A Teacher's Journal: Promoting the Integration of Critical Thinking into Middle School Civics, Government, and Economics
Dr. Linda Elder
This web page and the ones that follow are a reflection on a three-day workshop held in my school district for teachers of Social Sciences on all levels. The workshop was led by Dr. Linda Elder, a professor and author based in the Center for Critical Thinking in association with Sonoma State University in California. Every discipline within the social sciences was represented among the faculty who attended, so the information on critical thinking that Dr. Elder presented had to be, for the most part, free of any specific content. It was up to each participant to adapt the structures that she presented to us into the subjects for which we are responsible on a daily basis. For me, that means integrating the critical thinking approach into the Civics classroom. Many of us were history teachers, and since I might teach history in the future, I was wise to keep the disciplines relating to history in the forefront of my mind as well.
The purpose of this web page is to give you, the reader, some insight as to what we learned. I want to thank Dr. Elder for her presentation, and much of the information found here is based on her work. The difference here is that I intend to apply the approaches she outlined to the Civics and History curriculum. That way, as you develop your History and Civics lessons, you can incorporate the basics of critical thinking into your own classroom activities.
Thanks for reading. Now on to the workshop...
What is Critical Thinking?
Critical thinking can be defined as "the art of analyzing and evaluating thinking with a view to improving it" (Paul and Elder, pg. 4). As teachers, we are duty-bound to help our students become better thinkers since much of their learning is centered around the activity of thinking. This can be said to be true in all disciplines. In the social sciences, much of our curriculum is based on the written and spoken word, so thinking in social studies will be heavily dependent on language. As we help our students become better thinkers, we must be effective communicators. Of course, not all of our students prefer language as their primary medium for learning. According to Gardner's multiple intelligences, some students prefer visual-spatial methods, or they might be auditory or visual learners. Some are even interested in moving their bodies or use of their hands, so these learners are best at kinesthetic approaches. To foster critical thinking in all of our students, we will have to be effective communicators in all of those modalities, not just through the spoken or written word.
To foster critical thinking in all of our students, we will have to be effective communicators in all modalities, not just through the spoken or written word.
Dr. Elder pointed out that thinking is a skill-set that we as teachers need to help develop in our students. Our thinking reflects our own experience first, and so it can be seen as egocentric. This fact makes our thinking, and in turn our ability to process information, limited. Critical thinking, on the other hand, helps us and our students widen their perspective to include the point-of-view of others. In any social studies classroom, learning will be more intense and more interesting when students and teachers can empathize with the viewpoints of their fellow students and teachers. If they become effective listeners by processing the message of those in the classroom through discussion and dialogue, the world of experience for the student become much broader and more inclusive. The challenge in the process of becoming more empathic as we interact with each other is that there is little feedback for the speaker to go on so that he or she knows that the listener is doing an effective job. It becomes imperative, then, that the teacher models effective listening skills by becoming empathic ourselves so that our students are confident that we hear and understand what they are saying in the process of intellectual discourse.
The Role of Thinking in Teaching and Learning
Many educators today have been taught that effective teaching, and by extension, effective learning, involves the process of thinking about how we think. In educational circles, when we reflect on our own thinking processes and how they relate to the ability of humans to learn, we call this metacognition. Metacognition comes from the Latin roots "meta," meaning "greater" and "cognito," which means to think or know. So the word implies that we are able to think about our thinking, creating a greater or larger form of thinking. The process involves either conscious or subconscious awareness of how we process and assimilate intellectual content, or information. In the Civics classroom, metacognition may take many forms, especially when we help our students master specific content ideas. For example, the three branches of government are challenging concepts for many students, and keeping the separation of powers straight when they can be confused with the three levels of government (together called the federal system) is one of the trickiest aspects of teaching Civics. How can we help our students think about their thinking as they tackle these confusing and abstract ideas?
One approach is to use visual or graphic organizers that help the mind classify and associate specific symbols with their corresponding concepts. The Graphical Big Box is a visual representation of the three branches and three levels that a teacher can display to help students keep these concepts straight. But more importantly, the teacher must use this and any teaching tool effectively by helping students identify the elements of thinking that relate to learning about any topic. The authors of Analytic Thinking, Drs. Elder and Paul, have identified the elements of thinking as the following:
- must have a purpose.
- seeks to answer a question.
- includes information based on evidence.
- arrives at inferences or interpretations that allow for conclusions.
- is based on assumptions that may or may not be true.
- takes the form of concepts to help us make sense of the world.
- has implications and consequences.
- comes from a point of view.
These elements of thinking or described in more detail at the Center for Critical Thinking website.
Dr. Elder reminded teachers to place thinking at the center of instruction so that students can develop the skills needed to become more effective at the process of learning about their subjects. A Civics teacher might have these elements of thinking visually available for students, and as class begins, the teacher would refer to these elements to get students to become more aware of their own thinking. Classroom topics that lend themselves to these elements include but are not limited to the example outlined in the chart below:
Topic: the Civil Rights Movement
Thinking... Sample Illustration must have a purpose. to understand and apply the Equal protection Clause 14th Amendment of the Constitution seeks to answer a question. How were the civil rights of black Americans violated through the Jim Crow laws and segregation in public schools? includes information based on evidence. Students will read primary sources such as letters, court documents, and examine photographs of the Civil Rights Movement arrives at inferences or interpretations that allow for conclusions. African-Americans were treated as second class citizens up to and beyond the 1954 Brown decision. Many were willing to be beaten or killed in the struggle for equality. is based on assumptions that may or may not be true. All blacks in America were subjected to discrimination and segregation by law. (Not true in the north. Segregation was de facto rather than de jure). takes the form of concepts to help us make sense of the world. The idea of equal protection of the law is contained in the 14th Amendment and was the basis for the end of segregation in public schools and eventually all of American social life. has implications and consequences. American society experienced social upheaval during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
The Civil Rights Movement put many such movements into motion for other minority groups in the US. In spite of considerable progress, racial stereotyping and prejudice continue today.
comes from a point of view. The problem of racial discrimination and prejudice in the United States is part of the history of the nation, and each minority group and majority group brings its own viewpoint to the discussion.
If we as teachers approach our students as thinkers, we will be more effective in helping them connect the content we are teaching to their thinking. One of our goals as teachers is to get our students to become excellent thinkers when they are faced with the challenges of our topics. Students demand relevance when learning about different things in school, so leading students to conclusions about why our topic is important will help them make sense of the information we are teaching. As intellectual guides, it is our responsibility to help students think through any given problem we place in front of them. Critical thinking provides them with the structures they need to handle the topic effectively.
We'll continue tomorrow with some strategies that we can use in the social studies classroom. For now, here's a summary of a set of characteristics of critical thinking.
Critical thinking is...
- Self-directed: Students take control of their own thinking.
- Deliberate: Ask students "what do you think about this?"
- At a high level of quality: Get students to engage in analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
- Involves analysis: Help students break down a concept and build it back up again.
- Includes self-assessment; Students need to ask themselves" How am I doing with this concept?"
- Develops effective intellectual habits of mind: help students strive to be effective thinkers in all settings.
- Combats native egocentricity: Students are able to appreciate the point of view of others.
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