In this current age of standardized testing, we often do not give students a chance to be creative. Our focus is on having the right answer, and we – the teacher – know what that right answer is. However, in real life, we rarely know what the real answer is, so why are we setting our students up for failure in this way? I know what you’re saying – “Because they have to pass the test Heidi – or it could be my job.” Well, I’m going to stay out of the politics of this, but I would like to address some ways we can build in creativity and critical thinking, while still teaching what is needed for students to “pass the test”.
1. Let them illustrate. In the upper grades and sometimes even the lower grades, we often focus so hard on writing, that we leave illustrating out all together, because it’s “just” drawing. Every once in awhile – reverse this thinking. Let students illustrate first – and use it as a brainstorming tool. Hand your students a blank piece of paper, give them a topic and an entire writing period (30 to 40 minutes) to draw a picture of that topic. Tell students they have to keep working for the entire time, adding as many details as possible. Then, when it comes time to write, use all these visual details they came up with to add depth and detail to their writing.
2. Let them be the teacher. We know first hand how much creativity and critical thinking it takes to be a teacher. Why not give the kids a chance at this type of thinking? Let students write their test questions for those awful reading passages – or whatever else they are reading. (Grab a pre-made sheet for this from my TPT store.) Have students write their own word problems, and challenge other students in the class to answer them. Give them a chance to create the review game for centers. By being the “teacher” they will look at their curriculum and their thinking in a whole new way.
3. Challenge them to a puzzle. Everything you teach can be put into a puzzle of some kind. I use puzzles constantly in my room (to see how – check out my guest blog post on Mrs. Miner’s Monkey Business April 17th). My students use jigsaw puzzles, self correcting puzzles and critical thinking puzzles. (Grab a template for self correcting puzzles from my TPT store and a multiplication tiling puzzle for FREE.)
4. Use projects. Project based learning always give students the freedom to be more creative and think in new, critically different ways. Cover all those science and social studies topics with project matrixes that allow students to choose their own way to express what they have learned. Let’s face it, kids would rather create an “interview” of a famous person than write a report about that person – and how much more knowledge are they showing if they have to add personality and style to their project? (Grab a matrix for Black History Projects from my TPT store.)
We often think of thinking as something kids do, but not necessarily something we teach. However, in my experience I have found that kids who “think” without us teaching them how are being taught to “think” at home or elsewhere. Critical thinking skills are so important that I firmly believe that we should include critical thinking skills in our curriculum. Here are 10 easy ways to teach critical thinking.
1. Model Thinking – A lot of times I think teachers (myself included) forget that students can’t read what goes on inside of our mind. We show students how we do something, without telling them why we’re doing it, because we know in our minds why we’re doing it, so we forget in their minds they don’t know why. Instead, when we show students how to work through a math problem or how to sound out a hard word, we need be saying things like “I know that 2 + 12 = 14, but I also know that 14 has a ten’s place, so I can’t put the whole number in the one’s place.” or “I know that a and e are both vowels, so when they are next to each other, I can only hear the first one, but it will have to be a long vowel because there are two vowels.”
2. Make them Explain their Thinking – I have a poster in my classroom that says “If You Don’t Know Why, You Don’t Know the Answer.” (Click on it to download it FREE from Google Docs.) I started telling my students this when I taught 3rd grade and we were preparing for that lovely standardized test. We would go over the test prep materials, and I would ask them “What is the answer to number 12?” They would answer “C” and I would ask them “Why?” They could rarely answer, so we decided as a class that if you couldn’t answer Why, it meant you had just guessed, and that wasn’t acceptable. From that point on, I have always asked my students to justify their thinking.
3. Let them Tell their Friends the Answer – We often thing that students who tell the answer are “cheating”. In my class, we differentiate between “telling” and “explaining”. If they can explain to their friend why that is the answer, and it’s group work time (not a test), then they are allowed to give each other the answers. Not only does this get the “teller” to think harder about what they did, but it also gives the receiving student another modeled thinking! (It’s also a great way to get ELL’s to use all that vocabulary you’re pushing into them!)
4. Play Games – Strategy games are wonderful for building thinking skills. Games like Chess, Monopoly and Risk are obvious choices, but games like Battleship and Scrabble have a lot of strategy to them too, and they can reinforce math and literacy concepts. (Check out my Friday Game Nights for ways to use games in your classroom.)
5. Puzzle Power– I have 2 different puzzle centers in my puzzle rotation, and I’m contemplating how I can add a third! My students do math puzzles and reading puzzles. In addition to supporting the math and literacy standards we are working on, students are using critical thinking skills to put the puzzle together – and they think they’re just having fun!
6. Critical Thinking Corner – I know many teachers use a Busy Box for early finishers. Another take on this is to have Critical Thinking Corner, which is just a table in a corner with critical thinking puzzles and games that they can visit when they have successfully completed their assigned work. I stock mine with mazes, Rubik’s Cubes, Tactile Brain Teaser Puzzles and 9 Pieces Square Puzzles.
7. Encourage Visual Thinking – Most kids love to draw, and often it is easier for them to describe their thinking with pictures, rather than words. This technique is used for primary students and English Language Learners a lot, but could be a real benefit to all students. When you are working on vocabulary words or problem solving, encourage students to make that picture on paper that they see in their mind.
8. It’s Okay to Have the Wrong Answer – Scientists know that it takes a lot of wrong answers to get the right answer. Kids often get discouraged after one wrong answer, so rather than saying “You got it wrong.”, try saying “Not the right answer, but good thinking. Let’s think about it another way.”
9. Count the Possibilities– How many representations are there for the number 6? (six, 6, XXXXXX, sieze, ——) Encourage students to look at all the ways they can represent numbers, words, etc. Each new way to see something is a new way to think about it.
10. Find the Connections – When you connect what you are learning to something you already know, you remember it better, but you also find a new way to think about both things that are connected. Connections are also a form of analogy, which is a key type of critical thinking. So, encourage students to find something that is similar to key vocabulary, key math facts, events from a story etc.
P.S. I write a Top 10 post every week. Here are some past Top 10 posts: Top 10 Board Games for MathTop 10 Toys I Steal From My Kids, Top 10 Educational Toys, Top 10 Educational Movies, and Top 10 Indoor Recess Ideas. Check back each Sunday or Monday for more Top 10 Lists.