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Daily techniques to build a schoolwide culture of critical thinking

Christi Hildebrand
April 22, 2021

Today’s school leaders must be more than instructional leaders, facility overseers and human resource managers -- we must also carry our school communities through political, social and health crises.

Simple techniques in daily interactions with educators, students and parents can shape a shared respect for critical thinking that’s accessible to all. Here are six techniques to get you started.

Create safe and engaging learning environments

If we want students to think critically -- and we do, they need to feel safe practicing critical thinking strategies in school. According to Stengel and Weems, a safe classroom is one that allows students to take risks, make mistakes, explore concepts and gain understanding -- particularly as they consider different perspectives.

Edutopia Video Resource: Moving from the Comfort Zone to the Challenge Zone

Focus on creating safe learning environments where mistakes aren’t ridiculed, and instead, are perceived as opportunities to rethink a situation. By doing so, students will feel more motivated and eager to take risks and contribute freely during discussions.

Simple strategies for creating safe, engaging learning environments:

  • Establish flexible learning environments that allow for different learning opportunities and group formats.
  • Harness technology to capture student interest and maximize learning.
  • Model respect for students when they speak.
  • Communicate through your actions and words that every student’s voice is valued.
  • Build strong relationships by engaging students in informal conversations throughout the school year.

As you’ll learn, critical thinking strategies require teachers and students to step outside of their comfort zones and dive deep into ideas. Try leveraging curriculum and resources from Mentoring Minds to create effective learning environments, and to incorporate critical thinking throughout instruction.

Lead by example

If a principal expects teachers and students to think more creatively and critically in their work, they must be willing to do the same.

Take a moment to consider the think-aloud strategy. Use modeling, coached practice and reflection to teach students strategies that help them learn to think while they read and build their comprehension.

Modeling helps students observe their teacher’s thinking process and make connections -- not just for reading, but for critical thinking, too.

It’s important that students see educators asking questions to work through a problem, seek out potential solutions and strive to determine the best response. When teachers explain their thinking out loud, students become aware of the thinking processes that are involved in performing certain tasks.

Modeling in action:

  • First, identify the skill to be taught and choose an example to model application of the skill.
  • Determine the precise steps required in the skill (or skill set) that students will need to apply while working on their own and plan what you will say aloud.
  • Inform students why you are modeling the skill and what you expect them to learn.
  • Model the skill while thinking aloud. 
  • Afterwards, hold a debriefing session where students share and discuss what they observed.

As a leader, you must set and communicate your expectations related to critical thinking from the start. Your entire school community needs to understand that learning is more than acquiring information and skills, and that discussions are not superficial. As shared by Paul and Elder in their Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life, when expectations for thinking are made explicit, evidence can be gathered and judgments can be formed.

Start small

Starting small is better than not starting at all. To kick start your school’s critical thinking journey, focus on identifying little ways to push students and teachers further when you visit their classrooms. One way to do this is by encouraging meaningful talk.

As stated by Zwiers and Crawford, “Conversations allow students to closely examine, scrutinize, criticize, validate and shape the ideas being discussed -- such skills are vital in a democratic society.”

For example, if you’re shadowing a class and a student answers a question, follow up and ask: “How do you know?” “What makes you say that?” “How can you take what was said and go further?” and “Now what? Why?”

Be prepared for funny looks and short answers, like, “because,” or “I just knew.” Know that your persistence will pay off when students and teachers become accustomed to asking themselves those same questions, even when you are not around.

Using reasoning skills, inferencing, problem solving and other higher-order thinking skills in every class, every day makes a difference. Students who cultivate their own learning questions have richer learning experiences.

Remember… Higher-order thinking is essential for every student

When our school first began our critical thinking journey a veteran teacher joined the discussion by stating loud and proud, “This will be great for our high-level kids.”

If there’s one point that I can drive home, it’s that higher-order thinking skills are not just for “higher level” students. Higher-order thinking is essential for everyone. In fact, students who struggle with retaining rote facts and knowledge often begin to shine when given an opportunity to explore more critical and creative problem solving.

As a school leader, it’s important that you’re prepared to help teachers in making a paradigm shift. Consider sharing the following tip from the University of Connecticut’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning:

Many students are unfamiliar with this [higher-order thinking] approach and are more comfortable with a simple quest for correct answers, so take some class time to talk with students about the need to think critically and creatively in your course; identify what critical thinking entails, what it looks like, and how it will be assessed.

Classrooms can be work cultures, or they can be thinking cultures. To incorporate critical thinking throughout your school, all instruction should encourage student questions and inquiries that focus on higher-order thinking and deepen learning experiences.

Prepare parents

Leading teachers and preparing students to adopt a schoolwide culture of critical thinking is not enough -- principals must prepare parents as well.

Many of today’s parents learned in classrooms that looked and felt very different than those of their children. As a result, parents often want quicker, easier answers and fact-based study guides to help their children succeed.

Communicating the value of higher-order thinking and critical thinking is an essential part of creating a schoolwide culture that sticks.

Explore the unknown

As school leaders, our shared goal is to promote the academic achievement of our students, individually and collectively. Critical thinking is not confined to academic success, and its influence stretches into artistic realms, interpersonal relations and more.

Building a culture of critical thinking requires stamina and perseverance. It’s not always easy. But, by leading others to use critical thinking to explore the unknown, you’re helping them gain lifelong skills for success.

Dr. Christi Hildebrand is principal at Elm Street Elementary School. The school uses Mentoring Minds platform.

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