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“Critical consciousness, they say, is anarchic. Others add that critical consciousness may lead to disorder. Some, however, confess: Why deny it? I was afraid of freedom. I am no longer afraid.” Paulo Freire

Last February myself and six teachers (Jr, Int) attended a local highschool PL session on Critical Thinking in the classroom. Garfield Gini-Newman is a Senior Consultant for The Critical Thinking Consortium, TC2, and an adjunct professor at OISE in Toronto, Ontario. While originally challenged by the space to learn in and the seating arrangement I slowly appreciated the value of sitting with 70 other professionals in a fishbowl in the welcome corridor of the high school. Students walked past and watched us listening, talking and learning from behind the glass.

Our reason for entering the room was laid in evidence from 8 years of performance on the grade 6 EQAO assessments (limited level 4 performances), results from our Stretch your Thinking questions of 2010-2012 and most importantly the professional opinions and anecdotal evidence of our expert teachers around students’ abilities with critical thinking. The perception: our students, en masse, have not been able to access level 4 performance tasks. The tasks that largely involve critical analysis, critical thinking and higher order problem solving. We decided as a group that this may not be because our students simply cannot present and perform this way but rather (and more introspectively) that we are not preparing lessons and activities that allow for students to illustrate or possibly access this level of thinking and thus practise the process. We asked the question: Are we using Critical Thinking as a framework for our learning activities?

We came prepared to be critical of ourselves. Each teacher brought with them a lesson or activity that we wanted to “Tweak and Fortify” (Gini-Newmans’s mantra for Critical Thinking prep). Garfield uses the “problematize the content” method to make learning happen in the classroom. He juxtaposes the “correctional method” and the “problematization method.” One stifles learning and thinking and the other instigates it. He calls this whole process “Additive Teaching.”

We began with a picture of Burnaby BC in 1942 and were asked to decide the month, day, and time of day from the evidence we had. We were left with the question, Why should you or should you not give the students the answer to the question posed? Many answers revolved around stopping the thinking, not highlighting the process, undermining the learning and talk, creating winners and losers.

Before coming to today’s event the teachers were sent a form in Google Docs asking questions about student performance, engagement and thinking. Questions also were asked of teacher learning need. Teachers were asked to watch an embedded YouTube clip of Garfield and were asked: Do you want/need more of this learning? The results were clear. We needed to attend the workshop.

Garfield stated a number of times this day, you can do this in your classroom tomorrow. The most practical of his ideas: Stop having students copy from the board or take notes and instead throw four statements on the board and ask them, “Which one of these statements is true and which ones are false?”

One of the watershed quotes Newman threw up on the screen was a poem from T.S.Elliot in 1933 in which he stated: “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” He specifically was referencing the role google, apps, iPhones and the lot have played in the classrooms and learning work of the 21st C teacher and student. With the knowledge that the answer is “out there”, instead of inside your head, he challenged all educators in the room to start framing problems and content differently. He challenged each of us to reframe our roles. Of specific practical interest was his work on a PBL matrix. My grade 5/6 teachers used this work to create the framework for a unit on Ancient Civ. the very next week! Garfield provided a 7 step process for designing critical challenges:
1.critique the piece
2.judge the piece
3. Rework the piece
4. Decode the puzzle
5. Design to specs
6. Perform to specs

(One example used was that students not only chose the most important items to carry into the woods with them but them they must rank order them. All this is done on a sea of talk–critical talk)

Garfield started to scare some people when he suggested flipping Bloom’s Taxonomy on its head. “What if we flipped on end the foundations for teaching and learning and made invitations to create products of value or solving meaningful problems the foundations of learning for all children?” He called this being a “little bit provocative.” Newman also juxtaposed Critical Thinking and Inquiry Based Teaching. His goal is to bring these two things together in the classroom and call it Critical Inquiry. As we discussed this process I was drawn to think about and reflect on the work of my Early Years teachers currently. Critical Inquiry is alive and well with 4 and 5 year olds when an adult knows how to probe with questions.

There were strong connections to my teachers’ current work on Visible Learning stemming from the work of John Hattie. Problem Solving teaching only has positive learning effects when students are taught the skills they need to arrive at an answer. He continued to develop these ideas by showing us his Engagement Taxonomy. Garfield asked us to consider: To what degree are the students: Empowered? Challenged? Entertained? On task? Are they asked to be actively involved? Are they required to use a high degree of concentration and committed to the process of learning? All of these questions were digested and discussed at table groups.

The Critical Thinking classroom involves a Community of Thinkers, Critical Challenges and the Teaching and Assessing of Intellectual tools. These tools include: background knowledge, criteria for judgement, critical thinking vocabulary, thinking strategies and habits of mind. This, in essence, is the TC2 Model of Critical Thinking.

Garfield was certain to share his website that houses many free Critical Thinking resources. http://www.tc2.ca is the home of the Thinking Teacher. Also included is the electronic source book. This work stems from Garfield’s work with the Alberta department of Education in which he problematized the social studies curriculum. Thoughtful Books is another resource that highlights mentor texts to engage the learners in thinking critically. Tools for thought requires a subscription in order to use ready made resources for specific topics. Again the lessons are created to build critical thinking skills. The teachers that subscribe to the service can add content from their experience. There is a cost to this material. (Sounds somewhat like the work of Ian Jukes with the 5 Fluencies, http://www.fluency21.com/, if you have not already you need to become a “Commited Sardine!”)

As days and months passed I came across this picture, that was shared on twitter, a couple weeks ago. It reminded me of Garfield’s opener and his critical thinking work. How might you use it?

Garfield’s work brings into question our roles as teachers. He challenges us to look more critically at our own processes. He asks us to “unfreeze” our current systems and free the students thinking. Releasing responsibility is always hard. It is definitely needed in classrooms. Let’s let our children think by provoking them with problems to resolve rather than providing them with answers to remember.

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