Teaching Critical Thinking? These Mythbusters Activities Will Help.

This year, my professional learning team has decided to invest our time, energy and effort into studying the best ways to develop critical thinking skills in our students.

Not only is critical thinking an essential skill for any developing scientist, it is an essential skill for any responsible citizen in a day and age when everyday people are rigid in their thinking and ready to shout “FAKE NEWS” the minute that they are confronted with viewpoints that run contrary to their core beliefs.

Pascal Swier

One bit that has helped us to establish a clear definition of just what critical thinking looks like in action was this piece that we found on Edutopia’s website.  

In it, author Christina Gil offers six solid strategies for helping students to write better argumentative essays — a traditional form of teaching critical thinking in schools.  Our favorite suggestion:  Encouraging kids to be critical of their OWN ideas.

Gil writes:

It’s pretty easy to be critical of others’ thinking, and anyone who has asked students to critique a sample essay or paragraph written by a fellow student has witnessed that. But if students are to learn to be critical of their own ideas and assumptions, they need to be constantly searching for biases and flawed reasoning.

When they see this as part of the process, not a judgment that they are doing something wrong, they’ll learn to improve their ideas by examining them with a critical lens.

We dug that argument, believing that being a good critical thinker really IS dependent on a willingness to question one’s own core beliefs.  Stated more simply, “thinking critically” isn’t just about spotting the gaps in OTHER PEOPLE’s thinking.  It’s also about spotting the gaps in YOUR OWN thinking.

So we have decided to make what we are calling “gap thinking” a more regular part of our classroom instruction. 

Specifically, we are encouraging students to make predictions or take stands and then explicitly identify bits of information that they would need to know in order to confirm their predictions and/or positions.  Our goal is to help students recognize that gaps in thinking aren’t something to be afraid of.  They are something to be openly acknowledged and then addressed through deliberate attempts to gather more information.

This work is happening informally in darn near every classroom conversation. 

We ask kids to explain their initial thinking to a partner and then to follow that thinking up with the phrase “but I’m not sure because ___________.”  That simple phrase is a constant reminder to students that there ARE gaps in our thinking most of the time — and we can’t speak with complete confidence until we identify and address those gaps.

We are also doing this work formally by asking kids to make predictions and to identify gaps in their own thinking while watching Mythbusters episodes.

We show students the first several minutes of an episode — where Adam and Jamie explain the question that they are trying to answer and develop a theory that they plan to test.  At that point, we stop the video and ask students whether or not they think Adam and Jamie’s test will be successful or not.  Along with their prediction, students have to include gaps in their thinking that make it impossible to have the perfect prediction right out of the gate.

All of the thinking that students do with Mythbusters episodes are written down and turned in to teachers.  That provides us with samples that we can use to evaluate the progress that students are making towards becoming great gap thinkers.

Does this sound interesting to you?  If so, you might really dig seeing the handouts that we are using with our kids. 

Here are several connected to a Mythbusters episode on Archimedes’ Death Ray:

Mythbusters – Archimedes Death Ray – Gap Thinking Handout – This is the handout that our students complete while watching the Mythbusters episode.  It includes a spot to record both predictions and gaps in thinking.  It also includes sample sentence starters that we hope will help students develop the language of gap thinking.

Mythbusters – Archimedes Death Ray – Gap Thinking Exemplars – This handout includes the scoring criteria that we have developed for each level of gap thinking that we see in student responses.  It also includes several exemplars that we have developed to help teachers, parents and students to better understand what good gap thinking looks like in action.

Mythbusters – Archimedes Death Ray – High Low Comparison Task – This is an activity that we have developed to help students to practice spotting the characteristics of high quality gap thinking.  It is built on an activity that you can find in Creating a Culture of Feedback — a book that I wrote with my friend and colleague Paul Cancellieri.

Mythbusters – Archimedes Death Ray – Revise Once Revise Again – This is another activity that we have developed to help students practice spotting the characteristics of high quality gap thinking.  It also encourages students to revise their own gap thinking statements.

Our plan going forward is to integrate one Mythbusters gap thinking activity into each of the units in our required curriculum. 

That will give us five opportunities to formally teach and assess gap thinking ability over the course of a school year — which should give us plenty of information about whether or not our strategies are helping our students to become more comfortable with questioning their own thinking.  We also plan to start recording moments where we see students using the phrase “but I’m not sure because _________” organically in classroom conversations as another source of evidence of the impact that our practice is having on our students as learners.

So whaddya’ think of all of this? 

Is this an example of good teaching?  Is it an example of what good collaboration around practice should look like on professional learning teams?  Is it the kind of work that you are doing with your peers?

I’d LOVE to hear your feedback on our plans and on our materials — particularly if you use them in your own work with students.  I think they are going to do a great job structuring the process of critical thinking for my students, but I’m not sure because* they might not be approachable for every learner — or even for most of the learners in my sixth grade classroom.  A mistake that I often make as a teacher is developing materials that are more complicated than they need to be.

(*see what I did there?)

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Related Radical Reads:

What are YOU Doing to Help Students Spot Fake News Stories?

People are Definitely Dumber.

Session Materials:  Annual Conference on Grading and Assessment

 

5 thoughts on “Teaching Critical Thinking? These Mythbusters Activities Will Help.

  1. Lori Hannula

    What a great skill to work on, Bill! I’m excited to check out the handouts and give them a try in my classroom.

    Reply

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