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Education Opinion

To Build Critical Thinking Skills, Students Need a Platform

By Matthew Lynch — February 17, 2017 4 min read
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By Shona Rose

When I teach writing, many of my students turn in the same work, copied more neatly--despite the hours I have poured over their work with comments and editing suggestions. Even when I sit for extended periods of time with students in writing conferences, their papers do not reflect that they have internalized the lessons. More disturbing, students keep making the same mistakes in new writing situations we had previously considered. As a former administrator and now as a learning leader, my classroom observations confirm that these writing woes are ubiquitous.

Teachers dutifully repeat the same lessons, K-16, breaking down the process into small, manageable tasks, chaining them together meaningfully, leading students to apply the skills. Yet the same errors appear in the next writing performance. B.F. Skinner’s behaviorist principles don’t yield the desired results when students must apply the skills independently for assignments or assessments. Whether students are composing for what author Barry Lane calls “fake writing day” on standardized assessments or scribbling their guts out for authentic purposes, the writing needs to be right.

When I was in high school, I remember a similar dilemma. After reading the opening chapter of The Lord of the Flies, our master teacher questioned us through the text, leading us to marvelous conclusions. At home that night, my pen hovered over the paper, the ink invisible in recreating the teacher’s analysis. I remembered conclusions about savagery and the ebbing away of individual thought (and a strange comment about the plane wreckage representing the rape of the modern world), but remained unable to reproduce the logical progression of someone else’s pre-masticated and partially digested conclusions. Perhaps students ruminate in their mistakes because we use the steak knives (red pens?) to cut the content into chunks and then proceed to chew the it for them with leading questions and comments. Hardly appetizing.

Ultimately, writing emerges from the individual cognitive journey of each student based on their own socio-cultural contexts and personal transactions with texts. Instead of correcting and commenting, perhaps mentoring and guiding students through their own writing processes would enable students to think and talk about any subject with veracity, clarity, honesty, and integrity. Perhaps then, students can produce content that isn’t just valuable for their teacher, but to themselves and their peers as meaningful contributions.

Students of this generation are producing more content than ever before. With that production comes a responsibility and a set of ethics not always addressed in our instructional standards. Teachers are now in an incredible position where they must serve as digital dietitians, helping students to properly digest, utilize, or discard what they consume and create. We must help them transform their work into messages that are ethical, accurate, and responsible--yet at the same time preserve the student’s thought journey, ideas, and voice.

Digital portfolios give a flexibility to the benefits we already know about portfolios. Dr. Amber Lancaster, a writing coach at Texas Tech University, explained to me: “Portfolios are valuable pedagogical tools that logically scaffold curriculum concepts and help [students] see the transfer of skills from one writing project to the next. Portfolios also offer students a way to engage with a teacher about ideas in progress (they can emphasize the critical thinking as a ‘messy’ and iterative process, which more closely models process pedagogy and real-world thinking). No idea comes to fruition in perfect form: masterpieces are conceived of thorough planning, visioning, re-planning, debating, grappling with ideas/concepts, trying them out, and testing them with others for feedback to improve upon.”

Students participating in a state portfolio assessment project I manage are beginning to realize the benefits of sharing their writing with an authentic audience they respect, all with the safety of the teacher who moderates the discussion and feedback about compositions. The platform we are using, bulb, offers each student permanent URL links, along with multimedia possibilities. Students are free to create and upload writing throughout their educational careers. Student writing--preserved across classes, schools, and grades--becomes a stable, concrete, and visual growth chart.

The teacher can easily reference lessons and goals set in previous writings, trace student growth, as well as see how each piece progressed from prewriting to final copy--for the current assignment as well as previous assignments. bulb’s asynchronous digital features facilitate extended discourse between multiple parties. The students find and revise their way to the best ways to say what they mean, with passion and pathos permeating every mechanically accurate line of their writing. And the teacher can delegate their grading bags to the beach.

What moves writers forward? As Fisher, Frey, and Hattie explain in their book Visible Learning for Literacy, feedback through all stages of the writing process helps students know exactly what they are to achieve, the progress they are making, and the activities required for the next step. Digital portfolios offer a pedagogical island paradise that leads students to a self-extending place where independent thought and application of learning is the true destination.

Shona Rose is a learning leader at Region 16 Education Service Center in Amarillo, Texas. When not playing with her three grandchildren, Shona reads, writes, and creates to serve the teachers in Region 16.

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