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Why K-12 Students Have to Be Taught How to Think Critically: Part II

By Matthew Lynch — November 28, 2016 3 min read
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In Part I of this series, I discussed why it is important to teach K-12 students critical thinking skills. In Part II, I will discuss how educators can accomplish this.

I was a public school teacher for many years in a state that suffers from low test scores year after year. For many teachers, the way that they want to teach and the way that they are forced to teach vary greatly, and much of that is due to unreasonable accountability standards that include student performance on standardized tests.

Which is why the assessments need to change to include more room for critical thinking. As the testing changes, so too will the classrooms. We should reach a point where teachers are no longer afraid to stop and take questions on a certain topic or to entertain a counter view on a topic from a student for the sake of classroom discussion because there won’t be a fear of losing time on the test-related material. A student who not only masters material but has evaluated it for himself and come to his conclusions on it and how it will impact his life is one that should pass any assessment with flying colors.

We just need to decide as an educational community that critical thinking components are vital to the learning process and taking the time to include them in our testing process does the world more of good to our students than simply filling in a multiple choice bubble. Teaching our students that it is okay to question, and doubt, and take the time to agree with the answers will go a long way towards future generations of critical thinkers and it’s something that needs a higher priority ranking in our assessments.

So what should critical thinking options look like in assessments? The Common Core Standards adopted by more than 40 states already emphasize more of a hands-on approach to classroom learning and those values are then reflected in accompanying tests. A good example of a critical thinking exercise for a third grader, for example, would be to not just simply rehash the plot of a story but to draft an email that one character would likely to write to another.

In this example, the student is taking the knowledge presented and then extending it to include his thoughts on the story. In the reading portion of assessments, activities like this should be asked of the test-takers. Comprehension is still important, of course, but alongside the basics of what is read should be proof that the student truly did understand the material and can not only regurgitate it but can interpret it beyond what is on the page.

In areas like math, critical thinking is also important. Numbers on a page tend to feel somewhat removed from the human experience. Critical thinking exercises should breathe new life into those numbers and find a way to incorporate them into daily life. A student will not just show her work but should be able to explain why a certain solution was reached and what math concept it demonstrates. There also needs to be more cohesion between different areas of math to show that it is not as cut and dry as it seems and that all of the concepts are interrelated. Our math assessments need to reflect more of the process of reaching math goals and have less emphasis on the final answer.

Language arts and math are just two areas of assessment, of course, and the critical thinking element needs to spill over into all other subjects too. Traditionally the assessment process has been heavy on answers and light on the processes to get there. That is starting to change toward a fuller grasp of critical thinking processes, and that change is necessary to the improvement of K-12 classrooms and the next generation of adults.

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.


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