Critical Thinking for Parents and Teachers

The human brain works more efficiently when current thoughts can be filed or connected to a well-established, more permanent structure. One problem of the current education system is the lack of said structure for students to connect surface learning to deeper learning, which allows transfer learning to occur. John Hattie’s learning triangle is a fantastic example of a filing cabinet for much of education and certainly for the critical thinking article you are about to read. This triangle provides a structure for students to move from surface learning, deep learning, and finally transfer learning, which is essential for critical thinking to occur.

Critical thinking resides almost entirely inside deep and transfer learning. Critical thinking depends on remembered surface learning, which is basically the facts included in every academic discipline. Crammed/forgotten surface learning is useless for critical thinking. An April 29, 2013 internet post states “critical thinking occurs when students are analyzing, evaluating, interpreting or synthesizing information and apply creative thoughts to form an argument, solve a problem, or reach a conclusion.” Most current and former students would agree that too little critical thinking occurs in schools. Can parents and teachers partner together to initiate an effective solution?

Teachers: During the first week of school, provide students with a list of essential surface learning concepts that students are expected to remember. Students are told that all graded and non-graded assessments of surface learning will come only from the provided list. Trivia cannot be on the list- only what is essential.

Parents: Explain that being educated is of far more value than high grades. Both are fine, but if you have to choose, choose being educated. Cramming and forgetting is for grades. Some of what students cram is essential and some is trivia. Students cannot easily tell the difference, so they label it all trivia. In classrooms where teachers do not delineate the essential content to be placed into long-term memory, parents can ask their children to write down 3-5 essential surface learning concepts for each chapter or unit. Remembering and understanding these is crucial for critical thinking. File these 3-5 essentials. For children determined to have straight A’s, tell them they must remember the essentials, but they have permission to cram/forget the trivia for their grades.

Teachers: Ask deep questions on a regular basis that require students to apply the essential surface learning. The first quarter of the year ask deep questions from prior years’ surface learning. You do not need a critical thinking program. What you need are questions that come from the surroundings – physical and current events. An elementary math example is, “How much did the sidewalk cost that runs between the street and office? I suggest the outline for student reporting always be: (1) Problem, (2) Answer, and (3) Process used to solve problem. Further, I suggest assigning 2-3 students the problem so arguments will occur that need to be solved for a satisfactory solution.

Parents: This deep learning suggestion requires a partnership with the teacher. Amazing results will occur. Here’s the parent request: We want to be your learning partner this year. When work is to be completed at home, please communicate what you want students to learn. Sometimes we will have our son/daughter complete the assignments as designed. However, we want the flexibility to have our son/daughter prove to you he/she learned the content using a different method. Thanks.”

Teachers and Parents: Deep learning is composed of both analysis and synthesis. Usually when people think of going deep they think of analysis, as with a MOHS surgery. We want and need analytical thinking students who always want to learn more about certain topics of interest. However, synthesis is equally as deep. Architecture comes to mind. The architect must synthesize knowledge of weather, angle of the sun, views of people around the construction, paint color and reflection, lighting, glare, use of local materials, snow load and so on. Synthesis often determines the success of the new structure.

Teachers: At the top of Hattie’s triangle is transfer learning. When leading classroom discussions ask, “Has anybody learned something similar from another class? How about someplace outside of school?” This encourages transfer learning. When I drew Hattie’s triangle on the whiteboard of a middle school classroom, I was amazed that the total attention was on transfer learning with students so eager to share their transfer learning between other classrooms and this history class. Critical thinking involves transfer learning as well as analysis and synthesis.

Parents: Asking your children what they learned today does not invite children to think critically. Instead ask, “What did your teacher teach you today?” The answers can be enough information to generate discussion on out-of-school similarities as you assist with the transfer learning process.

Keep Hattie’s triangle in mind. The aim is not to memorize and forget trivial knowledge. The aim is to remember essential surface learning AND then apply this knowledge to solve problems.

Lee Jenkins, Ph.D. is author of How to Create a Perfect School and a global keynote speaker. His website is LBellJ.com. Jack Canfield’s interview of Lee, on his website, about his Perfect book is of particular interest.