RSS

Category Archives: Critical thinking

Five Apps that Support Student Voice in the Classroom

Essential to a healthy diaologism in the classroom is the need to foster student voice. Students need time to explore their ideas, formulate and reformulate thoughts and sharpen their understandings in their own words. Despite being perhaps the most crucial aspect of the educational process, it is often the least scaffolded and least supported. Student essays, for example are frequently corrected and handed back, but very little is done to offer students usable strategies to organize their thoughts better or focus their thinking. Digital technologies do, however, offer some affordances to help teachers scaffold student voice better.

1. Google Docs

One of the problems with paper is that teachers can only really see what students are writing after they have written it. Even if students hand in a draft version of their thoughts, the difference between a draft and a final version is often cosmetic at best. Unless time is spent on the revision process, and this time is usually not available in the classroom, thoughts and arguments are set in place by the end of an initial draft. At worst the final copy is frequently just a neat version of the draft! One of the key affordances of Google Docs, however, is that it allows the teacher, and other students, to read and comment while the document is in the process of being written. This represents unparalleled access to thoughts being formed during the process of writing, as immediate, almost, as discussion. I enjoy the ability to reflect before commenting on what a student is writing. Sometimes in a discussion moments are missed. Just a few moments of reflection allow more considered responses.

As a teacher you can also create documents which serve as templates scaffolding thinking, working towards a formulation of their thoughts, leading up to the final presentation of ideas. This offers very real opportunities for teachers to teach thinking and writing skills, beyond anything that paper can offer. Documents can be shared for class or group discussion.

2. Flipgrid

While Google Docs provide opportunities for scaffolding writing, Flipgrid provides ways for students to record brief messages using a web camera or mobile phone and posting them on a wall to exchange ideas, or reflect on a topic. Students can delete at any stage and recommence a recording. They can view what peers are posting and if you upgrade to a paid version, comment on others’ posts.

These posts are then available to further in-class discussion or as the basis for a piece of writing. Students can speak off the cuff, or prepare what they are going to say for more formal purposes. Teachers can also use the platform to introduce a topic, or to add comments at any stage of a discussion.

Flipgrid is thus a useful tool for monitoring students’ thoughts and using this to help scaffold their thinking.

3. VideoPad

VideoPad is powerful video editing software which can be freely downloaded and used by students to create and edit videos in a sharable format. Students can use footage captured on their devices or stills images. They can add narration, subtitles or animations. Even green-screen capability is included. Clips can be precisely edited to put together a presentation using dramatization or explanation.

Creating a short movie is an effective way for students to organise their thoughts and present their ideas in formats other than the essay or PowerPoint presentation. It allows students to respond to literary texts or present content in different ways. The process is engaging and fun. The ability to be creative around how narratives are structured and woven together makes this kind of digital authoring an excellent way of varying the diet in the classroom.

What I like about VideoPad in particular amongst the video-editing options available is its relatively sophisticated functionality alongside its fairly simple interface. Importing footage in different formats can be an issue, but the software is quite robust. The ability to easily add sub-titles and captions, and to overlay more than one audio track is a definite plus. Students will often spend a great deal of time creating movie projects so it is best to set time limits!

4. WordPress

WordPress is a blogging platform that provides students with an excellent platform for creating opportunities for students to write in authentic, or relatively authentic contexts, with a real public in mind. You can create an account for each student which allows them to author blog content and publish to the site. It is a great platform for a class magazine. Students will often write fairly telegraphically and you will probably need to scaffold their first contributions to ensure that they are meaty enough, and set the tone for the submissions that follow. You can create blog sites around particular themes, such as an historical period or literary work, where students will contribute pieces that appear as “newspaper” like entries exploring themes and topics being studied.

The genre of writing that can be done on a blog can vary from pure creative writing to perspective exploration or even factual discursive writing. This flexibility is useful and the same platform can be used. You can use a blog to collaborate between different classes, schools or continents, exploring a common theme, topic or problem. Students can leave comments on each other’s posts which can be very useful. Appointing moderators is a good idea.

5. PowerPoint

PowerPoints Presentations can be the worst things ever. But if done well, nothing beats a PowerPoint for supporting a well-delivered presentation. It is available on most people’s computers, has a host of functionalities and is portable and so ubiquitous as to provide few technical challenges. Students enjoy using the software and if you take the time to help them create presentations that complement their verbal presentations, for example using only keywords and images, students learn a very valuable and marketable life skill.

Most classrooms at some stage or another will call on students to make a verbal presentation, and the use of a PowerPoint can not only help a student through what for many is a nerve-wracking experience, it can also add to the presentation greatly.

Giving students an opportunity to organise and voice their ideas and receive feedback, preferably as early and as often as possible is at the heart of education. technology can help make that thinking more visible to the teacher and to peers, and thus invite a dialog between teacher and students over how best to communicate one’s ideas.

Advertisements
 

Using Algorithmic Thinking to Teach Writing

The gains being made by Artificial Intelligence are truly impressive, but we may not be at the stage where a robot can out-write Shakespeare. And yet I do believe that we can use algorithmic thinking to teach students to become better writers. One of the bug-bears for many students over the years has undoubtedly been the lack of explicit instruction in how to write. The dominant pedagogy has been to give students plenty of opportunity to practice creative writing, and to attempt to mold improvement through feedback – often woefully inadequate feedback.

This image was originally posted to Flickr by Scoboco at https://www.flickr.com/photos/62159569@N08/10546981384. It was reviewed on  by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-sa-2.0.

And yet writing can clearly be taught. At the very least students should be made aware of the overall structure of any piece of writing: how to set out a clear thesis statement and develop ideas in successive paragraphs which develop topic sentences, fleshing each idea out with anecdote, fact or quotation. If they are practising these skills quite explicitly their practice is focused and directed, it is far more likely to bear fruit.

I have found, over the years, however, that no amount of scaffolding will make this process easy to implement in whole class instruction. Most students can use conceptual maps to plan a sequence of ideas which support a thesis, but really struggle when it comes to developing these ideas in individual paragraphs. For some this process appears to come naturally. They effortlessly weave together anecdotes and observations to illuminate their ideas. Others appear incapable of marrying abstract ideas to concrete details, which is really what is at stake here.

I had a brain-wave the other day in a coding class. Could the kind of thinking used in coding (algorithmic thinking) not be employed to help bridge the seeming chasm between abstract and concrete? Algorithms, after all are sets of instructions which a machine can follow – a blue-print for successful practice. Maybe, for those who seemed to lack a muse, a blue-print was exactly what was required. And maybe, after following an algorithm for a while, the patterns and habits might stick.

I started by getting the whole class to generate a set of ideas and sub-points using a graphic organiser. We then organised these ideas into a logical sequence so that an argument was constructed. I put these ideas on a Google doc which I then shared with the class on Google Classroom so that each student had their own copy. The class then broke into groups and had to find anecdotes, facts, details or quotations. These were written out on cards and shuffled into a pile. Students were then told to start writing, using the logically sequenced outline we had developed. As they wrote each paragraph they had to come to the front of the class, dig in the pile and try to find at least one anecdote, fact or quote to use in that paragraph. When they had finished they returned it to the pile.

Individual essays were thus unique. The same anecdote could be used to support or refute an idea. We then shared some of these sequences in essays and discussed how they had been used to support the thesis statement. My follow-up, next term, will be to get students to select ideas from a pile and match these to the developing details so that each essay has a different sequencing structure.

 

Mentoring – The Killer App? Using Game Mechanics to achieve Differentiated Learning Opportunities.

One of the great conundrums facing education is that while we as teachers know that students only learn effectively when they are in their proximal zones of development, ie. learning something just a little above their current competence, we sit with classes of twenty to forty students, each one with different learning needs! How to personalise learning when economics determines larger class sizes remains the burning issue of our times. In an ideal world all classes might be one-on-one, or relatively small group sessions when preferred. In that way all instruction could be tailored towards the precise needs of each individual student. Those promoting the use of computers have long touted the machine as an answer. BF Skinner’s teaching machines promised the panacea of an infinitely patient machine providing students with individualised content and appropriate feedback, using branching procedures to make sure that each student received exactly what they needed to maximise learning. These machines did not work, however, and were quickly labelled drill and kill!

Now it might be that advances in Artificial Intelligence will deliver machines more capable of the subtlety and empathy required for effective content delivery and feedback, but we are not there yet. In my experience computer driven instructional software tends to be rejected by students overwhelmingly. The classroom still sits with the problem of one teacher and multiple students, and no clear way to offer personalization efficiently and effectively. Dan Buckley’s Personalisation By Pieces approach offers perhaps the best solution yet. Students create pieces of work which demonstrate mastery of skills. This work is uploaded electronically and assessed by a peer mentor who has passed the skill level being demonstrated. This provides the student with accreditation at that level and enables them to mentor and assess others. There is more to the system than this, but in a nutshell this is what is used to establish a cycle of virtuous practice designed to create independent learners.

The model presented is of two possible routes for Personalisation, one teacher lead (T-Route) and the other student driven (P-Route). The uses of ICT are accordingly different, specifically being used to monitor and record progress, and link peer mentors and mentees and provide them with channels of communication rather than to prepare teacher resources and instructional materials. Crucially learning becomes student-directed, with multiple pathways available and students able to choose which direction they wish to pursue. The key difference between the Personalisation By Pieces approach and Skinner’s Teaching Machines lies in the key insight that mentorship works to the benefit of both parties! Students who have completed a level are more than capable and benefit from helping explain, mentor and assess the work of their peers.

As Vygotsky noted, learning is social in the first instance, and we need the assistance of a more experienced other to help us bridge the gap between what we already know or can do, and what it is that we are learning. A system which uses peer mentor assessment could be crucial in providing the kind of individualised feedback that promotes personalised learning pathways. In my view this does not down-play the role of the teacher, whose whole class instruction and oversight of progress remains crucial.

Now the PbyP approach obviously crosses the borders of individual classrooms and schools in linking mentors and mentees, but it would be interesting to see what could be done even within individual classrooms and without the benefit of a custom-built ICT platform like PbyP.

Computer Gaming is often seen as the enemy of education, but as James Paul Gee has pointed out in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, computer games demonstrate principles of learning in remarkably efficient ways! Players are kept in their proximal zones of development and learning is artfully scaffolded. Players do not feel daunted by failure, they simply try and try and try again. Ample time is given for these re-takes, and the rewards are epic! No player seems to resent someone who is a level or two ahead of them, they simply strive to get their themselves. Players are also generous in their assistance, mentoring newbies and sharing strategies and tactics. We could do a lot worse than getting our classrooms to emulate games.

I am not arguing that every lesson should be gamified, or that the syllabus should be rewritten as a game. There is a great deal of knowledge which cannot be gamified. But I am suggesting that game mechanics should be used as exemplars of classroom management practice. In a game, players take on urgent tasks, but not necessarily in any given order. They tend to tackle that task and keep working at it until a solution is found. They may suffer spectacular failure, but bounce back until they succeed. Players collaborate to help each other out. This is exactly what we would like to see in the classroom. But how do we get the same effects without trivializing the tasks involved?

As a teacher of English Second Language, I often found a great deal of differentiation in level amongst the students in my class. But with classes of 35 plus, addressing everyone’s specific needs was difficult without creating a variety of tasks graded for ability. This is not really very difficult to do. Take comprehension skills, for example. I still did whole class instruction when tackling skills, strategies and approaches to comprehension. But when it came to selecting practice tasks for students to tackle, it is easy enough to have a box full of differentiated tasks, colour-coded for reading ability. These can be used across age cohorts. When tackling language skills, I would direct those students struggling with concord, for example, towards exercises around this, and those needing more work with vocabulary towards these tasks. I kept a file with a page per student to record what tasks had been completed, and what needed further work. While not very game-like, this did mean that students were tackling mastery across parallel, overlapping, but differentiated paths. One can easily imagine overlaying game mechanics to create a more engaging experience. Students loved the individual attention they were getting. I was usually able to sit down with about a third of my class in any session and I used to assess work in front of them and give feedback and follow-up tasks at the same time. I have never believed in taking marking home with me!

As a Computer Skills teacher I have a gamified my syllabus completely in that all the tasks revolve around a narrative – see The Mobius Effect – Gamifying Your Classroom. But while these tasks allow for different speeds of progress they are not differentiated according to learning needs. This is partly because a computer skills syllabus does not really involve much work that is really complicated. There are only so many spreadsheet skills, for example. Something more complicated and nuanced, such as comprehension skills provides far more need for branching. Many students struggle with idiomatic expressions. There appears to be something of a generation gap between the authors of pieces used in comprehension passages, magazine or newspaper articles, and school-aged readers. But others may be misconstruing the connotations of words and therefore missing the purpose of the writing. Differentiated learning paths would greatly benefit students in this instance. But simply adding a games layer to your English classroom may seem forced and artificial. Simply awarding badges and posting leaderboards does not seem to me to be the answer either.

The idea of using peer mentorship and assessment using more experienced peers to be found in Personalisation By Pieces, however, seems to me to offer a real alternative. To take our example of Comprehension Skills, having a student who is struggling with idiomatic language usage receive help and have a task based on idioms assessed by someone who has recently “passed” a unit of work based on idioms would deliver a useful and authentic context for games-like level based achievement. This could be achieved across grades and ages using online piece submission platforms such as Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams for Education. Analog work could be scanned for submission purposes if need be. This would provide a paper trail and record of what was covered.

 

 

 

 

The Dialogic Wave – A New Pedagogy?

One of the most toxic ideas in Education in the last thirty years is the whole notion that teachers should not teach. In South Africa this has led to a vast dereliction of duty as teachers became styled as facilitators and were made to feel somewhat guilty for teaching. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting in any way that Education is all about teaching, it is also about learning. Teaching and learning form two sides of a single coin. I am not suggesting that teachers should not facilitate learning either. Of course they need to, but what I am saying is that there is a time and a place for teachers to teach! I am also suggesting that learning depends upon that!

As learning theories have shifted towards Constructivist notions that learning requires the active construction of knowledge by the learner rather than some kind of mysterious transmission from the mouth of a teacher to the mind of the student, so has teaching come to be viewed rather suspiciously. And yet the two are not logically connected. The fact that to learn something I need to put ideas together in my own mind and build structures of knowledge that are unique to myself is not in question. The old notion that learning was like filling up a bucket by pouring ideas in does not stand up at all. I cannot understand anything until I have integrated it with other knowledge structures in my head. Meaning is therefore somewhat subjective. But this does not mean that knowledge is somehow independent of an external reality, or divorced from the understandings of others.

To my mind one of the clearest statements of the interrelationship between teaching and learning comes from the ideas of Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian philosopher and literary critic who developed the idea of Dialogism. All language has both centripetal and centrifugal forces acting upon it. When we speak about a horse, for example, we probably both agree on a set of meanings encapsulated in that word. These centripetal forces allow us to communicate meaningfully and for common understandings to emerge. However, it is very unlikely that we both have exactly the same image in mind. You might imagine an Arab stallion, while I may have more of a Shetland pony in mind. These centrifugal forces can sometimes create quite serious miscommunications. Because our experiences of the world have been different the meanings and understandings that we attach to words is undoubtedly different. Bakhtin described these forces in terms of a dialogism. Common understandings represent a Monologism of say the academy, received wisdom, the teacher, the voices of power. Our diverse individual understandings represent a dialogic discourse, the power of voice. Education of course may be seen as a process of interweaving between these forces. Without the monologic voice no understanding is possible, but equally learning depends upon the dialogic voices of individual minds. the richest experiences emerge from the meeting of minds. We learn socially and what is in our heads is by no means ours alone, it is what results from a dialogism.

This conceptualization speaks eloquently to the idea that learning requires an element of teaching. I have no direct experience of quantum physics. Not even remotely! If I am to have any knowledge of the subject I need to be told it, the concepts and ideas behind quantum physics need to be explained to me . As I hear the explanation I desperately try to relate it to things that I can understand and might come to a somewhat idiosyncratic understanding heavily dependent on metaphor and whatever I can remember of school-boy Science lessons. Should I engage in more prolonged and systematic study I will start to understand ideas which will allow me to understand quantum physics better. My understandings will change as I construct more insightful schemas in my mind, and my understanding over time will correlate much better with the understanding of real physicists. This resolution between the monologic and dialogic will be instantly comprehensible to anyone who has ever tried to learn anything. I may come to an understanding of very simple things through experience, but complex and abstract ideas are not going to bubble out of my own experiential knowledge. I will need to be taught things!

The schooling curriculum largely consists of rather abstract knowledge atomised into subject disciplines, each with their own procedures and ways of legitimizing knowledge. As attractive and Romantic an idea it might be to imagine that the fresh and unschooled view has primacy, the reason we engage in the educational process is to gain the knowledge and understanding of a practitioner in whatever field we are studying. My experience and voice has value, but ultimately if I want to be a quantum physicist I am going to need to try to understand what more experienced others know. Even if I am self schooled, the only way I can learn anything meaningful is by engaging with the ideas of experts through the pages of books, or increasingly these days webinars and YouTube videos!

But this is not to say that the knowledge I gain is not constructed in my own head and remains somewhat idiosyncratic. Your understanding of Bakhtin, for example, and the uses you put it to might be quite different from mine. But nevertheless we both need to have read Bakhtin in some form or other, or had his ideas explained to us by someone. This process is what I mean by teaching. Any learning either of us has done on the subject stems from this initial teaching. Without it we would have no understanding at all. Learning is thus predicated on teaching. Even Discovery learning as a pedagogy is somewhat of a misnomer. The teaching is simply happening in another form, most commonly from books.

Of course explanation alone is worthless. You could explain quantum physics to me all day, and without some kind of useful prior knowledge, foundational knowledge, none of it will stick. I am sure we have all experienced someone trying to explain something to us that was simply so beyond all our knowledge as to be gobbledygook! What experienced teachers are really good at is explaining things and then helping students go through the process of assimilating and integrating this knowledge into new schemas, scaffolding their construction of new knowledge through carefully chosen activities and exercises. Dialogic student voices are listened to and shaped towards more mature understandings. Lessons often consist of some form of explanation, followed by tasks designed to help students take that knowledge on board and make it their own. The best lessons often revolve around students sharing their discoveries and changing understandings. But without the teaching input, no matter how brief, or in what form it is delivered, all that Constructivist learning is impossible.

In the last few posts on this blog I have used a theoretical tool called Semantic Waves to discuss how technology is used in the classroom. The tool comes from a theoretical approach called Legitimation Code Theory, based on the work of Basil Bernstein, Pierre Bourdieu and Karl Maton. Semantic Waves trace the strengthening and weakening of semantic gravity (how abstract or concrete an idea is) and density (how simple or complex). Research into semantic waves in the classroom seems to suggest that good teaching and learning is dependent upon the range and frequency of these movements. Put simply, good teachers move between abstract and concrete, and between complex and simple ideas all the time, and give students opportunities to do the same. Movement needs to be in both directions. Abstract, complex ideas need to be unpacked, made more concrete and simple to understand, and students need to learn how to take concrete or simple ideas and tease out more abstract, complex, more academic understandings of whatever they are looking at.

Poor learning opportunities often coincide with flatlines, either where the lesson remains too abstract, or too concrete, never moving between the two.

I first came across this approach in my studies, as a tool for understanding what happens, or doesn’t happen in classrooms, but I have found that semantic waves are a very useful pedagogical approach as well. My lessons have always pivoted around instructional and exploratory moments (monologic and dialogic turns), but being consciously aware of the semantic gravity and density of any lesson turns out to be extremely useful. What I discovered by analysing the content of my own lessons was that while I was pretty good at explaining things, using metaphor or examples to help students understand concepts, not all my tasks, though designed to explore student voices, were designed to increase the complexity or abstraction of the ideas behind the lesson. It is easy to assume that simply because you are giving students an opportunity to voice their own understandings and explore them, that it will always lead to a more academic or rigorous understanding. Perhaps it is because I am an English teacher, and in teaching literature understanding is paramount. We read to understand the poem or novel and voice our reactions and opinions to it. That is often struggle enough!

When teaching writing, however, my concerns very much aligned with the upward movement of the semantic wave, trying to teach students how to use their own experiences and draw out thematic treatments to improve their writing. But when I thought about how I was teaching literature I realised that I was not paying enough attention to scaffolding how students take the text and draw out the themes and concerns of the work. This was something I needed to do much more consciously. I had been a little taken in by the warm fuzzy glow of having students come to terms with themes, exploring it in their own voice. In a sense I had been too caught up in the sense of completing the dialogic, and had not paid enough attention to the semantics.

If we wish to transform our educational system and move away from a reliance on the regurgitation of understanding towards teaching students how to create meaning, which is surely what critical thinking is all about, we need to be much more conscious of how students construct abstract and complex ideas. This concern needs to be built into our pedagogical DNA. Our teaching cannot just be dialogic, it must also be uplifting.

 

Critical Thinking & ICTs – Part 2

In Part 1 I looked at three models which might be helpful in building a framework for understanding how ICTs and Thinking Skills offer affordances for enhancing students’ critical thinking abilities. I would like to start by looking at ways in which Bloom’s Taxonomy might be integrated with Semantic Wave Theory.

Bloom’s Taxonomy remains probably the best known framework for evaluating thinking in the classroom, but is of little practical use beyond a general sense that there needs to be more higher order thinking, or that a certain percentage of any examination questions need to call on higher order thinking. What it does not reflect is the interdependence of Lower & Higher Order Thinking, However, if we see thinking as a process over time, and not a discrete moment fixed in time, then it becomes clear that what is crucial to critical thinking is how ideas are linked, situated in context, grounded in evidence and logically connected.

If we look at Maton’s (2014) work on semantic waves, discussed more fully in Part 1, or how meaning is constructed and deconstructed in the classroom, we can see how critical thinking depends upon movements between abstraction and the concrete. Any claim of knowledge rests upon the logical coherence of the claim and upon its foundation in the evidentiary base. Maton’s (2014) work on semantic profiles suggests that in classroom talk, or student essays, it is the range between abstraction and the concrete that makes for rich, generative thinking. Talking in abstractions alone, or just in concrete terms does not lead to what we might recognise as critical thinking.

Two common classroom routines involve the teacher unpacking an idea for students, giving examples, metaphors, anecdotes which help them understand the concept. This represents a strengthening of semantic gravity, an unpacking of academic language, appealing to the ordinary everyday to help mediate the content and grow understanding. Learning, however, depends on the contrary movement, the student’s ability to take the raw stuff of experience and draw conclusions, analyse, synthesise and shape their thoughts into more abstract, academic formulations. This represents a lowering of semantic gravity and lies at the heart of what we expect those who display critical thinking to do.

I would argue that it is useful to think of Bloom’s taxonomy in terms of a full semantic profile which both strengthens and weakens semantic gravity as ideas are unpacked and repacked in the unique voice and understanding of the student. Higher Order Thinking (HOT) occurs, I would suggest, when the distance between abstraction and the concrete is bridged and where the amplitude of the wave is most significant. Lower Order Thinking (LOT), by contrast represents shallower crests and troughs. Remembering, Understanding and Applying, considered Lower Order Thinking skills involves less movement between abstraction and contextualisation than the Higher Order Skills of Analysing, Evaluating or Creating.

Let us be clear that both LOTS and HOTS are vital to all thinking. But it is useful to think of critical thinking as being characterised by fuller and more complete movement between the concrete and the abstract. Scientific Laws, such as Boyle’s Law, are formulated after repeated experimentation, measurement, observation and hypothesis formation. The Humanities likewise depend upon the formulation of abstract concepts, supported by rich contextual evidence. In the discipline of History, for example, a concept such as Hobsbawm’s Social Banditry draws from commonalities observed in a range of historical contexts, all of which provide support for the formulation of the concept and its ability to illuminate a narrative.

In this way I believe we can usefully conceive of Semantic Wave Profiles as descriptions of the direction of critical thinking, the strengthening or weakening of semantic gravity and Bloom’s Taxonomy as an indicator of the amplitude. The crucial takeaway for teachers is the need to provide opportunities for these movements of semantic gravity. Semantic profiles offer a way to visualise what is needed to create the conditions for better critical thinking and better learning.

In the next part of this article, I would like to suggest ways in which we can extend this framework to incorporate key insights from the Paul – Elder approach discussed in Part 1.

Bibliography

Anderson, L.W., Krathwohl, D.R., Airasian, P.W., Cruikshank, K.A., Mayer, R.E., Pintrich, P.R., Raths, J., Wittrock, M.C. (2001). A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. New York: Pearson, Allyn & Bacon.

Bloom, B.S. (Ed.). Engelhart, M.D., Furst, E.J., Hill, W.H., Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.

Maton, K. (2014). Building powerful knowledge: The significance of semantic waves. In Knowledge and the Future of the Curriculum (pp. 181-197). Palgrave Macmillan UK.

 

Critical Thinking & ICTs – Part 1

critical-thinking-cartoonThere is a narrative which says that ICTs offer unique affordances for critical thinking in the classroom. This argument sees the introduction of new technologies in the classroom as a prerequisite for a new emphasis on critical thinking. The 21st Century Skills Movement sees change itself as a rationale for the need for critical thinking, and technology as a central skill set for success in a changing world.

Now, this blog is dedicated to exploring how ICTs and Critical Thinking intersect, so I have rehearsed elements of this narrative many times. I do believe that ICTs have affordances which can be leveraged to achieve greater critical thinking, but the relationship is not simple or direct, and I have been around long enough to remember when teachers sought to foster critical thinking quite independently of digital technologies. As one who considers himself a champion of ICTs and Critical Thinking I believe it is important to have a theoretical framework for understanding the relationship between critical thinking and technology adoption which helps us to understand better how we can use technology to build better critical thinking.

Thinking around what critical thinking means is often somewhat woolly. For some students it appears to come naturally. Their arguments are well structured, well supported, with greater nuance and generative power. Other students struggle to present or analyze ideas effectively, and teachers are often unsure exactly what to do to help improve thinking. What exactly does effective thinking look like anyway?

Many teachers are using particular thinking strategies to foster critical thinking. Tools such as De Bono’s Thinking Hats, David Hyerle’s Thinking Maps, Harvard’s Visible Thinking or Tony Ryan’s Thinker’s Keys are designed to provide particular pathways to better thinking. These strategies represent pedagogies claiming to offer affordances for critical thinking in much the same way as claims are made that ICTs afford critical thinking. The claims for these strategies rest on the affordances of specific thought processes. For example the Thinking Maps offer scaffolding for promoting defining, describing, comparing and contrasting, classifying, sequencing, analyzing cause and effect, identifying part/whole relationships and seeing analogies. The Thinking Hats are said to maximise and organize thoughts and ideas by deploying parallel thinking techniques. The Visible Thinking routines represent attempts to increase metacognitive awareness, for example to draw on previous knowledge, explore diverse perspectives or deploy active reasoning or explanation. These cognitive strategies represent something of a toolbox. Much as a DIY handyman reaches for a specific tool to tighten a bolt or screw, remove a nail or fill a hole, particular cognitive tools can be used for different cognitive purposes. The teacher’s job becomes that of modelling and scaffolding student’s thinking, helping students recognise which tools are appropriate for what purpose and how to use them effectively to improve their thinking so that increasingly students are able to use these tools appropriately without prompting.

This way of looking at critical thinking is not the only way to conceive of it, but it is a useful metaphor for teachers and offers a focused approach which teachers can apply in their classrooms. The question is, is there a similar way we can think about how ICTs may be used as tools for cognitive education?

blooms_digital_taxonomySimilar approaches have been tried. For example Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy represents an attempt to map digital tools to Lower Order and Higher Order Thinking Skills. So, for example podcasting is seen as a Higher Order Thinking Skill of Creating, while Social Bookmarking is seen as a Lower Order Thinking Skill of Remembering. What this model lacks, however, is a nuanced understanding that tools in themselves do not mean much, it is how they are used, and for what purpose, that is important. One can use twitter, for example, at every level of Bloom’s taxonomy. One-to-one mapping of tools to a taxonomy of thinking regardless of purpose and use does not make much sense. Digital tools are not, therefore, the same as the cognitive tools described above. Any framework for digital cognitive tools needs to include their use and purpose.

For example, Google docs carry massive affordances for collaborative thinking. Students can collaborate on writing or problem solving tasks, using comment and joint editing to develop ideas collaboratively. But twitter can also be used in this way, and so can Skype, and many other tools. Google docs can also be used in ways which do not display collaborative thinking at all! Over the course of the last few decades teachers have identified uses of technology which can be used to aid cognitive processes such as collaborative thinking. It seems to me that any framework of cognitive digital tools needs to focus on the cognitive purpose rather than the technology. A useful approach would be to look at teaching practice and try to map cognitive digital tools to thinking processes. In order to do this, however, we need a much less woolly framework for understanding cognitive processes.

There are many different frameworks for critical thinking. I would like to detail just a few below, and then suggest a way forward.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

revised_taxonomyBloom’s (1956) taxonomy of the cognitive domain remains the standard framework for thinking about thinking in the classroom. It establishes six levels of cognitive processes which are seen as moving from simpler to more complex skills. The model has been revised by Anderson, Krathwohl, et al (2001), and both models are widely taught in pre-service teacher education and represent something of a lingua franca in the educational world. This is a considerable strength in that it is already the most commonly used framework by teachers concerned with cognitive education. However, I have to say that it is not a particularly generative model, and in my estimation is often used simply, and mechanistically to rationalise what is done in the classroom rather than to drive critical thinking. Because categories of cognition are not in reality discrete, the exercise of identifying levels is somewhat meaningless, and the pedagogical purpose of doing so unclear.

The model does not drill down to thinking routines themselves. Analysis, for example implies an ability to differentiate between premise and conclusion, what constitutes evidence, how to expose logical flaws, and so on. But the model tends to obscure this rather than highlight it. To my mind Bloom’s model ends up being a limiting factor in promoting critical thinking in the classroom. The taxonomy emerged as part of a movement to clearly define educational objectives and remove woolly thinking, but is in fact far more obscurational than the liberal tradition it replaced.

As we have seen with Bloom’s digital taxonomy, this woolliness both in the cognitive domain and how they map to digital tools renders the framework somewhat vague. What does it really mean when a teacher says, for example, that they are using blogs to enhance student capacity for creating?

The Paul – Elder Approach

pe-critical-thinking-modelThe Paul-Elder framework attempts to draw up a three-tiered model for Critical Thinking, defined as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” (Scriven & Paul, 2003). The model is based on the structures of thought, universal intellectual standards and intellectual traits exhibited by critical thinkers.

The strength of the model is that it does not focus on discrete thinking routines alone, but integrates the habits and dispositions of successful thinkers into the framework, and that it does manage to drill down to the elements of reasoning directly. Its major downside is its very complexity. For all its faults, Bloom’s taxonomy can be summarized in six words. the Paul-Elder model is more difficult for teachers to navigate. This limits its ability to be adopted more widely. Nevertheless, this complexity does hold out the promise for a more meaningful mapping of digital tools to thinking routines in the classroom. If a teacher were to say that they were using blogs to explore Fairness applied to Points of View to develop Intellectual Empathy, one can appreciate that the model is leading to a clearer notion of how digital tools can be used to sharpen critical thinking in the classroom.

Semantic Waves
10Another way of looking at the problem is to try to drill down to how meaning is constructed and deconstructed in the classroom. A new framework (Semantic Waves) for thinking about knowledge practices in the classroom, derived from the work of Basil Bernstein and Pierre Bourdieu allows us to bring powerful concepts to bear on semantic practices in the classroom. Maton (2014) has described how the concepts of semantic gravity and semantic density can be used to describe pedagogical practice in ways which allow us to think about the critical thinking implicated in classroom talk.

Semantic waves are descriptions over time of the relative semantic gravity or density of the ideas contained in classroom talk or student essays. Semantic Gravity refers to how concrete or how abstract an idea is, and is represented as SG+ a very concrete, grounded, contextualized idea, or SG- a very abstract, rarified concept, and of course all points in between. The word Revolution in History, for example, is an abstract idea, relatively free of particular contexts. A particular incident from the Russian Revolution, however, is more contextualized and concrete. One thing that teachers tend to do is to take abstract ideas (SG-) and help explain and contextualize those ideas by giving examples and instances (SG+), they help unpack concepts so that students can understand them better. They then help students take more concrete instances and everyday knowledge, and package in terms of the more academic language and understandings of the discipline they are studying, as shown in the diagram.

Semantic Density refers to how condensed an idea is. A symbol or metaphor conveys far denser meaning (SD+) than the everyday meanings of words (SD-). Poetry, for example is generally more dense than prose.

waving-not-drowning-7-638From the idea of the semantic wave, or how semantic gravity and density changes over time, Maton has described semantic profiles, or typical scenarios. Often discussion, or a student essay will remain generalised and abstract, never exploring examples, supporting evidence or anecdote to develop an idea or argument. This represents a high semantic flatline, as shown in the illustration. Often the discussion will remain at a concrete level, without any conclusions being drawn. This is a low semantic flatline. More usual in any kind of constructive meaning making is a much wider range and flow between abstraction and the concrete as arguments are made and supported by evidence. Seeing critical thinking in terms of creating semantic profiles opens up new ways of looking at both ICT usage in the classroom, something which I explored in my own research (Love, 2016), and how Thinking Strategies offer pedagogical affordances for meaning making – see the video below, which is an idea which needs to be explored.

I believe that the Semantic Wave framework offers a way of understanding how pedagogical approaches and technologies afford the construction and deconstruction of meaning in the classroom in detailed and powerful ways. It is, however, under-researched and must remain somewhat tentative at this stage. It represents both a pedagogy in its own right and a research framework. The ideas are somewhat abstract and may be off-putting to many teachers. To me as a teacher, the framework instantly made sense, but it is an idea that needs some explaining!

 

Putting it together

The three frameworks discussed all represent somewhat different ways of approaching critical thinking in the classroom, all with strengths and weaknesses. In many ways there needs to be synthesis of all three types of approaches to create a model which both explains and informs practice; allows for critical thinking learning objectives to be realised, and for tools and pedagogies to be integrated within any particular lesson.

In the next blog post I will try to unpack how I believe this might be achieved and to begin to suggest a tentative framework which meets these requirements.

 

Bibliography

Anderson, L.W., Krathwohl, D.R., Airasian, P.W., Cruikshank, K.A., Mayer, R.E., Pintrich, P.R., Raths, J., Wittrock, M.C. (2001). A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. New York: Pearson, Allyn & Bacon.

Bloom, B.S. (Ed.). Engelhart, M.D., Furst, E.J., Hill, W.H., Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.

Love, D. A. S. (2016). Any Tool Works If You Are Using The Language: The Role of Knowledge in ICT integration in a Johannesburg private school (Masters dissertation, School of Education, Faculty of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg).

Maton, K. (2014). Building powerful knowledge: The significance of semantic waves. In Knowledge and the Future of the Curriculum (pp. 181-197). Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Scriven, M & Paul, R, (2003), Defining Critical Thinking, http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/defining-critical-thinking/410, accessed 12/12/2016.

 

 

Coding & The Liberal Arts

DSC00155Up until the early 20th Century Latin formed the basis of the Liberal Arts curriculum, not because everyone would be a Latin scholar, but because it was seen as something which taught one to think, because it was a rigorous discipline requiring accuracy and ability to master a logical system. It formed an excellent indicator of academic potential, and thus persisted in the educational system well beyond its usefulness as a lingua franca. In the 1900s it was largely replaced by History as a preparation for public life, politics and the civil service.

I would argue that the decline of History, and of Latin, has left a crucial void in the Liberal Arts. In a sense it has robbed the Liberal Arts of their importance in the overall scheme of things. When the main purpose of Education was to fuel the bureaucracy of the empire, the need was for individuals possessing the skills to administer vast tracts of foreign soil, far from home with a sense of duty and the ability to remain unflappable under enormous pressure. The study of Latin or History provided a sense of place and importance – it underlined the belief in the superiority of Western culture, and gave the colonial bureaucrat, trained at Harrow or Eton, a sense of their moral and cosmic worth.

The relativism and post-modernism of the last hundred years, along with the decline of the empire, has stripped away all sense of worth and purpose, and left only naked materialism. In Education, the Liberal Arts have been eaten away by the ascendency of Mathematics and Science. Now, I have nothing against the Sciences – they are absolutely vital in any education, but I believe that critical thinking needs a balance, a grounding in the Arts. I’ve just seen some research suggesting that good English teaching improves Mathematical ability. And I have a gut feeling that music is also vital. Drama too – hell, all the Arts are important, but I can’t help feeling that something is missing at the core of our curriculum: a humanistic study which is grounded in rigour and trains critical thinking.

Those of you who are still with me will be surprised now to hear that I am going to suggest that coding, computer programming fills this void. Is coding an Art? Surely it should be lumped with the Sciences. How can it fill that need for a rigorous study which simultaneously fuels a sense of moral worth and makes sense of the Universe? It is undoubtedly rigorous, and I would argue is an excellent training ground for rigorous thinking, so vital for critical thought. There is nothing quite as exacting or as unforgiving as a computer program. One comma out of place, a forgotten semi-colon can negate an entire endeavour. Programmers need to be able to conceive of the purpose and function of a program, design its outline and implement its details in ways which enhance user experience and maximise functionality. Game design, in particular, needs to engage on many levels at the interface between humans and machine. In a sense, like music, it combines creativity with mathematical precision.

I have a sense that the 21st Century is going to be all about how we manage our relationship with machines. The factories of the Industrial Age were one kind of machine, but the digital interfaces of the Information Age are quite another, and I have a feeling that the ability to hack one’s machines is what will define our ability to rise above mere consumerism. What the digital natives of the digital generation seem to lack is that ability to hack their machines. When I think back to what I did with my first computer, a ZX Spectrum, it involved almost only programming! There was precious little else you could do with it. Kids today experience computers almost entirely as platforms for products they download. Very little is done even to tweak these programs. Computing has become an act of consumption first and foremost.

We have a duty to teach kids to code so that people have the ability to act as agents of their own destiny in an increasingly complex digital world. Coding is therefore a humanistic project, perhaps the most vital expression of our humanity in a world where we are relying on our machines more and more.

What should replace History at the core of the Liberal Arts curriculum? Why, coding of course!

 
 
%d bloggers like this: