Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Encouraging Critical Thinking in Our Young Learners

We have all heard the emphasis on rigor and critical thinking that has been taking center stage the past few years. Our district is actually doing a week of pre-service this year called the "Rigor Institute"--we'll see what that entails. :) A question I get quite often is, how can you expect that from the young kiddos-they're just 5 years old?

Well, I'll tell you. It's not easy, but it certainly can be done. Most students enter Pre-K and K with a clean slate academically. Even if they know the basics like letters and numbers, many have never before been asked to think critically. Believe me, when I do my first few read-alouds and I ask my higher level questions I hear crickets! :) They have to be taught how to think.

How do we do this?

1) Continue to ask those higher level questions-I think most of us do this already and it sounds easy right. Sometimes it's not, especially if you are reading a book without much meat to it-that's why I choose to use real literature over our reading adoption in most cases. Ask how the ending could have been different? Was what the character did right? If this wouldn't have happened, how would it have changed the story (if Cinderella hadn't lost her shoe, for example). 

Open-ended question: What did we learn from Martin Luther King, Jr?

2) Let them discuss their opinions. Day one of Kindergarten most kids' opinions are whatever you want to hear. They look to you for how to respond. Give them discussion points like: should girls be allowed to play football? What's more important your brain or your heart? Make sure they understand that it doesn't matter what their opinion is if they can back it up with an argument. Lots of experiences with this and they will surprise you at the thinking they do.

3) Help them make connections. We had already read Where the Wild Things Are this year and I was reading Skippyjon Jones to them and realized the characters were somewhat similar in that they both use their imaginations to go to a different world. When they don't make that connection themselves, I lead them there or model for them what that looks like.

Toto from the Wizard of Oz
4) Let them apply what they are learning in different ways. Many people shy away from projects with young kids because it's messy and they often don't know how to cut correctly or just use a little bit of glue. This process allows them to really think about what they are learning. When we make a Dr. Seuss-like character out of clay or create a papier-mache peach echoing the one in James and the Giant Peach-it helps them be able to think deeply about these concepts.
Another way to make a family tree
Rainforest dioramas

5) Don't give up! We do a divergent art activity (where you give them a line or squiggle or cut-out and they use it to create an object) the 1st week of school. I will usually start out with something like a squiggly line. I get back 25 snakes-they turned the line into a snake. I model for them what outside the box thinking would look like-maybe you see it as a strand of hair on a head, maybe a wave in the ocean, turn the shape-what do you see? And each time we do the activity I get more and more creative answers. Are some of them still going to make a snake? Absolutely, but you will reach others who will really put thought into an original answer-and that's the rewarding part.

6) Encourage questions! I know if you are trying to get through a lesson mammals and they start asking about bats, which leads to vampires, which leads to getting shots from the doctor, etc., etc. you can feel like you aren't getting accomplished what you are supposed to be. But that means they are thinking! Sometimes I will have them write questions after I read a story-what didn't the author tell us? What would you still like to know? 

We have to give them opportunities to really learn how to think critically. It doesn't happen overnight, but when it does...those are the moments you live for! :)


  1. It's obvious that your kids do a lot of thinking. Great ideas.
    ❀ Tammy
    Forever in First

  2. These are great ideas to get kids thinking. Thanks for sharing them.
    First Grade Found Me

  3. Your students are so lucky! How do you encourage those students who seem to follow/do what their classmates do?

    1. Thank you and what a great question! That definitely happens. You learn pretty quickly you can't even compliment an answer out loud because then that's what everyone writes. There are good books like "Unique Monique" and "Woolbur" that I start reading the 1st week of school, encouraging them to do their own thing. We actually have discussions regularly on why it's good to be different and translate that to their answers. But it definitely does still happen.