A Teacher's Journal: Promoting the Integration of Critical Thinking into Middle School Civics, Government, and Economics
During Day 2 of our workshop on critical thinking, we were introduced to the universal intellectual standards that scholars must adhere to when guiding their students through any activity. Teachers should employ these standards in all academic pursuits because they lend credibility and integrity to the processes in which they are engaged. If students are asked to adhere to these standards, then teachers must be conducive to modeling adherence to the standards as well. Students can test their thinking against these standards, and if they arrive at an honest assessment, the thinker can make the choice to adjust the thinking toward correction. The goal of both teacher and student is to utilize the standards to the point where they become second nature.
The standards often overlap each other in terms of their implications for the classroom, but each has a specific characteristic that merits attention. The intellectual standards associated with critical things are as follows (along with a brief definition):
- Clarity: Being clear in statements and questions is essential to effective thinking, teaching, and learning.
- Accuracy: The quality of being correct or at least a reasonable reflection of reality.
- Precision: Being precise is a critical factor so that learners gain an accurate picture
of the concept at hand.
- Relevance: Teacher and student dialogue must reflect information that is connected to the topic at hand. Student thinking needs to show that responses are on target and do not digress from the central concepts being discussed.
- Depth: Students must avoid superficiality and get into the root causes and offer a detailed explanation when exploring a topic.
- Breadth: Thinking needs to be as inclusive as possible to examine all points of view. Failure to account for a broad spectrum of opinions and ideas means that important information might be omitted.
- Logic: Thoughts must make sense and support each other, especially when forming conclusions. Students must think like Mr. Spock to avoid arriving at illogical conclusions.
- Significance: When considering a problem, thinkers must determine why it is important, and which elements of the problem must be considered first.
- Fairness: Does the answer to a question give weight to all possibilities equally, or is a vested interest receiving undue attention?
- Consistency: When a conclusion appears in more than one situation and when a variety of variables are present, we can be sure that it is consistent.
When examining a problem or question, the teacher can employ the Socratic method with students, who then replicate the process in small groups. This process involves asking important questions about a topic or reading. Student A asks the question or questions. Student B answers in a brief response, and students C records the interaction between Student A and B. The recorder, student C, watches for bias and leading questions on the part of student A. Student C also watches for digression on the part of student B.
The process rotates for at least three questions so that each student has an opportunity to experience each role. each group reports to the class any special or interesting commentary. In Civics, questions that groups might consider need to have some depth and should be open-ended to generate thoughtful discussion.
Examples for Socratic method might include:
- What qualities does a leader need to be an effective president?
- When is war a justifiable method for enforcing foreign policy?
- Is democracy the best form of government for all peoples and cultures? If so, tell why you believe the way you do. If not, explain your thinking.
- Why did the Continental Congress choose to scrap the Articles of Confederation and call for the development of a new federal constitution?
- Why is or why is not federalism an effective form of government for the United States? Give examples that illustrate your response.
Complex questions require clarity, which is why the Critical Thinking Foundation considers this standard a "gateway standard." These types of questions must also be precise because of the variety of interpretations that can be derived from them. Consider the following questions. The initial question is unclear because a myriad of responses that can be generated from them. The follow-up questions comply to a greater degree with the intellectual standard of clarity.
- Is welfare justifiable?
Interpretations can include:
- Should the government provide funds for poor people who have not worked for it?
- Should a community gather resources in order to provide for the lower end of the socio-economic ladder?
- Does a social safety net such as the welfare system create a stratum of citizens who have learned how to be helpless, resulting in a dependency on those members of society who are productive?
- Why was the American Civil War fought?
Interpretations can include:
- What was the role of sectionalism in the growing antagonism between the North and South during the years before the Civil War?
- How did the moral stance of the abolitionist movement have an impact on the coming and course of the Civil War?
- To what extend was the Civil War a conflict of political systems between federalism, with its strong central government, and a confederate form of government where power was decentralized?
Is Communism flawed?
Interpretations can include:
- To what extent does Communism meet the material and spiritual needs of a people?
- In what ways does Communism deny individual liberty?
- In what ways is Communism more or less desirable than capitalism?
These questions demonstrate that the Socratic method is open to wide personal interpretation. Accuracy and clarity are vital as students explore these topics. They must be made aware that each area of investigation can be approached from a specific vantage point, which may cloud the results due to bias and subjectivity. Students must provide greater detail as they question each other. The teacher should model these questioning skills as they deal with topics as a class. The teacher should also help students analyze their own thinking as they develop a set of questions for group consumption.
As students engage in the Socratic method, remind them to refer to the standards of intellectual discourse listed above. If they can't be precise or accurate, then they should return to sources of information such as the library, the Internet, or the textbook. Caution should be used when consulting the Internet because of its democratic nature. Since anyone with an Internet connection can post information to the World Wide Web, students need to apply critical thinking skills to their investigation when arriving at and investigating web sites. Students should strive to replicate data from a variety of sources in a way that reflects the scientific method. Verification of a piece of data, usually through corresponding print resources, provides some of the accuracy and validity demanded by the intellectual standards. Once a student has given responses that meet the intellectual standards, the group can share responses with the class.
be used when consulting the Internet because of its democratic nature... Students need to apply critical thinking skills to their investigation when arriving at and investigating web sites.
These elements of thinking or described in more detail at the Center for Critical Thinking website.
Email: George Cassutto
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