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Strategies To Promote Critical Thinking in the Elementary Classroom

By Stacey Lange, for the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21)

The other day, I walked into one of our primary multi-aged classroom communities. I noticed many wonderful things. It was clear the students were engaged in what they were doing.

These young students were working on an inquiry unit related to force and motion. Students were engaged in reading paperback books, articles and e-books individually and/or with partners. Other students were using their i-pads to view videos related to force and motion. Many of the students were recording notes on their i-pads or on paper while watching the videos or reading.  A few students were experimenting with different materials such as ramps, matchbox cars, marbles, etc. to experiment and learn about force and motion.

Later, students met in small groups and engaged in discussions related to what they learned or discovered through these activities. Their conversations led the students to synthesize their new learning, reflect on the learning experiences they had, and make connections to how this new information relates to the essential question of their current inquiry unit.

It is clear that these students were working on thinking critically. For us, critical thinking happens when students analyze and evaluate evidence, arguments, claims and beliefs. They can then learn how to make judgments and decisions based on others’ points of view, interpret information and draw conclusions.

Fostering Critical Thinking

Four main approaches have made the biggest impact on our children’s critical thinking:

Inquiry

“One way we try to foster critical thinking skills in our classroom is by allowing our students to be creative and to inquire about topics that are of interest to them.”
- Katie Hart, Professional Educator

We incorporate cross-curricular inquiry to foster deep learning. The students work through the phases of immersion, investigation, coalescence and demonstration of learning. Throughout these phases the students are able to wonder, build background knowledge, develop questions, search for new information, synthesize information, demonstrate an understanding and share their new learning with others. Throughout inquiry, the students tie everything together through an essential question which helps them probe for deeper meaning. These questions are open-ended, encourage collaboration and foster the development of critical thinking skills.

Questioning

“We push students to dig deeper in their learning by asking guiding questions and providing a variety of resources for students to independently find answers. Throughout their learning, we encourage students to ask and answer their own questions through small group discussions, conferring, working on their Personalized Learning Plans and using graphic organizers.”
- Elizabeth Hatab and Sarah Suesskind, Professional Educators

Questioning plays a critical role in cultivating critical thinking skills and deep learning. Questioning models for students how they should think. Our professional educators use open-ended questions to encourage discussion and active learning. We also incorporate questioning into our everyday discussions with students.

Problem-Solving

“In the 4K/5K classrooms, we don’t just give students answers to issues or problems they are having. Instead, we turn the problem onto them and ask how could they solve this problem. This allows the child opportunities to solve their problems independently.”
- Teresa Lutzen, Professional Educator

Problem solving extends our inquiry work. It is important that our students think for themselves. In problem solving they apply the critical thinking strategies they have learned.

Collaboration

“Integrating meaningful learning experiences that promote critical thinking skills is essential in cultivating a classroom of 21st Century learners. One way we do this is by actively involving the students in their learning through collaborative work. This helps the students take ownership of the learning and think critically about issues.”
- Patti Kaisler and Rebecca O'Grosky, Professional Educators

Our student-centered learning environments are varied and flexible to accommodate the needs of learners and provide ongoing opportunities to build a collaborative community of students and staff. Our environments promote collaborative, individual, small and large group learning.

Students learn in collaborative flexible groups based on need. When students collaborate together they learn how to communicate with others effectively, work as a team, practice self-discipline, and improve social and interpersonal skills. Through collaboration, students are able to have a better understanding of what they are learning and improve critical thinking skills.  

And Beyond  

There are many other ways that we foster critical thinking among our learners, but these are the four that have made the biggest impact for us. Critical thinking is a key skill that our students need to have in order to become life-long learners and self-advocates for themselves.

Stacey Lange is an Academic Dean at Walker Elementary School and is part of the instructional services team for the West Allis–West Milwaukee School District. Her district, West Allis-West Milwaukee, is part of the Next Generation Learning Initiative, an effort that involves all teachers working to transform learning for all students.  Her school is a P21 Exemplar. 

First published on the Partnership for 21st Century Skills blog. Reposted with permission. View the original post here.

Image by Anthony Nava, via publicdomainpictures.net


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