Thoughtful Learning Blog

Thoughtful Learning Blog

The Thoughtful Learning blog features articles about English language arts, 21st century skills, and social-emotional learning. Insights come from the teachers, writers, and developers at Thoughtful Learning, who have been creating top-notch instructional materials for more than 40 years.

I knelt beside my sons’ toy closet, hauling out a strange menagerie of action figures. Here was a headless Tauntaun from Star Wars. There was the Smog Monster from Godzilla. How about the empty robe of a Nazgul from Lord of the Rings, or the Pokemon that kids call Gyarados but that most adults couldn’t name—let alone describe?

“What are you doing with all those old toys, Dad?” asked my youngest son.

“Teaching descriptive writing,” I replied cryptically.

Twenty-four hours later, I arrived in Chicago at the Annual Convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, towing that huge suitcase full of weird action figures. I met PBL teacher Cindy Smith there, and the two of us presented “Using Inquiry Projects to Teach Language Arts.”

Cindy and I have collaborated over three years in her project-based-learning classroom, and we’d come to the NCTE convention to share eight of our projects and inquiry experiences.

Despite the lateness of the hour (last session on Saturday) and the location (it was on a half floor that most of the elevators didn’t stop at), we had 30 or 40 educators at the session, and we dived right in.

Which is more important for today’s students, critical thinking or creative thinking? It’s a trick question. I may as well ask which is more important, breathing out or breathing in? “Whichever one I need to do right now” is one good answer to this last question. Another is “Neither—since I need both to stay alive.” It’s the same with critical and creative thinking.

The Thought Exchange

Creative and critical thinking are two halves of a cycle: inspiration and expiration.

  • Creative thinking draws in possibilities. It is an expansive process, filling you with new ideas from the outside. Creativity reaches beyond what is known and into the unknown . . . to discover something new. Creativity is not necessarily discerning. You don’t separate the nitrogen from the oxygen in the air before you breathe it in. Your chest simply expands, and in it comes. Creative thinking can be exhilarating, flooding you with new possibilities.
  • Critical thinking, on the other hand, sorts through the possibilities to do something practical. Critical thinking analyzes, applies, and evaluates. It categorizes, compares, contrasts, and traces causes and effects. It’s like separating the oxygen out of the air you breathe in, in order to enrich your cells, or extracting the carbon dioxide from your blood, in order to exhale it. Critical thinking takes what creative thinking has amassed and sorts it, keeping the best and discarding the worst.

Inquiry is based on questions, but not all questions are created equally. Big questions open up big spaces for information, while little questions open up little spaces. The size of the answer is predicted by the size of the question.

Suppose that a bug specialist (an entomologist) comes to speak in your Life Science class. After giving a presentation, the entomologist opens the floor for questions. Note what happens when students ask little questions instead of big ones.

The closest I came to a life-changing teacher is someone I knew only through his writing. The name of this teacher is Ken Macrorie, and his books Uptaught, Writing to be Read, Telling Writing, and The I-Search Paper are some of my favorites. What he says in these texts has changed the way I think about writing and learning. Here are a few of the things that I’ve learned from him:

  • “Engfish” is a name given to the bloated, lifeless, pretentious writing that has been seen in schools for years.

Recently I met a young man who worked his way through college by cranking out research papers for an online term-paper store. The company sells “model” research papers, many made to order, so my young acquaintance might find himself writing about quantum mechanics one week and Stalin’s concentration camps the next. The job gave him lots of practice writing on short deadlines. He also picked up quite a bit of knowledge in many different fields. And of course, he got paid for helping someone else with more money than skill or discipline pass a course at some college.

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