Tag Archives: critical thinking

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?)

________________

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

 

What Are You Doing to Teach Students to Spot Fake News Stories?

One of the most interesting conversations currently taking place around Donald Trump’s surprise victory in our Presidential election has been the role that fake news peddled and promoted in Facebook news streams may have played in swaying voters.  Mark Zuckerberg — Facebook’s charismatic founder — has called the notion that fake news is a problem on his site “a pretty crazy idea” and argued that a clear process is in place that allows users to flag suspicious or hateful content for further review.

But that position was openly challenged over and over again all week long.

Buzzfeed, a popular online source covering digital media and technology, opened the criticism by publishing the frightening results of an analysis of the election stories generating the most engagement — think likes, shares and comments — on Facebook in the final three months of the election.  Here’s what they found:

NPR went on to interview Facebook executives and employees to gain insight into just what happens when suspicious or hateful content is flagged for review on the site.  

Turns out, the process isn’t consistent, thorough or reliable.  It’s true that every piece of content is reviewed by a human being, but those human beings are mostly working in other countries simply because Facebook has subcontracted the work to save money.  Worse yet, while every decision is supposed to take the complete context of a situation into consideration before decisions are made, employees are evaluated based on the number of pieces of content that they review in a single day.

From the NPR article:

“Current and former employees of Facebook say that they’ve observed these subcontractors in action; that they are told to go fast — very fast; that they’re evaluated on speed; and that on average, a worker makes a decision about a piece of flagged content once every 10 seconds.

Let’s do a back-of-the-envelope calculation. Say a worker is doing an eight-hour shift, at the rate of one post per 10 seconds. That means they’re clearing 2,880 posts a day per person. When NPR ran these numbers by current and former employees, they said that sounds reasonable.”

Perhaps the most interesting article was this Washington Post interview with Paul Horner, who writes fake news stories for a living.  Horner reports making close to $10,000 a MONTH off of the clicks on advertisements included on the fake news sites that he maintains.  Every post that he writes on his slick looking ABC News ripoff website, for example, can make him rich, as long as it goes viral on Facebook.  And what does Horner think of the people sharing his content over and over again?

It’s not pretty:

“Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Scrutiny of Facebook’s treatment of fake news and the hefty rewards paid to peddlers of lies by companies like Google who rely on advertising revenue have pressured both services into much-needed action:  They are working to develop policies that will effectively ban fake news sources like Horner’s from access to corporate advertising programs in an attempt to dry up the revenue streams that provide the motivation to pollute the web with hoaxes and lies.

But I think that’s the wrong solution to Facebook’s fake news problem.

We don’t need new policies and tools from tech companies to identify sketchy content on the web.  Instead, we need to develop citizens who take careful steps to verify that the information they are reading anywhere on the web is reliable.  That’s a new literacy in today’s complicated media ecology — and it is a new literacy that we give too little attention to in schools.

The good news is that teaching students to identify sketchy content isn’t all that hard to do.  

There are simple questions that kids can ask when evaluating the reliability of a web source that can turn them into top-notch bunk filters without needing any help from Facebook or Google.  Here are three:

How believable is this story to me?  

The first lesson that I try to teach my students when spotting sketchy news stories is that their common sense is the most powerful tool that they have for fighting back against misinformation on the web.  If a story just doesn’t seem plausible, it’s probably fake — and the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of fake news stories really ARE that easy to spot.  People with good common sense don’t get fooled very often — as long as they are willing to trust their intuition.

Try that with two recent headlines on Horner’s fake ABC News website:  Obama Signs Executive Order Banning National Anthem at All Sporting Events  and Obama Signs Executive Order Banning Pledge of Allegience from All Schools Nationwide.  Do either of those headlines seem even a little bit believable?  Would a person who served as President of our country REALLY want to ban things like the National Anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance?  No matter what you think about the people or parties leading our nation, chances are that they care enough about our country to protect our national symbols.  That’s just common sense.

And double-checking your common sense is super easy:  Just take questionable headlines and drop them into Google.  In most cases — including the notion that Obama is banning the Pledge of Allegiance — you’ll see that reliable sites like Snopes and FactCheck.Org that are committed to debunking lies on the Internet have already reviewed the claims in question.

What do I know about this news source?

I also try to teach my students that spending a few minutes researching the author and the website of every piece of news that they are exploring can help them to spot sketchy news stories.  Does the web address look reliable?  What can you learn from the “About Us” or “Contact” links found on the page?  What kind of search results are returned when you Google the name of the author of the article that you are reading?

Asking those questions about Dan Horner’s ABC News website would identify it as a fraud in no time.

The web address — http://abcnews.com.co/ — is the first giveaway.  Why would a major news network add a “.co’ to the end of its web address?  What’s more, the contact information on the site shows that the headquarters of ABC News is a Tudor style home in Topeka, Kansas — and just a few minutes of digging into the background of Dr. Jimmy Rustling, one of the lead authors on the site, brings up this tongue-in-cheek bio of the author and this set of Google Search Results explaining that “Jimmy Rustling” and “Rustle my Jimmies” are slang terms for evoking strong emotions.

Can I spot any loaded words in the piece I am reading?

The final lesson that I try to teach my students is that loaded words and phrases — descriptions that imply a strong emotion and/or position — are signs indicating that the author or source is trying to push readers to feel a certain way about a topic instead of simply reporting the news in an unbiased way.  They are an easy way to spot opinions instead of facts — and while opinions aren’t automatically wrong, they need to be questioned by readers instead of accepted at face value.

What’s interesting is that Dan Horner’s fake news site avoids loaded words for the most part — which is one of the reasons that it is so successful at generating attention.  Each piece sounds like an unbiased reporting of fact — even if those facts are impossible to believe.

But you don’t have to go far to find loaded words in news sources.  Can you spot the loaded words in these headlines from Fox News and the Huffington Post:  Arizona Presidental Electors Being Harrassed, This is What it Means to Imprison a Whole Category of People.

In the first headline, I’d want my students to notice that “being harassed” is a loaded phrase that could mean a heck of a lot of things.  Good readers would want to know what that harassment looked like before making a decision about the importance of the event.  In the second headline, I’d want my students to notice that “imprison a whole category of people” is a phrase designed to elicit fear.  Good readers would want to unpack that.  Are newly elected officials REALLY trying to imprison entire categories of Americans?  Or is “imprison” a metaphor?

In many ways, this is my favorite lesson to teach because kids LOVE looking for loaded words and phrases.  Spotting the sneaky ways that authors are trying to influence readers — and then trying to decide if the evidence in the article actually supports the author’s opinions — is like a scavenger hunt to them.

I’ve pulled all this content together into a handout that you can use if you are interested in teaching your students how to spot fake news sources.  You can find it posted online here on my Teachers Pay Teachers website.  

Does any of this make sense to you?  More importantly, are you taking active steps to teach your kids the skills necessary to spot sketchy news stories?

#youshouldbe

———————————-

If teaching students about managing information, thinking critically and engaging in collaborative dialogue resonates with you, check out Teaching the iGeneration — Bill’s book on using digital tools to introduce students to essential skills like information management, collaborative dialogue and critical thinking.  

 

“The Curse of Our Online Lives.”

I’ve got a confession to make:  I have spent the past four months consumed by the upcoming presidential election.  

I find myself checking into both my news feeds and my social streams several times a day, waiting for another embarrassing revelation about the candidates.  I chew through articles about illegal contributions to personal foundations, seedy relationships with high dollar donors or foreign leaders, appallingly misogynistic statements, and accusations of political manipulation by party leaders who are more than a little determined to push forward their chosen candidates, regardless of the personal and political cost.

Worse yet, I often end up in the comment sections of the articles that I am reading, which are full of nothing more than rancor and shouting and vitriol and partisan insults.  People with usernames like “Crooked Hitlery” and “Donny the Deplorable” call one another delusional in ugly attempts to discredit one another.  The ever-present venom frightens me because it barely resembles the kind of open, honest discourse around controversial ideas that characterizes the strongest democracies.

So how can we move forward together when we spend so much time spewing hate at one another?

First, we have to do a better job helping the kids in our classrooms understand the filter bubbles that they are living in.

We may live in a world where ready access to unlimited information is available to everyone, but we also live in a world where social spaces and new technologies make it possible for everyone to build isolated intellectual worlds where core ideas and beliefs are constantly reinforced rather than consistently challenged.  And thanks to clever algorithms designed to “make our lives easier,” the more we interact with ideas online, the more isolated we become.

As Frank Bruni explains in this May 2016 New York Times piece:

“If we seek out, ‘like’ and comment on angry missives from Bernie Sanders supporters, we’ll be confronted by more angry missives from Sanders supporters.  If we banish such outbursts, those dispatches disappear.  That’s the crucial dynamic.  The curse of our lives online.  The Internet isn’t rigged to give us right or left, conservative or liberal — at least not until we rig it that way.  It’s designed to give us more of the same, whatever that same is.”

Critical thinking suffers when we are constantly surrounded by “more of the same.”  It’s harder to question your notions about politicians or the policies that they promote when every post, article and person that you encounter is pushing those notions forward.

Properly preparing students to be participants in a democratic society, then, means encouraging the kids in our classrooms to add diverse voices, thoughts and sources to the information streams that they are creating for themselves.  The best thinkers don’t just understand bias in traditional media sources.  They also understand that new tools and technologies make it possible for well-intentioned users — people just like you and I — to create biased spaces where what we believe is rarely questioned.

We also need to do a better job teaching students about collaborative dialogue.

I think what troubles me the most about public discourse in our divided world is the belief that every conversation has to have a winner and a loser.  We rarely listen to one another. Instead, we revert to shouting over one another.  Trained through countless interactions with people who think just like us, we aren’t just skeptical of the solutions put forth by people who who we disagree with.  We question their intellect and/or their intentions.  As Bruni explains, “We construct precisely contoured echo chambers of affirmation that turn conviction into zeal, passion into fury, and disagreements with the other side into demonization of it.”

Pushing against the zeal, fury and demonization that dominates public discourse depends on our ability to convince the kids in our classrooms that the best conversations are collaborative instead of competitive.  We need to spend class time helping students to develop the skills necessary to use conversations as learning opportunities.  Graduates from our schools should leave convinced that other people — no matter how different their core beliefs may be — have ideas worth learning from and that the best solutions are the result of diverse groups of citizens committed to building knowledge together.

Are these the kinds of lessons that you are teaching in your classrooms and schools?  If not, why not?  More importantly, when will you start?

 

If teaching students about managing information and engaging in collaborative dialogue resonates with you, check out Teaching the iGeneration — Bill’s book on using digital tools to introduce students to essential skills like information management, collaborative dialogue and critical thinking.  

———————————-

Related Radical Reads:

Pushing Against Incivility

What Can YOUR Kids Learn from the Romney Perry Slugfest

Bill’s Resources on Teaching Kids about Collaborative Dialogue

I am a Cognitive Diabetic