Steering the Ship: More Teaching Moves to Support Critical Thinking & Meaning Making

Steering wheel of the ship

Last post I looked at what can happen when we dig into the huh‘s and hmm‘s students make as they read. I like to think of these as authentic reading responses, which, if we pay attention to them, can open the door to deeper thinking. Like giggles, groans, ah‘s and oh‘s, these are all reactions to something students have read or heard in a text, and as such they’re the outward manifestation of something going on in students’ heads, whether it’s insight, disappointment or confusion.

Probing these responses is one of the teaching moves I always keep in my toolbox, knowing that it serves several purposes. For one, it acknowledges students’ responses as being valuable, which, in turn, conveys other messages to children: that we care about their ????????????????????????????????????thinking, not just their answers, and that it’s okay to be unsure or tentative because that’s where learning starts. It also gives students an opportunity to practice attaching more language to fledgling thoughts in a way that makes visible the messy way we actually develop ideas as well as the chance to orally practice elaborating and explaining, which almost every students needs. And the worst that can happen when we probe these responses is that a student says, “I don’t know,” which provides us with another opportunity for normalizing not knowing as a natural part of the learning process and either opening the response up for discussion or reframing it as an inquiry, such as, “Why did that line, scene or sentence give us pause?”

The other move I shared last week was one that helped students move away from what, with thanks to fellow blogger Steve Peterson, I’ve started calling text-to-self conclusions. These are often the first ideas students gravitate to in order to answer a question or explain something they’ve noticed. And while they may cite a detail from the text (as in last week’s example), these conclusions are mostly based on something outside the text, as students draw from their background knowledge or their own experience to make sense of something.

frustrated woman with hands in hair screaming against chalkboardThese text-to-self conclusions are also the ones that we, as teachers, can feel frustrated with because they’ve missed the mark. And they can spark those “Why can’t they (fill in the blank)?” questions and sometimes even hair pulling. But we have some choices here about what teaching moves to make, especially if we’re trying to promote thinking, not fish for a pre-determined answer. Here, for example, is what happened in a seventh grade room I was recently in, where the teachers had set up a gallery walk of images to kick off a unit that would explore how class and economic differences can lead to conflict and change.

As the students made their way around the room in small groups, they were asked to discuss and jot down what they thought were the important details and from that to consider what connected the images in order to make a text-based prediction about the unit’s theme. The students would be reading Katherine Paterson‘s Lyddie as an anchor text, which recounts the story of a young girl whose desperate financial circumstances lead her to work in a mill in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the mid-1800’s, and so there were a few images, like this one, depicting children in factories:

Child Working in Factory

But there were also other images like these, in which no children or factories were in sight:

Labor Conflict Image 2


Despite this, every student in the room came to the same conclusion. They all recalled having read the book Iqbal by Francesco D’Adamo in sixth grade, which is a fictionalized account of a Pakistani boy who was sold as a child into a life of bonded labor. And making that text-to-self connection, they concluded that factories were the most important detail and the unit was about child labor.

While the teachers were thrilled that the students remembered a book they had read last year, they were disappointed with their conclusions. They’d asked the students, in effect, to notice patterns, which can be a powerful and accessible way to get students to think more deeply. But in this case, rather than stretching their thinking, the students here focused on selective details that fit into what they already knew, which precluded any new discoveries—and any real critical thinking.

why_dont_students_like_school1In a great article called “Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?”, Daniel T. Willingham, the cognitive scientist and author of books such as Why Don’t Students Like School, looks at a term that’s often bandied about in order to more clearly define it. According to him, critical thinking comprises three types of thinking—reasoning, making judgements, and problem solving—which, to truly be critical, must  involve “three key features: effectiveness, novelty, and self-direction.” And he unpacks each of these feature as follows.

Critical thinking is effective, he says, because,

“it avoids common pitfalls, such as seeing only one side of an issue, discounting new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning from passion rather than logic . . . and so on.”

It’s novel because, “you don’t simply remember a solution or a situation that is similar enough to guide you.” And it’s self-directed in the sense that,

“the thinker must be calling the shots: We wouldn’t give a student much credit for critical thinking if the teacher were prompting each step he took.”

If we embrace this definition, we have to say that the students weren’t thinking critically. They’d jumped to a conclusion without considering all the evidence by remembering a similar situation (or, in this case, a book). And they wouldn’t be critically thinking either if we prompted them with some text-dependent questions—such as “What’s the setting of the second image?”—that forced them to notice something they hadn’t that we’d deemed important.

We could, though, ask more open-ended questions of the sort I did last week, to invite the students to take in more before coming to a conclusion. And these could take a variety of forms, such as:

  • Do you notice any details that don’t fit the pattern you’ve seen?
  • Are there other ways in which the images might be connected, or other patterns you notice?
  • Do you think there are any differences or similarities in the patterns you’ve noticed—i.e., are there patterns within the patterns?
  • Could you revise your ideas in a way that take these new noticings into account?

These questions steered these seventh graders back to look more closely at the images and to question and bat around each other’s ideas more. That, in turn, led them to steer away from their original conclusion to ideas that had to do with human rights and fairness, especially among groups of people, like children, women and African-Americans, who, they thought, might not have much power. And that made us teachers smile.

I’ll share a few more teaching moves with a printed text another time. But if you’ve got a few moves up your sleeve that help students become critical thinkers and meaning makers, too, please feel free to share them. And in the meantime, tuck these in your sleeve.

Ace under your sleeve

17 thoughts on “Steering the Ship: More Teaching Moves to Support Critical Thinking & Meaning Making

  1. Wow! Another post that really gets me thinking. I love the way the questions you offer don’t ask students NOT to form conclusions, but to form ADDITIONAL conclusions to layer over the first ones. Forming the first conclusions (text to self conclusions) uses the process of connecting things together, a process we want learners to practice. But, as novices (aren’t we all??), learners need to develop the habit of questioning our conclusions, to know that What You See Is (not) All There Is, as Daniel Kahneman talks about in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow.

    If Willingham is correct that critical thinking requires a pretty high degree of expertise to actually do, and expertise requires a lot of practice and thought to gain, then one path toward that goal seems to be to do just what you are suggesting — start where you are, and then practice the habit of mind to question whether that place can’t be seen in another way. Perhaps by practicing this, we get better at discerning the kind of connections that will yield more interesting conclusions and more interesting possibilities for future learning or exploration.

    • Oh no, another book to add to my amazon wish list! I hadn’t quite realized that I didn’t convey that their conclusions were wrong, but I certainly opened the door to for them to revise & refining their thinking, which I think is sort of the same thing you did with your kids reading The Arrival (a book, coincidentally—or not–enough, that I’ve been doing some work with, too). You kept the door open for them to discover more, which I think is all about drafting and revising and/or staying open and flexible as a thinker. And while I do think this kind of thinking takes practice, it can also be highly engaging and thrilling, which both your kids and the 3rd graders I worked with seemed to feel—and which, I think, we feel as well when we encounter another thinker who invites us to pause and take new ideas in, which I’m imagining Daniel Kahneman will do for me as Willingham did for you.

  2. I would add that a culture of looking at many viewpoints from the earliest ages can add to the abilities of students when they arrive at the more sophisticated levels like you’ve shared. Even kindergarten students can begin to look at other POV’s, through mentor text stories and through problem solving in their classroom communities when students bring their own experiences into conversations. Part of this means that teachers must be open to NOT asking for the ‘one right answer’, inviting possibilities. Thanks for a thoughtful post of the complexities of teaching!

    • Yes, it’s all about inviting possibilities! And I definitely think that kindergarteners can do this kind of thinking provided that we, as teachers, choose books that offer them those possibilities. Of course, the good news is that we live in a golden age of children’s lit, where there’s so many great books out there. And if we opened those doors in the early grades, I want to believe that reading and school would become things kids loved.

  3. Wow! The line that is sticking with me is:
    “But we have some choices here about what teaching moves to make, especially if we’re trying to promote thinking, not fish for a pre-determined answer.”

    If the teacher has all the answers (and the questions), education has missed the mark. That curiosity and search for patterns that emphasize thinking must be a part of literacy every school day, every year! That’s the education that I want for the world!

    • Robert Frost said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” and I have to think the same is true for teachers and students—no surprises or discoveries for the teacher, none for the students as well. I’ve been trying to get the teachers I work with this year to pay attention to what they notice and what they make of that, but this is making me think that I need to invite them to notice patterns in their classroom and practice, too. That way everyone could be engaged in critical thinking with a process that’s applicable to almost everything. Hmm. Thanks for getting me thinking!

  4. As a teacher it is so hard to hear students all confidently chime in with the “wrong” answer by using the strategies you have asked them to use. As a student it is so hard to question your answer that is supported not only by the strategy the teacher gave you but your fellow students! And, at this point it is tempting to give up and wonder about the strategy itself. But what you did here by taking that same strategy of looking for patterns and tweak it, mess it up slightly by adding a drop of critical questioning on top of it — got students to question their thinking. (Something we all need to do at regular intervals!) We learners all get so sure of our thinking, we forget to put those questions out there to mess up what looks like an orderly and correct assumption. Uncomfortable for them, uncomfortable for us. These moments of misinterpretation are moments we need to seize and have students reconsider. It’s not just about the right answer it’s about the practice of questioning our answers. Your follow up questions foster that thinking about your thinking move that is necessary to get to the critical part of thinking. Thank you for the new tools to add to my own box of how to think!

    • So interesting to me to see Steve’s recent post on his class’s reading The Arrival on the heels of this one. What came through for me there was how much he must have trusted the book and the process to revise and develop the kids’ first thinking (and what does it say that both his kids and the third graders I worked with thought of terrorists?). In both instance I think what was important is keeping the kids open to noticing and then trusting that if they kept paying attention, they’d be able to revise their ideas. And if that doesn’t happen, my next move is usually to try the same thinking on an easier text so they can get a feel the kind of questioning and rethinking readers do. And how true that we need to question our thinking, too! Especially when it comes to the strategies we offer. Are they really getting kids to think? And what else might we be bringing to the task that allows us to see something they don’t? That’s the critical question I often ask the teachers I work with to think of.

  5. So enjoyed reading this, Vicki. Getting our kids to be “critical thinkers and meaning makers” is such rich, rewarding, and difficult work. I find that this work needs lots of groundwork and habit making from the very first day of school – even then, it’s a ballet of sorts, trying to figure out where each group is and how to best nudge them towards the type of higher level thinking we know they are capable of.
    I find that my kids need lots of context as well. Last week, for instance, we delved into the poems of Langston Hughes. I walked my kids through a visual landscape of Hughes’ life and times before we ever got to the poems. Our fabulous discussions about “Minstrel Man” would not have been possible without that setting of the stage. I was thinking this as I read the last lines of your comment above:
    ” And what else might we be bringing to the task that allows us to see something they don’t? That’s the critical question I often ask the teachers I work with to think of..”

    • And thanks in return, Tara, for putting this poem on my radar! It seems to speak directly, too, to this week’s post. Because I stand/in the front of the class/you do not think/I’m afraid, too?

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  7. I am also intrigued by teaching moves that we make, particularly if they help kids really think. Here are a few teaching moves this post has made me think about…

    1. Like many teachers, I have become frustrated by the connections you talk about that seem to lead nowhere. We don’t want to give up on connections, as reader response theory tells us how important they can be. Instead, I’ve tried to break them into these steps.

    a. Name something this text reminds you of from your life or another text.
    b. Talk or write long about the connection. Use “essay stretcher” words like, “This is important because,” or “That must mean,” to really flesh out your thoughts and arrive at a new idea.
    c. Ask yourself, “How does this make me smarter about this text I’m reading now.”
    d. Use this new idea to read on.

    This allows kids to do some more meaningful thinking inside the text, relying on information outside the text to do so.

    2. In working with some 4th Grade teachers recently, I asked them to talk about the kind of thinking their kids are doing in books. It was interesting to me how many of them are posing questions. When we looked more closely at the questions, we realized that they were really very predictive in nature, or about such small details that they could never really lead anywhere. We talked about teaching kids to not ask so many questions, but to pose answers instead, even if they are temporary and might be wrong in the long run. It’s like scientists posing a hypothesis. Even if they develop into something more correct, they’ve led you something much greater. We have to remind kids that they don’t need to be afraid of being wrong for the moment. This sort of risk leads to much “righter” right answers later. It’s where the best discoveries in the world began (like guessing that the world is not flat, or that you can get to the moon by doing xyz.)

    3. Finally, the same group of teachers helped me realize how much kids are (almost over-) predicting. They’re often trying to just guess what happens next, even on the last pages of the book. We worked on ways in which to move our teaching to not just guessing what comes next, but to think about what has already happened. Yes, predicting is important as a skill, but has a time and a place. One teacher put it nicely, “Don’t just think about the future of your book, but ponder on the past and the present of it.” Isn’t that great.

    4. Okay, one more thought about critical thinking. Teachers often fall into the trap of playing the ancient game of teaching called, “Guess the Word that’s in my Head.” It really locks kids into the rightness or wrongness of their thinking. Cory Gillette says, “The one who does the work (or thinking) is the one who does the learning.” How true! By playing that game, you secretly enable kids to fear doing the thinking, because they can be wrong. Especially in our conferring, kids need to feel free to talk so they can learn. And if the word in your head is so important to what is being taught, just tell them the word, and get to the point of the thinking, so that real learning can happen!

    Thanks so much for making me think so hard on a Saturday morning.

    • Thanks so much for such a thoughtful response, Tom, with so many great ideas! Your last point in particular is so very important, especially that last sentence. Just give them the word if it’s so important rather than fish for the answers. And hopefully the word is important because it will open the door to real thinking, not guessing what’s in the teacher’s head.

      I also love how in the first three you’re always linking the strategy back to how it does—or doesn’t—add to your reading, which is so important. I have to say, though, that I’ve more or less stopped doing that explicit strategy instruction all together because when we set kids up to solve problems in reading instead of practicing a strategy or skill, I see them reaching for those connections, questions and predictions automatically as a way of figuring things out. So these days if kids are really stuck, I tend to ask something like “Has anyone ever experienced/read/heard/seen something that might help us understand this more?” which positions them to use the strategy strategically because it’s directly tied to understanding—and brings home that point you want them to see, too: how it made them smarter about the text. Or I’d acknowledge that we don’t quite get something and turn it into a why question. And, yes, at some point it’s critical that they try to answer our questions. It’s exactly like a scientist’s hypothesis: you develop an idea based on what you’ve read so far that answers one or more of your questions and then you to test it out as you continue to read. So much food for thought! Thanks so much for sharing!

      • You’re more than welcome, Tom. And thanks, in return, for the link to your blog. I loved the ideas in Get Smart Together, especially the Community Bulletin Board, which by existing in real life and time (unlike virtual communal spaces like google docs or live binders), can also let students see that teachers, too, need to share ideas and think through problems together.

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