Saturday, July 21, 2012

Beginning my action research





I want to start with a little anecdote. I am currently spending a month in Singapore. The days have been easy, lazy. The other day, I was trying to open a bottle of Merlot with a bottle opener. I struggled for almost half an hour. Sweating, cussing. The house keeper, an Indian lady, who has never opened a bottle of wine before, told me to leave the bottler opener alone, and twist the cap. She had applied what I didn't: critical thinking skills.

I am an IB educator and teach primary year children. I am currently teaching 4 th grade students. ( I know! You must be saying, "Those poor kids!"). Our school follows the inquiry method of teaching. The students are encouraged to become independent learners; they are also expected to exhibit ten learner profiles: Inquirer, Thinker, Communicator, Balanced, Principled, Risk Taker, Leader, Steward , Reflective, and Open-Minded by the end of the primary year program. These profiles are embedded into our school’s curriculum.

My students mostly belong to the Ismaili community. They come from the middle class section of society, though there are a few students who either come from very wealthy families or are on a scholarship. One thing unites these children. They struggle with the English language. Their reading and writing skills are well below the expected grade level standards. In spite of this drawback,  these students are expected to become diploma students in the IB program. This is a rigorous program which requires students to be very fluent in the English language; it also requires them to be independent and critical  thinkers who will serve their community and contribute to global issues pertaining to the 21 st century.

Our school has currently completed one year of operation. The students come from traditional Indian schools where rote learning seems to be the norm. Consequently, when I observe these children’s behavior in the classroom, they appear to be very passive learners. They have been taught to reply only when spoken to. They are also reluctant to participate in animated discussions where they can freely air their doubts, or expressed their opinion. They have not been exposed to the inquiry method of teaching. Parents also appear unsettled by the change in the manner of teaching in our school. They constantly ask for text books. They expect exercise books to be filled with writing.

My wondering focuses on critical thinking skills. In the past, I have observed how my students have picked up a lot of information about a topic; however, by the end of the school year, they have been unable to retain concepts or apply them in real-life contexts. By teaching them how to think critically, they will be better able to retain, synthesize, and apply this information.  The goal of education is to move pupils toward being expert learners who are able to transfer skills. (Bransford, et al, 1999). I envision a classroom where my students look at a problem from multiple perspectives and solve it efficiently and creatively. As a teacher, I hope to equip them with different learning skills and strategies that will create expert learners.

Based on this scenario, my action research wondering is : How can I enable my students to become critical thinkers in order to help them retain, synthesize, and apply information in such a way as to solve real-life problems? By the end of my academic year, I hope to see a change in my students. It will certainly be an interesting learning journey.


Literature Review (Part B)

Today, students must be equipped with critical thinking skills in order to help them cope with the complexities of an ever-changing world. In the past, especially during the age of industrialization, children were expected to rote learn without questioning their instructors. They would consequently be enrolled in jobs which were generally mundane in nature. The job scenario has since drastically changed; employees are expected to be creative and proactive problem solvers.

The present paper addresses the nature of critical thinking and also looks at how critical thinking skills can be incorporated into the school’s curriculum. Finally, it looks at teachers’ attitudes towards critical thinking.

Critically thinking skills can be traced back as far as 2,500 years. Socrates took extreme pleasure in questioning figures of authority whose proclamations were often ambiguous, self-contradictory, lacked adequate evidence, or was simply empty rhetoric.(Paul, Elder, Bartell, 1997). According to Elder (2007), critical thinking is “self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way.” Students who can question content and people without external motivation; argue a point using sound reasoning skills rather than accept things at face value while remaining unbiased throughout the process, can thus be described as critical thinkers.

The following three articles address how educators can successfully incorporate critical thinking skills into their daily curriculum. As per a study conducted by McBain (2011), one of the main reasons students are poor at critical thinking is due to the fact that they are unable to understand the language of the text. The lack of appropriate and adequate vocabulary hinders their ability to express themselves. McBain stresses the need for schools to allow students enough opportunity to observe, imitate, and practice critical thinking skills. He also refers to how equipping children with  critical thinking skills better prepares them for adult life, and improves their academic scores. The article also posits the use of Blooms (1950) higher order thinking skills: students were exposed to topic-related questions which encouraged them to answer questions of increasing complexity. From basic understanding and comprehension of data, students were encouraged to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate data. The teacher however, first modeled the skill, then scaffolded the students’ learning. The tasks started with fairly low levels of complexity, and then gradually moved on to a more demanding thinking skills. While this article focuses on the gradual complexity of questioning skills, the next article looks more closely at a specific visual strategy which can enhance students’ critical thinking skills.




In a research article by Khodadady, Ghanizadeh (2011), they looked at the impact of concept-mapping as a post-reading strategy on ESL students.  The students’ proficiency level had been carefully assessed prior to the onset of the experiment. During the experiment, students were asked to read a passage and then had to fill up a concept map. A concept map is like a graphic organizer. It comprises of boxes where concepts are filled in. Each box is connected with another with an arrow which needs to be labeled in order to show a clear and sequential flow of thought. As stressed in this article, concepts maps have  inherent qualities: they enable students to focus on the main point of a text; the hierarchical nature of the tool, which allows students to separate main ideas form minor ones; and the visual aspect involved in the process, which helps students to clearly see different ideas which can be sorted and differentiated. The visual nature of concept maps also allows students to visualize abstract ideas in more concrete terms. Introduction of social media along with the rapid expansion of information of reliable and non-reliable sources of information, has dramatically affected the way students learn today. For students to be able to evaluate, analyze and choose correct and appropriate information is a critical requirement.

In the final article of this research paper, Chee, Oo (2012) postulate the need for teachers to develop reflective skills. This in turn will help them become critical thinkers. This can then help them improve the way they look at how students can become better critical thinkers.  According to their study, they felt that not much research had been done on reflective thinking and its link to critical thinking. Teachers did not dwell upon critical thinking skills as they had very little time to reflect on their own teaching practices. As a result, students’ level of thinking suffered. According to the article, reflective thinking allowed learners to recognize what they knew, needed to know and how to bridge the gap. ( p.168). The study focused on how teachers perceive themselves as critical thinkers. A study was conducted, where teachers had to complete a survey which informed the researches on 3 areas: Their ability to express themselves; how they were developing life-long learning skills; their beliefs about their self and how proficient they were at what they did. Some of the results were startling. Only 1 % of the teachers strongly believed that they could learn from their mistakes. 19% were more concerned about doing their job rather than analyzing students’  feedback. Though teachers showed a willingness to learn from their mistakes, it seemed they did not value students’ feedback and preferred receiving external corrective measures from supervisors. Reflective analysis was used more to improve their teaching strategies rather than enhance student learning. Where McBain’s article stressed on the importance of modeling and encouraging critical thinking skills,  the current article reveals how many teachers were less concerned about students’ critical thinking skills.

Critical thinking skills are crucial for students in order to help them become future problem solvers. The complex and ever changing needs of our work force demands this. Using strategies such as concept mapping and similar graphic organizers can help teachers and students sort and connect important concepts. Regular use of  Blooms’ taxonomy in the classroom can help students achieve a higher level of thinking. What is still of great concern however, is the attitude of many teachers. More priority seems to be given to teacher performance and self- improvement than student learning. How can teachers depend less on external feedback from their supervisors and rely more on reflective practices? How can teachers learn to shift their approach from teaching to learning in order to  their classrooms into a more rich and exciting environment?




Revised Wondering (Part C)

         My initial wondering was: How can I encourage my students to think critically and incorporate this into their classroom discussions? After reading more on the subject of critical thinking skills this past week, I would like to revise my wondering:

How does teaching critical thinking skills impact student learning and help me become a more reflective practitioner? In order to find out the answer to this question, I would need to read more about critical thinking; I would like to read several scholarly articles on what strategies educators use in order to effectively teach students critical thinking skills. Based on my readings, I will create a list of criteria which will help me assess critical thinking skills in my students. Once I start using these strategies in the classroom, I would like to observe whether the students are showing any improvement based on the criteria I have established. Through reflective practice, (I will seek the help of a colleague, or video tape a lesson in order to assess it), I will note where I can improve upon my teaching strategies.

I feel it is really important to have a clear picture of the outcome I wish to achieve. By the end of this inquiry, I would like my students to be more comfortable participating in discussions; I would like them to be able to argue a point using evidence from the text. Most challenging of all, I would like them to be able to apply these skills in different subject areas.


Reflection













References

Bloom. B. (1959) Blooms Taxonomy. http://www.socialstudies.org/positions/powerful

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (1999). How people learn. Washington, DC:
National Academy Press.

Choy, S. Chee, and Pou San Oo. "Reflective Teaching and Teaching Practices: A Precursor to Critical Thinkiing in the Classroom." International Journal of Instruction. N.p., Jan. 2012. Web. .


Khodadady,E., Ghanizadeh, A.(2011, December). The impact of concept mapping on ESL learners’ critical thinking ability. Vol 4, No. 4.

McBain, R. (2011) How High Can Students Think? A Study Of Students’ Cognitive Levels Using Blooms Taxonomy In Soicial Studies.

Paul,R., Elder, L., Bartell, T.(1997, March). The Critical Thinking Community. Retrieved from http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/a-brief-history-of-the-idea-of-critical-thinking/408


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