Critical Thinking-From Buzzword to Action: How One School Defined Thinking Skills as the Bedrock for Stem

By Kraft, Jesse; Schmiesing, Diana et al. | The Elementary STEM Journal, May 2016 | Go to article overview

Critical Thinking-From Buzzword to Action: How One School Defined Thinking Skills as the Bedrock for Stem


Kraft, Jesse, Schmiesing, Diana, Phillips, Sarah, The Elementary STEM Journal


Critical thinking is a term that is thrown around a lot in education. Read the description for any new program or product, especially if there's a STEM label on it, and you'll likely find that it "promotes critical thinking!" Read through the vision or mission statements of schools or entire school systems, and you'll likely find that many name critical thinking skills as one of their most important outcomes for students. But what are critical thinking skills, exactly?

Defining this became very important for us as we began the work of building our STEM program at Providence Elementary School. We'd read lots of research from the best minds in education regarding the future of today's students. They'd be inheriting a world we cannot accurately predict. The existing curricula we were required to deliver was limited when it came to promoting higher

level thinking skills, at least on the surface. After all, was the act of simply extending the science curriculum with extra experiments or enriching the math standards with activities from the next grade level going to result in students becoming better thinkers?

We knew we had to do more than that. We were in the process of creating our engineering-themed STEM program. We'd studied Dr.

Tony Wagner's work and determined that his list of Competencies for the 21st Century (Providence Elementary School Innovator Skills) would be the unifying theme for our program:

* Critical Thinking & Problem Solving

* Collaboration across Networks & Leading by Influence

* Agility & Adaptability

* Initiative & Entrepreneurialism

* Effective Oral & Written Communication

* Accessing & Analyzing Information

* Curiosity & Imagination

This provided us with a powerful set of outcomes for our program. All engineering building/design challenges for our students would be conceived with the purpose of promoting these skills. When students built a suspension bridge, earthquake-proof structure, or functional hand-pollinator, they'd learn a lot about physics, tension, stability, plant structure and more. However, the true takeaway from every challenge would be the innovator skills. The purpose was clear, but one of the Innovator Skills still felt somewhat vague: critical thinking.

the meaning of critical thinking

If we weren't clear on what was meant by critical thinking, then the term is nothing more than a buzzword. There are lots of definitions out there. We decided to select one and stick with it. We used the work of Derek Cabrera and Laura Colosi to arrive at our definition. At Providence, critical thinking meant thinking deeply so that the thinker could make distinctions between ideas, find relationships among them, realize where the parts of an idea lived within a system (or what whole idea it is a part of), and/or take various perspectives to better understand different points of view of the idea. Simply put, Cabrera's/Colosi's approach is a way to organize one's thinking. This is but one methodology for thinking at high levels, and it appealed to us because of the clarity it brought to the concept of critical thinking. Now teachers at our school could unpack critical thinking with common language. Students could use this language of distinctions, systems, relationships, and perspectives to deepen and explain their thinking. Most importantly, the elements of critical thinking were transferrable--students, if effectively taught to use critical thinking skills, could apply them to any idea in any school subject and in any real-life setting.

We knew that colleagues at other schools were using or developing other definitions for critical thinking. That's fine. What's most important is that each school or organization is clear about what it means. Only then can teachers teach thinking skills explicitly and consciously promote them through their activities. …

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