fuming.
The following day she came into school ready to try again. We discussed what might be missing and how she could improve her final product. She decided to organize an activity for my psychology students. She separated the class into groups - first borns, middle children, youngest, and only children - and had each group draw a picture of their ideal vacation. Every year thereafter (until this student graduated), my new psychology students did the drawings as well. When drawings were compared to the drawings of prior years, all of the middle children drawings were almost identical to each other, same with the first borns, and so on.
If I hadn't insisted that she improve the quality of her final product she wouldn't have had nearly the same learning experience nor the same outcomes. Asking her to try again, make some adjustments, and turn it into a project that she could be proud of was an important lesson. There is not a quick fix, nor one simple trick that will result in quality projects across the board. The key is a combination of several elements, which when implemented together will get you closer to the results you are looking for.
***The project that my student did on birth order theory was part of my psychology class. Each student conducts their own psychology experiment as their final project for the seminar. Check out that resource here.
How to Improve the Quality of Student Work
1. Cultivate a classroom/homeschool culture of high expectations:
Let students know your expectations from the start. You'll have to model those expectations. It is true, and vital in this particular situation, that actions speak louder than words. If you allow students to turn in low quality work, for example, then that is exactly what they'll continue to do. If you give students a pass because you don't feel they can do any better, then they will think the same of themselves; that they can't do any better.
Build a culture that frames quality work as the norm. Praise effort and work ethic. Give consistent feedback. Build time into your schedule for students to go back and improve their work. Be cognizant of your actions. Ask yourself whether your own behavior is promoting quality projects or stifling them. If you cultivate a classroom/homeschool culture of high standards, you not only promote high quality work, but instill an eagerness in students; a hunger to improve.
2. Develop (and stick with) a system that works:
There is not a specific system that will work for everyone. Find a system that works for you and your learners and stick with it.
My students do PBL projects. Part of our system for ensuring quality final products is by having approval and evaluation meetings. All projects go through an approval process, where students propose their project plan to a small committee (made up of teachers, school staff, other students, community members). Committee members offer feedback and suggestions, fill in any missing pieces, and approve the projects once they are deemed quality plans. Students also have their final products evaluated by the same committee.
This project approval/evaluation system ensures checks and balances and promotes high quality projects. This system has always been a challenge to stick by because it takes teachers and other staff members away from other tasks that often feel more important than approval meetings. But if this system were to go to the wayside, which it has before, project quality would (and does) dip as a result. Although this system is a challenge at times, it makes sense for us. Find a system that works for you, and stick with it. You'll thank yourself later!
3. Supply consistent feedback:
Providing regular feedback to students throughout the process is critical if you expect tremendous final results. Offer many opportunities for feedback from you, peers, community experts, and more. The necessity for steady feedback is one reason for having project approval and evaluation meetings like we do. An eclectic group of people pool together to offer ideas and suggestions from different perspectives that students may have overlooked or simply didn't know the opportunity existed.
For example, I was in on an approval meeting last week with a student who wanted to do a project on horror films. I posted on Instagram about this project. Within minutes, a community member contacted me to see if this student would like to work with him on a horror film festival that he would be curating. This opportunity instantly improved the quality of his final product and the learning experience as a whole.
4. Nurture a self-directed learning environment:
Student-directed learning is when students are given the freedom to lead their learning experiences. They have choice and voice in process and outcome. Click the "self-directed learning" link to your right for past posts on student-directed learning. My students are self-directed project-based learners. They choose their project topics, community experts, how they will gather information, how they will demonstrate learning, and who they will share their work with. They even have choice in evaluation criteria by writing their own rubrics.
When students have choice and take ownership of their learning, they care about the topic and process. They take interest in creating their final products. They develop an intrinsic motivation to do their best because they believe in themselves. They have a newfound sense of self-worth. All of this paves the way to quality projects.
Head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for a variety of student-directed learning resources, including project-based learning.
5. Facilitate learning activities that emphasize trial and error:
I've recently developed an appreciation for projects that utilize design thinking (empathizing, defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing.) Students brainstorm, generate rough ideas, and test those ideas. The original vision does not typically culminate as expected, at which point learners reflect, problem-solve, and try a different approach. Maker education is an example of a learning activity that habituates this type of thinking, among others. Reflection, problem-solving, drafts, redos, second tries, becomes second nature. Producing a high quality outcome is the essence of the activity.
Check out some of my PBL maker challenges on TpT, my latest on designing and creating Halloween costumes from trash.
6. Encourage innovative final products:
One way to inspire quality work is to have students create innovative final products. This is one of the key elements of project-based learning; to demonstrate learning in an innovative way.
Poster boards are boring to make and boring to look at, regardless of how cool the project topic is. Get learners thinking beyond poster boards and Powerpoint presentations.
Encourage students to learn about a new software or online design program. Ask them to create a final product that considers their unique skills and interests. A student with a love for painting, for example, might demonstrate learning by painting a mural. A writer might rather demonstrate learning by writing a short story about the concept at hand. When content and/or learning activities are relatable and interesting to students, learners are more likely to put in the effort to create something that they are eager to share.
7. Organize opportunities for authentic presentations:
Authentic learning experiences in general will light a fire under learners. But authentic presentations, where students share their final product with a relevant, often public audience, compels learners to give it their best.
In project-based learning, an authentic presentation or the final product itself should benefit the audience. For example, a final product for a disease project might be a brochure. An authentic presentation might be the distribution of the brochures to clinics across the community. In this case, the brochures can't just be high quality, it would need to be of professional quality. The idea isn't to embarrass kids. Their audience is relying on them to share accurate, helpful information. The idea is to urge learners to do their best for their audience and to feel great about their results.
8. Prioritize self-reflection:
Self-reflection is an essential piece of every learning activity that I do with my students. Reflecting on progress and their final products IS a form of feedback, but because the feedback doesn't come from you or their peers, students critically think and learn to identify their own strengths and weaknesses. It gives learners perspective. Completing a self-evaluation half way through a PBL project, for example, helps learners take a step back, analyze their progress, make adjustments, and move forward in a way that improves outcomes.
Organize regular opportunities for self-reflection such as periodic self-assessments, casual daily check-in forms that learners can use to reflect regularly, one-on-one discussions about how things are going, etc. Each of these methods of reflection should be student-led, otherwise it's not self-reflection at all.
ALL of your students producing professional quality final products ALL of the time is unrealistic. Even getting some of your learners to produce quality products some of the time is an arduous journey, but is one worth taking. It is a skill to want to improve; to STRIVE to improve. Anyone can develop this skill with proper direction and support. Be that direction for your learners. Be that support!
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How to Teach Critical Thinking
A few months ago some tadpoles fell into my lap, figuratively and literally at times! I had reservations initially, but thought, well, this would be a good learning experience for my kiddos. I'm an experiential educator afterall. I am attuned to opportunities that get children involved, and this would do just that.
My kids observed the frogs' life cycle, learned how to keep a tadpole alive and problem-solved when unprecedented events inevitably arose. When their solutions failed, they tried something else. They observed tadpole behaviors, asked questions, designed and conducted experiments. They interpreted unexpected behaviors, hashed out possible explanations, talked with a variety of experts, and drew conclusions from their experiences and research.
My five and two year olds did this. Of course their observations and questions may have been slightly different than that of a high schooler, and their research and experimentation would look different for my kids than it would for a teenager. I mean, my 5 and 2-year-olds can't read or leave the house without a parent, and they have a pretty narrow worldview. But they can critically think. They can problem-solve, evaluate, speculate, analyze, reflect, consider alternatives to the obvious, make predictions, examine deviations from what is expected. Their solutions might not be completely rational, and their analysis may only touch the surface, but skill in those areas will come with time, brain-development, and practice.
I would love to give my high school students this same learning experience. I know lecture, note-taking, textbook reading, and worksheets have their place in some of your classrooms. I'm sure you can even justify them. But that is not what this post is about. This post is about critical thinking, and none of those teaching methods will help your learners transition into adulthood as competent critical thinkers. If you value critical thinking and/or expect your learners to critically think, you'll have to set the stage for success. There are many ways to do that. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
5 Ways to Engage Students in Critical Thinking
1. Organize Learning Experiences that Promote Critical Thinking:
Offer activities, such as our tadpole project, that challenge learners to observe, analyze, create, fail, evaluate, problems-solve, reflect, interpret, and more. There are many learning activities that involve critical thinking by nature, such as STEM/STEAM, activities that use design thinking such as maker projects, inquiry-based learning, place-based learning, project-based learning, and yes, play. If you are working with young children unstructured play might be the best thing you can do to encourage critical thinking. You too, kindergarten teachers!
One of my favorite activities for critical thinking is problem-based learning. In problem-based learning students are asked to identify complex real-world problems. Solutions aren't always clear, or there may not be just one, thus costs and benefits must be analyzed and weighed. A variety of perspectives are examined and considered when coming to the most effective solution(s).
For a variety of resources that promote critical thinking, head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT. There you can find problem-based learning, project-based learning, and inquiry-based learning toolkits. You can even find a project specific to 21st-century skill building called 21st-Century Skills Portfolio. I recently launched my STEM Challenge product line. Check that out here.
2. Questions, Questions, and More Questions:
Encourage your students to ask questions! Inspire students to ask questions that are open-ended, those that don't always have a clear answer. Give your students the confidence to ask deep questions by inviting those questions, pushing learners to dig deeper, and by answering their questions with another question, such as "what do you already know about that?", "how could you find out?", "what do you notice if you look at it from this perspective?".
To empower learners to ask their own questions, create a learning environment that gives them the space, time, resources, and encouragement to do so. Inquiry-based learning and project-based learning are great learning tools for this.
3. Observations, Observations, and More Observations:
Observations more often than not give rise to questions. My children observed that our tadpoles rarely moved. They were surprisingly lethargic all of the time. This one observation generated a plethora of questions such as whether this behavior is normal, if tadpoles are this immobile in the wild, if they were hungry at the time, if they were going through a specific phase of their life cycle that required more energy than others. Making observations, asking questions, exploring those questions, experimenting and analyzing results is critical thinking. Student-directed open-inquiry is a great way to practice using these skills, and open-inquiry starts with observations.
Examining and evaluating others' work is one way to practice making consequential observations such as dissecting current events, perusing scientific publications, interpreting music lyrics, analyzing debates, and even conducting peer evaluations. Project-based learning is one such learning tool that promotes peer feedback. By teaching learners to make observations they are in turn building critical thinking skills.
4. Allow Students to Direct Their Own Learning Experiences:
When given choice and autonomy, learners make decisions for themselves, which in itself requires critical thinking. To design a project, for example, students need to evaluate their skills, consider their interests, ask relevant questions, find sources and analyze credibility. Throughout the project process learners reflect on their experiences and plan accordingly. In contrast, when learners are given a specific task that is put together for them, a task that has a right/wrong/yes/no answer, critical thinking is not at play. Teach students how to critically think by giving them the tools to think for themselves. One of those tools is choice.
Look back at posts from my student-directed learning series for help getting started. It can seem a daunting transition to go from teacher-centered to student-directed, but it's not so bad if you have direction and support.
5. Establish a Culture of Critical Thinkers
Show your students that you value critical thinking by establishing a learning environment that promotes it. If critical thinking is the expectation, if you vocalize it's value, if it becomes a part of your every day lexicon, if you provide experiences for learners that endorse critical thinking, and if you uphold its importance by demonstrating critical thinking yourself, you are engaging your learners in this very critical 21st-century skill.
These are just six of many ways you can engage your students in critical thinking. All educators should be making 21st-century skills a priority, not just advisors, career counselors, and life skills instructors. I'm a science teacher. It is my responsibility to teach the content, yes, but content and 21st-century skills are not mutually exclusive. Learners can have it all.
Okay, this is no longer a rhetorical question. How are you engaging your students in critical thinking? I'd love you all to share some strategies that have been effective, and even those that have not. Let's share!
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To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.