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That's a Good Question: Critical-Thinking Strategies to Promote Inquiry

“Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.”

—Malcolm S. Forbes

I’m big on student-centered learning. That’s why I’m such a strong proponent of using the workshop approach to help students develop their writing skills. (See my post “Writing Workshops: The Only Way to Go.”) This past week I read an encouraging post, “Teaching Without a Script,” from New York Times online. In that essay, Matthew Kay describes his teaching experience at the Science Leadership Academy (SLA) in downtown Philadelphia, and, as he puts it, things are so good that teachers and students are reluctant to leave at the end of the school day:

Even as I write this, student laughter is floating up from our café—late on a Friday afternoon. Some have stepped out to get Chinese, and now they are back—to hang out with teachers in the principal’s office.

In most schools, teachers and students can’t wait to escape by the end of the day! So what is SLA’s secret? Well, Kay says that he and his colleagues are “treated like artists” in that they are able to create the curriculum on their own—but with the help of the students. (No force-feeding of a text-based curriculum in this school.) They are also big on inquiry-based learning, a student-centered approach in which students learn to ask probing questions and engage in meaningful dialogues and debates. (The Socratic method in action.) When a school like SLA creates a stimulating and relevant learning environment, kids want to be there.

With the recent hue and cry about critical thinking, my hope would be that more and more schools become inquiry based. Asking meaningful questions, encouraging reflection, leading lively discussions, using the scientific method—these are the practices that, if they occur regularly, will produce critical thinkers. The nice thing is teachers don’t need a separate program or text for this type of teaching. They simply need to get students more thoughtfully involved in the learning process.

Here are a few quick and easy things that teachers can do right away:

  • First Thoughts: Have students write or share their immediate impressions (or what they already know) about a topic they are preparing to study. This activity helps students focus on the topic and serves as a reference point for measuring learning.
  • Question of the Day: Ask students to respond to a “What if…” or “Why?” question that is important to a clear understanding of a lesson or that prompts students to think beyond the obvious.
  • Predicting: At a key point in a lesson, ask students to consider what will happen next. This works especially well with lessons that have a strong cause-and-effect relationship.
  • Completions: Have students complete open-ended sentences in as many ways as possible. This will push students to look at a subject in many different ways.
  • Stop ’n’ Write: At any point in a class discussion, ask students to stop and write. The writing helps them to evaluate their understanding of the topic, to reflect on what has been said, and to question anything that may be bothering them.
  • Nutshelling: Lead a discussion in which the question “Why?” is repeated after each new point is made. Keep the discussion going a long as possible.
  • Summing Up: Ask students to sum up what has been covered in a particular lesson by writing about its importance, a possible result, a next step, or a general impression left with them.

Kay ends his essay by saying, “Experiences like this [at SLA] should be the rule of any curriculum meant to engage this generation.” Here’s hoping that you (if you are a teacher) become as energized as Key is about teaching and that thoughtfully engaging the students becomes the rule in your classroom.

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