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Teaching Collaboration and Critical Thinking, Tech-Free

By Ben Curran — July 31, 2013 4 min read
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Being college- and career-ready requires two important skills: collaboration and critical thinking. Sure, many graduates will use technology as they practice these skills. But neither is “about” technology.

Everywhere you turn in education, there’s tech talk—1:1 laptops, cell phones, iPads, apps, flipping the classroom, and more. From all the chatter, you’d think every classroom (and every student’s home) was wired and loaded with the latest gadgets and gizmos.

Not true. The “digital divide” persists. Plenty of us have to get by on a couple of computers and a less-than-reliable wireless connection. And many of our students work with much less than that at home.

But, even if we lack the latest tools, we still have plenty of ways to help our students develop 21st-century skill sets.

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Starting the Year With Collaboration

Early in my career, “teaching collaboration” meant assigning group projects or asking students to “work together.” The result? One or two students did all the work. Or students spent more time arguing than working. Or students randomly divided the workload in even portions, only to end up with a final product lacking cohesion and quality.

Our students can’t learn to work with others if we never teach them how to do so. We have to demonstrate what collaboration means and explicitly teach the basics.

I start very early in the year. One of my students’ first assignments is to design a bulletin board around a theme, working in groups of four or five. But I don’t just assign this and walk away. I explain that collaboration means working together towards a common goal. Together we come up with a list of what it means to collaborate.

Next, we practice the habits of collaboration. I provide students with protocols for brainstorming, decision-making, and accountability. Working in small groups, students come up with ideas, decide together on the best one, and determine who will do what, when it will be done, and what it will look like.

The result? Students have a framework for collaboration that they can use for the rest of the school year. They’ve done some initial grappling with the themes we’ll be studying. And I don’t have to design all the bulletin boards!

Improving Your Questioning

Successful 21st-century citizens must ask and answer complex questions.

Are you pressing your students to think critically? Try this: Have a colleague come into your room and observe you for an hour or so. Ask your colleague to record every question you ask students in that time period. Then take a good, hard look at the list. Where do your questions fall on Bloom’s Taxonomy?

Many of us discover that we’re not asking many questions at all or asking very surface-level questions. But our students must be able to think critically to answer complex questions and solve complicated problems. So how do we change?

I decided to first develop the habit of asking more questions, then work on the quality of my questions. Here’s how I approached it.

First, I selected a teaching situation that lent itself to critical thinking and asking a lot of questions: small groups that I facilitated during guided reading time. For one week, I resolved to do nothing except ask questions during these discussions. I would not allow any declarative statement to come out of my mouth. I followed up everything that every student said with a question.

It was tricky at first—a lot trickier than I expected. Like a lot of teachers, I often find myself wanting to be a part of the discussion, to tell the kids what I think. But that’s not what it’s about! So I pushed myself to respond to each student’s answer to one of my questions with another question. (This technique, often called Socratic questioning, isn’t new. But it was definitely new to me.)

At first, I was asking a lot of leading questions, which hinted at the answer I was looking for. But asking those took the heavy lifting away from the students. I was the one doing the work, not them. When my questions improved, so did students’ answers!

Over the course of the week, I came up with a handful of go-to questions that worked in nearly every situation: What makes you think that? What evidence do you have to support that? Why would you say that? What do you think about what he/she just said?

Once I developed the habit of asking questions, I added another wrinkle. I thought more about the questions I was writing into my lesson plans. For guided reading, I like to have two or three questions planned in advance, but I often just wrote down the first things that came to mind. By paying very close attention to my questions before the lesson, I increased the level of thinking I was calling on students to do.

Collaboration and critical thinking aren’t the only important 21st-century skills, of course. But they’re definitely two to start with. Once you start thinking about all the ways to develop those skills, you’ll move on to other 21st-century necessities, like creativity, curiosity, independence, and decision-making. You can do a lot to prepare your students to the demands of the world that awaits them … even while taking a low-tech or no-tech approach.

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