Education Opinion

3 Ways to Spark Courageous Thinking in Every Learner

By Matthew Lynch — July 27, 2016 5 min read
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By Eileen Murphy Buckley

For the last two weeks, I was lucky enough to participate in Project Literacy Lab, an intensive program led by Pearson and the Unreasonable Group for entrepreneurs tackling the problem of 757 million people living with illiteracy across the globe.

Throughout this experience, I’ve been surrounded by some of the best thinkers of our time, including Google’s former head of experience, Tom Chi. Tom, the lead designer for the teams that invented Google Glass, the self-driving car, and Project Loon, spent three days with me and 15 other entrepreneurs, pushing us beyond our comfort zones. Ultimately he challenged each of us to think courageously.

It is unreasonable people like Tom Chi and my fellow program classmates who believe that global problems are solvable. This kind of courageous thinking drives human ingenuity and allows us to achieve moonshots rapidly and on an enormous scale. Around the world, the pace of change is exponential, and so the thinking our students will be required to do in college and in the workplace must grow exponentially as well.

After all, who could have predicted 10 years ago that an average 7th-grade student would need (or want) to learn the marketable skill of writing effective messages in 140 characters or fewer? Or that we would willingly hop into a stranger’s car to get from place to place, just with a few taps on our smartphones?

To meet the unpredictable challenges of tomorrow’s world, students need to believe they have the power to think their way through any situation and feel confident in their claims.

So how do we design schools and school systems that spark such courageous thinking?

As a former teacher, school designer, and director of curriculum for 115 schools in Chicago, I have spent the last 15 years thinking about this challenge. I offer three simple strategies school and district leaders can adopt to redesign learning to prepare future generations for life’s un-thought-of opportunities.

1. A Shared, Schoolwide Language

Inconsistent language and feedback throughout a school leaves students confused about their achievement, which makes it more difficult for them to take ownership of their own learning. By standardizing the way we talk about the amorphous elements of our thinking, we can empower teachers to actually teach critical thinking skills and reinforce these skills across content areas in a consistent way. The designers of ThinkCERCA and I recognized this need, which led to the development of our research-based literacy framework, CERCA.

CERCA, which can be implemented by any educator in any environment, was built upon an ever-growing body of research from institutions like the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, which confirms that reading, writing, and argumentation across subjects helps students become career- and college-ready. With regular practice and feedback from teachers and peers, students can learn to evaluate and make effective Claims, support them with Evidence, and explain their Reasoning clearly. What’s more, students can learn the skills of collaboration and problem-solving by practicing the art of constructing effective Counterarguments to respond civilly to other people’s ideas and by using language that appeals to their Audience.

Not only are these higher-order thinking skills required for life, but they are also the kinds of competencies that policies like ESSA will challenge us to assess.

2. ‘Just-Right’ Texts and Tasks

It is not possible for students to learn the skill of developing evidence-based claims if they do not have accessible texts and the kinds of rigorous yet scaffolded tasks that help them practice these skills through deeper study in all content areas.

Part of the scaffolding students need is explicit training in discipline-specific concepts and vocabulary, which can be a barrier to critical thinking across content areas--for all students, not only English Language Learners. For example, in order to think critically and express their thinking about anything from a primary source document in history to an advertisement on the Internet, students need a conceptual understanding of the ideas of author, audience, and purpose.

This kind of instruction requires more than simply adding a recommended “dosage” of digital instruction into classroom practice to achieve this goal. Systems-level education leaders must intentionally design and implement explicit supports for differentiated instruction at these levels of literacy. If we don’t redesign the system to achieve new results, our students will not achieve the sophistication needed to participate fully in the Information Age.

3. Peer-to-Peer Collaboration and Debate

Part of the redesign we are discussing must include re-imagining the spaces in which we carry out the work of teaching and learning for this complex world. Currently, too many classrooms and technologies are designed for learners who only need to consume and be assessed.

Data shows that discussion is a key factor in student achievement. In fact, students who reported that they discussed interpretations of what they read daily scored higher on the 2013 and 2015 NAEP tests.

Technology and classroom design ought to focus on facilitating the teaching of discussion and debate skills for processing, analyzing, and responding to content, not just consuming it. It can be as simple as moving desks around to encourage classroom best practices such as Socratic discussion, peer-to-peer discourse, and small-group collaboration. Technology’s role is to support these best practices, not replace them.

Despite the rapid changes in our innovative world, we can be sure that our students will need to consume experiences and ideas, think critically about them, and express their point of view effectively to be successful--perhaps even to survive.

Without confidence in these skills, our students’ chances of success are extremely limited. With these skills, however, our students will likely be able to eradicate at least certain forms of cancer, end malnutrition, extend access to education to every child on earth, and substantially reduce poverty across the globe. If we as school leaders can think courageously about how to facilitate this learning on a global scale, our students will do extraordinary things.

Eileen Murphy Buckley is the founder and CEO of ThinkCERCA, a leading provider of personalized literacy solutions. She taught English for 15 years, was the founding English Department Chair at Walter Payton College Prep, and was the former director of curriculum and instruction for more than 100 of Chicago’s highest performing schools. She is also the author of the book 360 Degrees of Text (NCTE, 2011).

The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.