Why you Might not be Teaching FOR or WITH Critical Thinking

I surveyed fifty teachers (mixed grade levels) with the question:  
 Are you familiar with the Universal Intellectual Standards?  

Here's what they said:
  • 42 out of 50:  I've never heard of them.
  • 7 out of 50:   We did something with those in my university courses, but not much else.
  • 1 out of 50:   Yes, I am familiar with them, but I don't explicitly teach or refer to them in my professional  setting.
  • 0 out of 50:   Yes, and I use them as the basis for my planning and practice.
  • 0 out of 50:   Yes, and I use them as the basis for my planning and practice as well as teach them to students/share them with others in my professional setting.
So what's the big deal with those Universal Intellectual Standards?

These standards must be applied to our thinking whenever we're "interested in checking the QUALITY of reasoning about a problem, issue, or situation. To think critically entails having command of these standards"[emphasis added] (Paul & Elder, 2013).

If we don't know what they are, we may or may not be teaching with critical thinking. If we're not teaching them to students, we may or may not be teaching for critical thinking.

In other words, we need these standards in order to figure out what the heck we're doing with critical thinking and how well we're doing it. Let's see what happens when we apply them to a typical language arts lesson. They are:


Let's take a look at a typical language arts lesson.  A student-inquiry discussion on Turgenev's short story, "The Watch," has a three-question focus. This is one of them:

          Why does David throw Alexey's watch into the river?

The question offered to students about "The Watch" will elicit some reasoning in the response. They will need to provide evidence for their claims. Sure.

But THAT is not the critical thinking. That is THINKING. To be fair, it is on the edge of analysis (higher-order thinking), but it is not, nor should we consider it, evidence of critical thinking.  That's where the problem lies.

Simply asking "how" and "why" questions or having students do stuff at the upper-level of Bloom's is NOT critical thinking.

Because the thinking stops.

Generally, we're asking these questions to determine that the student has (a) read the material and, possibly, (b) comprehended a significant event in the story. The student has not been asked to evaluate the quality of his/her response. That's because there's no meaningful purpose for the question. Thus, there's no reason to evaluate the quality of the response. Thus, there's no critical thinking to see here.  Move along.
Meaningless higher-order thinking is still meaningless. 

(Further, consider that if there is a generally-accepted or "correct" answer to the question, then the evaluation of the thinking is going to be severely limited.) 

Scriven and Paul (1987) provided this definition of the critical thinking process at the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking:
Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness. (as cited by Critical Thinking Foundation, 2013).

More simply put:
Critical thinking is the process of DOING all that upper-level Bloom's thinking stuff and figuring out HOW WELL we've done all that upper-level Bloom's thinking stuff, for a really good REASON--to guide belief and action.

So, it's NOT THIS:

It's THIS:

We have students doing some thinking. We just don't have them doing the critical thinking. And it's often without a clear purpose. We have them doing it, but the FOCUS of the learning is extremely basic. We might even have them doing some metacognition, but without a reason  to evaluate their thinking in order to guide their beliefs or actions, they will not embrace the principle.  They will simply complete the assignment.

That's where we're missing the mark. That's why students aren't transferring these skills. That's why they are doing so poorly on assessments designed to assess critical thinking.

There's no action or belief to consider with that question, above. I know that we have to make sure the students have read them material, but we can also move them forward and give them a reason to evaluate their thinking--a reason to bother with understanding why David throws Alexey's watch into the river and understanding for a reason.

So, where does the belief and action part fit in? To do that, we need to have students think LIKE...
like authors
like researchers
like philosophers  (thinking philosophically)                                                                  
like journalists (thinking journalistically)
like biographers
like historians (thinking historically)
like literary critics
like poets (thinking poetically)
What kind of person, in what field or discipline, wonders about the reasons that characters do what they do in a story? Imagine how a philosopher would attack the question about the watch. How would he/she evaluate the thinking behind the question and-- if determining the question had sufficient significance, relevance, and meaning-- the thinking behind his/her response?

That's potentially part of the problem, too, I think, is that the question was provided as opposed to developed by the student. And we haven't (necessarily) offered students the opportunity to evaluate the question posed. And if they question the question, what do we (often) tell them to do?
Just answer the question.
Is there a place for these kinds of questions about literature? I guess so. Maybe for a homework check? But not as the FOCUS for the learning.

If we want students to think critically, we're going to have to let them determine the questions because that's what journalists, biographers, poets, researchers, etc. usually DO.

Or at the very least, the questions offered need to be sufficiently open and broad so as to allow students to develop more meaningful ones from it.

Unless there is a reason for them to evaluate their thinking...why should they bother? And unless we're asking them to evaluate their thinking, they are not thinking critically.


Critical Thinking Foundation. (2013). Defining critical thinking. Retrieved from

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2013). Universal intellectual standards. Retrieved from https://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/universal-intellectual-standards/527

You'll find more strategies for teaching for and with critical thinking in our book, Transparent Teaching of Adolescents: Creating the Ideal Class for Students and Teachers. Some former students and I collaborated on the development of best strategies for secondary educators. Check us out!


How is a 59% F different from a 0% F?

The following guest blog post is from David Cook, who teaches 7th Grade Language Arts in Indiana.

In "No-Zero Policy: Students Don’t See Zeroes The Same Way Adults Do," Stocker makes a statement that I have heard from multiple teachers throughout my career (as a student and as a teacher). She states that when it comes to zeroes, "Oftentimes, teachers say they are teaching students that they can’t be late on assignments, that in the real world, if you’re late with work you get fired."

I have also heard fellow teachers say, "What are we supposed to do if they didn't even try? You can't give them points for something they didn't do!" Let me tell you what I did.

I've done away with zeroes.

                I no longer use them.

I refuse to give students anything less than a 59%.

There are several reasons why I no longer use zeroes. One reason is that I found myself taking some pleasure in assigning a zero to a student that hadn't done his/her work.

After reflection, I realized that I was not assessing students' work, but their behavior in getting the work done. My score did not reflect the assignment, and it also gave me an excuse to not have to follow up with the student to get the work completed.

I'll admit that I fell into this trap and didn't push my students to complete the assignment. Stocker reinforces this by saying, "We’re also undermining kids’ ‘stick-to-it-ness’ when we allow them to get zeroes. By allowing zeroes, we’re giving them the message that they don’t have to be persistent in their learning."

My next reason reflects reason number three in Stocker's article that zeroes can "make a student’s grade tank quickly." In my first year of teaching, an administrator came in to discuss the damaging effects of a zero.

If you look at a meter stick with 100 centimeters, you can see our outdated grading scale. From 100-59 represents our system of A-F. That means that 59-0 is ALL F.

The question was asked of us, "How is a 59% F different from a 0%F?"

Because if you look at it, all 59 points are an F. The letter grade doesn't change within the F scale. When we assign a 0, we are giving more like a Z aren't we? Pair that with the fact that it's nearly impossible to recover from a large scale 0, and that a 0 is not the motivator teachers think it is.

Stocker, Heather M. "No-Zero Policy: Students Don't See Zeroes The Same Way Adults Do." TeachThought. N.p., 10 Apr. 2013. Web. 04 June 2015.


Creativity has no Fear

In the Leadership Mindset course I developed, I ask participants to do something creative that they've never done before. They follow up with a reflection on what went well, what frustrated then,  and what seemed to impede or advance the process. It's a great exercise as they then apply their personal experiences to how they interact with students or others as leaders.

The logic, I figure, is that we need personally undergo the ins and outs of the creative process, if we're going to ask our students to do so. That way, we can offer more personalized strategies and suggestions.

Yet this exercise proves to be one of the more difficult for my teacher-participants. The biggest issue is time, of course, but even once they make the time, they are sometimes still uncertain. Often, they lean towards doing things for their students or in-line with instruction, somehow. There's a fear, there, about doing something for themselves or, more aptly, as themselves, not as teachers.

For those who do set out on a personal endeavor, the creative experience is far more rich and rewarding, so this is my attempt to motivate those participants, who might be thinking about doing something for their classes or students,to move towards more "me" thinking. To do something creatively as themselves.

In the spirit of walking the talk, here are my reflections on my current creative "thing": writing a screenplay.

It had been awhile since I tackled something new, but I was inspired a couple of months ago by one of my former students, Vincent Stalba, who is developing a web series: Job Interviews (very funny, donate if you can--I did).

Vince was kind enough to let me read the scripts, and as I was reading them, I thought...Now, that's something I've never done. That's something I have no idea how to do. How can I use this to help motivate my course participants? Gosh, how does a person even start this process?

First, in undertaking this project, I have been happily surprised to learn so many new things. This process has been one, great-big, long practice in research. From the more concrete stuff (how to format a spec script) to the more intangible topical stuff. I can only imagine that if the NSA is watching my online searches, they've probably flagged me for stuff like: chemical warfare, effects of neurotoxins, gas attacks, and floor-plan of the Pentagon. 

The plot of my screenplay entails quite a few details of things I just don't know about. For example, I have no idea what kinds of medical tools or machines a prison infirmary has. However, if my characters are going to be "in" a prison infirmary and have to do things, I need to know what's there. I find myself often stopping after about two typed lines of information to search for answers before I can continue.

(Thinking as a teacher, I find the experience of developing a screenplay would be a powerful one for students, perhaps in lieu of a research paper? Why not? After I'm done with this, I think I'll develop a unit on it.)

My research sometimes takes me to things that I'd just not considered. I have often had to stop writing for the day after seeing exceptionally moving images or documentaries. My eyes have been powerfully opened on a number of topics.

What has advanced my creative process is the fact that I have only a self-imposed deadline. As such, I've shared with participants that if they need additional time for this particular module component, they can certainly take as long as they'd like.

Far better for them to have a positive experience than just a "get it done" experience. (Can we do this for students? hmm.)

I haven't really been frustrated in this process (at least, not yet) as I'm well aware that what I'm doing is flexible and rough. I'm just enjoying the "doing" of it. I'm allowing my mind to imagine and reach without worrying about perfection.

I certainly don't have any notions of it ever going to the big screen, but it would really neat if it did, of course. I think being reasonable and realistic in my expectations also helps with the frustration. I will have someone in the business review it, though, and offer advice. We'll see.

The thing is: I'm not afraid. 

Is that the key to creativity? Not being afraid of the process, the outcome, or the judgment of either?

#thingstosharewithstudents  #thosewhocan  #creativityhasnofear

Check it out!


The Best Gift to Give Your Students

The best gift you can give to students is NOT your knowledge.  Knowledge is immediately available.

The best gift you can give is an explanation of how to ask questions in order to discern what knowledge is needed and how to evaluate the credibility of that information.

The best gift you can give is  an explanation of how to wield, use, and apply that knowledge for their personal betterment or the betterment of others.

The best gift you can give is the ability to create new things and share them, to communicate clearly and kindly with all whose paths you cross, and to embrace failure with interest and humility.

The best gift you can give your students is to be a learner.


Image retrieved April 15, 2015 from http://www.christmasmagazine.com/en/mc/wrap04.asp


Expanding Possibilities, Technology in the Classroom

Guest blog post: Pete Oleson teaches middle-school and high school Science courses. Thank you for sharing this with us!
I don’t really think in terms that isolate technology from everything else that I do. Technology is another tool in the toolbox. Nothing more and nothing less.

For instance, in my Advanced Placement Environmental Science class, we're working on a project on the ENSO or El Nino in which students had to develop a hypothesis on the effects of an El Nino. They then had to locate data to test the hypothesis.

This would have been very difficult to do even 10 years ago, but now the data is available quite readily. By the time we are done, students have learned how to access computers at NASA using the Giovanni interface and finding data to test it. They also know how to locate historical weather records from NOAA (the weather service). They generate maps which are then scaled and analyzed using an analytical tool from the National Institutes of Health called ImageJ.

What they study is completely self-chosen, and what I do is look at their work in progress and offer suggestions on where to look for information and how to present it. When they're done, they generate a lab report that I critique using the same criteria I used when I got research ready for publication when I was an Industrial scientist. They revise it at least twice until it’s “good enough."

The truth is-- in the end--these are all transferable skills. They’re not about just doing my lab. They are about asking questions, making hypotheses, accessing up-to-date information, using cutting edge tools to analyze it, and presenting it coherently. What profession doesn’t want those skills?

To be honest, the kids are screaming.

This is hard. This is not playing with computers. This is very much using them as tools. Students are mad that they don’t have a step-by-step do-this, do-that procedure. Sometimes, it’s important to give them that. That is indeed part of science.

But the other part--the part they’ve never done, the exciting part--is to really think about questions and how best to answer them. Can I justify what we’re doing? You bet I can. Maybe there are those who think it would be better to have a “canned lab” that an “educator” has put together using 10 year-old data where everything works, spend 90 minutes on it, and then declare a success.

I want students who are working someday and come up against a problem and start thinking “How can I find that?” and “You know, there is a tool that you can use to find measure that, and I can access it and use it right now on my desktop.”

Remember ImageJ? Today, we might use it to analyze sea surface temperatures or chlorophyll concentrations that NASA collected--not 10 years ago, but last week. But it’s a tool that is also used to measure growth of tumor cells in MRIs and other digital images of cancer cells.

It’s not about computer as toy, anymore. It’s about the computer as a tool to expand possibilities.

Don’t think that it’s not hard work and time-consuming for me or anyone to master those tools because I spend hours doing it before I try to show them how to use them. But it can be done if you want to do it. In the end, science or learning isn’t about teaching a bunch of factoids for someone to regurgitate on a test and forget tomorrow. They can get a book or go to Wikipedia for that.

In the end, it’s about helping my students turn their challenges into possibilities...their “what ifs” into answers. How much is that worth?

~Pete Oleson

"ImageJScreenshot" by Original uploader was MarcoTolo at en.wikipedia - Originally from en.wikipedia; description page is/was here.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ImageJScreenshot.png#/media/File:ImageJScreenshot.png


It's not the Project that matters. It's the Thinking.

When I first started this blog on incorporating Project-Based learning (PBL) and developing those kinds of projects, I started off with the usual suspects: distinguishing between projects and PBL, emphasizing authenticity and “real world” applications, and so on. Then I stumbled upon a video on Socratic Questioning from the Foundation for Critical Thinking with Richard Paul. 

Within the first two minutes of that video, I was blown away by Paul’s premise as it pertained to thinking. He posits: 

The main goal is to help students think in some way (e.g., historically, geologically, anatomically, chemically, philosophically, mathematically) or to think like an artist, a writer, an analyst, a researcher, an historian, etc.  (Paul, 2013)

I paused the video at that point to marinate. Then, I started it over at the beginning again, just to be sure I got it. I thought:

 Isn’t this kind of thinking what we want from our students, ultimately? 

Doesn’t PBL revolve around the idea that students will be doing this kind of  thinking, this depth of thinking? 

Then, I considered one of the distinctions between Projects and PBL: projects focus on a product (a diorama or PowerPoint) (Mayer, 2012) whereas PBL focuses on how a student works with and within a real-world scenario or problem or one that simulates authentic real world situations (Larmer, 2012).

Having students create a presentation on a president falls short of PBL. It is a project, but it is not by and of itself project-based learning. It is project-based presenting.

Having students think like biographers or journalists is the goal.  Why does someone write about a president? For what purpose?  How would a journalist share what he/she found out? Consider, too, how the significance of the thinking changes when writing/reading about George Washington versus Bill Clinton—the shift from thinking like a biographer versus a journalist. 

Real world thinkers are thinking like researchers, analysts, artists. Real world thinkers are thinking geologically, astronomically, and environmentally. They care about accuracy, clarity, depth, logic, and significance—all things that, if we were to witness them in a student project, would give us that teacher glow!

We don’t want students to “make a Prezi” or “make a brochure.” We want them to care about what they are reading and exploring (the content). We want them to care not just about the content, but about their thinking, their content.
If you really want to integrate PBL in your classes, step back and consider how you can move your students towards striving to understand things for the purpose of finding a resolution to problems yet to be resolved/continue to persist, or to provide a new perspective on something. 

That’s what researchers, engineers, poets, dramatists, global citizens, historians, architects, artists…do.


Larmer, J. (2012, May 24). What does it take for a project to be “authentic”? Retrieved from http://bie.org/blog/what_does_it_take_for_a_project_to_be_authentic

Mayer, A. (2012, November 27). What’s the difference between doing projects and project-based learning? Retrieved from http://www.friedtechnology.com/2012/11/whats-difference-between-doing-projects.html

Paul, R. [CriticalThinkingOrg]. (2013, September 18). Socratic questioning series [disk 1] [part 1] [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cvMGza0Roo4&list=WL&index=12


New Word: Creativifying

I've been talking with other teachers about teaching for creativity and teaching creatively. Good stuff! It seemed like, though, that we needed a new word for what we were doing--something that would capture it all up into one, concise focus. Here's what I came up! Let me know what you think in the comments! =D


Differentiate my Ride! The Role of the Rubric in Differentiating Projects

Teachers certainly know that their students represent a variety of cultures, abilities, and learning styles. They also understand that by responding to individual students’ needs, those students will no doubt experience a more powerful learning experience. Providing opportunities for student choice in projects they complete, through negotiation, can help us “create motivating assignments that meet students’ diverse needs and varied interests” (Robb, 2008). Yet, we have to think in terms of fairness, too.  If Madison is creating a video and Esteban is writing a series of blogs, how can we be sure that they are both have mastered the objectives that we want them to master, and how can we ensure that neither of them feels the other has an “easier” task? 

In order to ensure that we’re effectively incorporating student choice as a method for differentiated instruction, we have to be able to effectively develop a rubric, and not just any rubric, but an analytical trait rubric. We must be able to discern criteria for quality, which can be applied to any media for presentation or production. 

And that means we may need to rethink our very comfortable, compartmentalized rubrics. Or we may need to use more than one for a project. Let’s take a look at one portion of this 5th grade Ancient Civilization Research project rubric:

These rubric components are two of several--there are more components, such as presentation and organization. This particular project is NOT differentiated as students are all expected to develop a written report and an oral presentation. Thus, if we wanted to differentiate this project for ancient civilizations, we’d need to totally rethink the rubric and our approach to the assessment. 

Notice that Report and Research are separated into (basically) how many sources are used (numerous, general, adequate, insufficient) and a very vague overview of the use of that research, (again with the amounts as the focus for the most part: limited, some, good, thorough) combined with quality of descriptive writing (that will work). Further, the language is very pedantic and not developed with the student in mind. Thus, student motivation will be impacted. 

To differentiate this rubric and the project, we’re going to need to: (1) think more conceptually, (2) incorporate criteria in terms of analytic traits, and (3) write for the student.  Here’s what we might do:

Communication of Ideas

Ideas are creative, clear, and organized, and clearly show the audience how they connect to the civilization chosen

Ideas are clear and organized, but the audience may have trouble seeing how they connect to the civilization chosen
Ideas might be either organized or clear, but the audience isn’t able to see how they connect to the civilization chosen
Ideas don’t make sense and/ or don’t clearly connect  to the civilization chosen

Use of the Research
The research used clearly, effectively, and meaningfully supports the writer’s ideas, and the sources are credible as per the class agreement of what makes a credible source.
The research used supports the writer’s ideas, but it may not be clear or meaningful, and the sources are credible as per the class agreement of what makes a credible source.

The research used may or may not support the writer’s ideas effectively, or the sources may or may not be credible as per the class agreement of what makes a credible source.

The research used doesn’t support the writer’s ideas, and the sources may not be credible as per the class agreement of what makes a credible source.

This revision is, admittedly, somewhat done in haste, but I hope you see how the revised rubric could apply to any medium: a video, an essay, a blog, a visual, an infographic.  Further, notice that the emphasis is on quality of the criteria as opposed to amounts of things (clearly, meaningfully, effectively). Notice the use of “audience,” too, which can apply to any type of product--written, verbal, visual, or kinesthetic. With a short written component for the research, I could evaluate the communication of ideas in an interpretive dance. I also endeavored to make it more student-friendly, but I can see that some wording would probably need to be clarified for fifth graders.  At any rate, that’s the goal. 

Finally, and on a completely personal note, I’ve presented the more effective levels closer to the traits as opposed to less effective traits being presented first. Given that students read left to right, I feel that this approach is more motivational.  Call me crazy. 

But differentiating needs a little crazy to make it work. 


Robb, L. (2008) Differentiating reading instruction: How to teach reading to meet the needs of each student [Excerpt].  Danbury, CT: Scholastic. Retrieved from http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/what-differentiated-instruction

Mindy and some of her former students published Transparent Teaching of Adolescents, a discussion of effective teaching strategies for high school. Join the conversation!