Enlightening Minds: Preparing Critical Thinkers for Life After High School
Post written by Karen McDaniels, an associate regional executive director for the Florida Department of Education where she provides literacy support to the most struggling schools in the South Florida area. Connect with McDaniels by e-mail at Karen.firstname.lastname@example.org. This post was originally featured in ASCD Express.
One of the greatest joys for parents is to see their child graduate from high school and head off to college. However, realizing their child's first semester of college is provisional and may consist of remedial courses may rob a parent of their joy, not to mention their dollars. Unfortunately, for many high school graduates, remediation, at least, is the short-term reality: "One out of every three college freshman in four-year institutions needs remedial classes" (Goldman, House, & Livingston, 2011, p.3). As K–12 educators, we have an obligation to adequately prepare students to meet the demands of college upon entering. High schools especially must create a scholarly climate where sophisticated thinking is routinely stimulated through reading, writing, and discussion.
Taking on Complex Texts
The Common Core State Standards movement is one attempt to build a robust set of standards that focus on what students need to meet the intellectual challenges of college and careers. The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts can help educators begin to reevaluate the range of texts they give their students. Texts that are qualitatively complex, contain varied sentence structures with implied or ambiguous meanings, and have content area–specific purposes automatically lend themselves to critical thinking. Complex texts aid in critical thinking by providing a challenge to students and opportunities for them to grapple with meaning and make their own discoveries. When teachers allow students to read texts with complex language and themes, it can help prepare them for college and careers.
For example, Robert Cornfield's essay "This Tree Still Grows in Brooklyn" is a complex text. His essay reviews Betty Smith's novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and uses words that are so deceptively strung together and entangled with unfamiliar allusions that students must read and reread to understand the comparisons being made to determine the author's stance on the novel. Mastering these skills, for close reading or deeper understanding, is a precursor for both college and career success. Teachers need to design tasks that foster students' deeper interaction with more challenging texts and promote student discussion about them.
The Art of Questioning
Good questions not only take students back to a text and encourage close reading, but also promote discussions of the learning among peers. This can easily be achieved when teachers "use questioning to bring forward already held ideas in the students' minds, to make them more aware and cognizant of the learning and understanding that has occurred" (Copeland, 2005, p.196). Both teachers and students should pose questions that are open-ended, probe for deeper meaning, invite further exploration, and have more than one "correct" answer. When teachers reduce students to offering "correct" answers all the time, students "have less and less time to work on the critical and creative thinking skills that will ultimately facilitate their growth and development into productive, responsible citizens" (Copeland, 2005, p. 115).
Critical and creative thinking happens with questions like the following that address causality, inference, or prediction: How do the similarities between James and Alfred contribute to the story's conflict? How could the Federal Reserve's decision to shrink the money supply in the United States contribute to a moral decline on society? Reading complex texts and asking questions of this kind can cultivate both academic rigor and stimulating conversations.
Learning conversations, prompted by good questioning, make available different angles with which to view information presented in text. "Collaboration with peers offers students the opportunity to further clarify their understanding of complex text," point out Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey (2012, p. 7). Rigorous forums of classroom conversations, sometimes called concentric circles, Socratic circles, or Socratic seminars, also serve to build background knowledge and fill in any gaps that students may initially have on a topic. Furthermore, students may come to a different or fuller understanding of the themes and ideas after a peer-response dialogue that exposes them to multiple perspectives. Such conversations help teachers provide students a springboard for their writing, as students' thoughts and ideas may strengthen or even evolve as they talk. Colleges and employers expect students to be able to design and build eloquent written pieces that demonstrate not only a thorough understanding of text, but also a command of English language usage. This seemingly obvious demand of high school graduates apparently isn't being satisfied, as "[m]any U.S. employers report they cannot find enough employees who possess the basic skills necessary for the jobs they want to fill" (Goldman, House, & Livingston, 2011, p. 3).
To help students fulfill the destiny of college or a career, it is imperative that schools create a productive, intellectual ambiance where students get practice in "working collaboratively to solve problems, making decisions, and determining meaning" (Copeland, 2005, p. 119). Designing and delivering lessons using complex texts and asking good questions serve as a catalyst for meaningful conversations and a foundation with which to build strong thinking and writing. Our students deserve to be set up for success, regardless of the route they decide to travel after high school.
Copeland, G. (2005). Socratic circles: Fostering critical and creative thinking in middle and high school. Portland, OR: Stenhouse Publishers.
Fisher, D., &; Frey, N. (2012). Engaging the adolescent learner: Text complexity and close readings. Newark, DE: International Reading Association. Retrieved from http://www.reading.org/Libraries/Members_Only/Fisher_and_Frey_-_Text_Complexity_-_January_2012.pdf
Goldman, J., House, G., & Livingston, J. (2011). A high school for the 21st Century. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Research Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.mcgraw-hill.com/user-media/high-school-for-the-21st-century.pdf