Boston Public Schools: Critical Thinking

This post is part of a series about the workshop presentations delivered at the 2018 ACT Skills Summit.

Critical Thinking involves applying, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion.

Dr. Amalio Nieves, the Assistant Superintendent of Social Emotional Learning and Wellness at Boston Public Schools, and Brooke Childs, Assistant Director of Literacy at Boston Public Schools, presented to session attendees on the importance of reflection and cognitively demanding tasks in student learning and development. The presenters emphasized the benefits of struggle in learning based on researcher Zaretta Hammond’s concept of the “Learning Pit,” where students must go through the pit of struggle to get to the other side. This was illustrated in a video of Hammond, where she elaborates on how active learners already have the tools to learn, and if educators alleviate the cognitive demand of tasks to jump in and “rescue” their students, the students will be denied the opportunity to use and develop those skills through productive struggle.

Nieves and Childs then led the group in activities to demonstrate different styles or protocols of dialogue and reflection that educators could lead with their students to facilitate effective reflection and student conversation. Examples of possible protocols that were suggested are “Back to back / Face to Face” protocol, whereby students reflect while sitting or standing back to back, and then share their thoughts while sitting or standing face to face, and “Inner circle / Outer circle” protocol, in which an educator asks the students in the inner circle to share out while the other students listen to what other students are learning.

Another aspect of reflection and dialogue that the presenters emphasized throughout the session is the importance of Culturally and Linguistically Sustaining Practices and to be aware of students’ varying backgrounds as you approach these matters. They pointed out that many cultures are collectivist in nature, while white American culture is often individualistic, which can result in differences in perspective between students or between educators and students that educators should be aware of.

The presenters left session attendees with steps for planning powerful practices that allow for suitable cognitively demanding tasks and critical thinking:

  1. Establish one or more protocols for dialogue and reflection that you use regularly with your students. For each activity, take time to consider which will be most effective for what you are doing.
  2. Ask high-order thinking questions and open-ended questions. Plan your questions in advance for every activity.
  3. Anticipate struggles and misconceptions, and offer students tools to overcome these independently, rather than scaffolding to “rescue” them.
    • Consider questions and prompts you do NOT want to ask or give your students. Refraining from rescuing students is difficult and counterintuitive for many educators; doing so takes reflection and self-education on the part of the educator.

Materials from this session as well as the rest of the sessions from the 2018 ACT Skills Summit can be found here.