Thoughts on Critical Inquiry from #IDE2011

For the past 2 days I have been at a workshop about Inquiry in a Digital Environment hosted by Branksome Hall in Toronto.  One fascinating part of this workshop for me has been the involvement of facilitators from an organisation called The Critical Thinking Consortium (TC2) who have really helped push my thinking about how and what we should be teaching students.  The keynote presentations, smaller sessions and conversations over lunch and coffee have really got my head spinning and I am feeling the need to look for some trends and big ideas that I can use to move forward.   Otherwise I worry I will get stuck in the head whirling stage and not be able to apply what I have learned to my own practice.

There were 2 keynote presentations spread over 2 days.  The first one was given by Garfield Gini-Newman and the focus was on Critical Thinking and Inquiry.  The second was given by Dr. Roland Case and the focus was on Student Engagement.  The ideas below are mostly my own interpretation of their main ideas.

Big Idea #1: We should end debate about content vs skills and invite kids to engage in critical thought about the curriculum.

TC2 model The model above illustrates the tools and conditions that TC2 considers to be important for Critical Thought or Critical Inquiry to take place.  They define Critical Thinking as: a complex activity, not a set of generic skils; concerned with judging or assessing what is reasonable or sensible in a situation; focuses on quality of reasoning (this is transferable); depends on the possession of relevant knowledge.

The piece of this model that I struggled with this week was the use of a tool callled “criteria for judgement”.  Garfield described this as “thinking in the face of criteria.  Inviting kids to make a judgement and giving them the tools to do it.”  I understand this to mean that we need to help students understand the conditions they need to satisfy in order to make a good decision.

Another important piece discussed was that Critical Thinking can only take place in a community that models and supports it.  And to nuture a community of thinkers it is important that teachers model thinking and support thinking.

Big Idea #2: The Activity Needs to be the Driver of Thinking

Garfield alluded to this early on in his keynote when he expressed concern with the idea of culminating activities.  His reasoning was that we approach these activities as the thing to do at the end of a unit after we have taught the content we think they need; we leave the interesting part until the end.  His suggestion is that this activity should come first and that the teacher should be a “knowledge broker” who helps students learn how to work with content in order to solve engaging problems.

Roland Case picked up this thread with a very compelling story about a student who went through school as an average student who was not very turned on by learning.  He eventually found his passion after travelling to Greece to participate in an Archeological Project.  This experience turned him into an avid Archaeologist.  However, when it was implied that this student liked History he vehemently denied liking History, instead he liked “finding out how people in the past lived”.  Regrettably, because he had been taught History as facts he had never internalised the bigger reason to be learning History.

In a Math workshop that I attended we also revisited this idea of starting with the activity and I was intrigued by the idea of picking problems with multiple points of entry so that all the learners in the classroom have a way to get started and a reason to want to learn more.  This combined with visual thinking routines and structures to facilitate peer to peer feedback seems to be a powerful combination for engaging students and differentiating instruction.

Big Idea #3: Technology should be a tool to support collaboration and inquiry

This is a big idea that is certainly not new to me, but I did like the Key Principles for using technology that TC2 have come up with; the ‘do’s’.  They suggest that technology in the classroom should:

  1. enhance collaborative thinking
  2. generate greater efficiency in use of instructional time
  3. provide greater opportunities for differentiated learning through use of various modalities
  4. provide an effective portal to digital content, thus allowing for use of less bounded resources
  5. allow students to interact with the content in a meaningful way
  6. encourage generative thinking that leads to new and novel ideas

They also suggested four ‘don’ts’ to keep in mind when supporting inquiry with technology:

  • Don’t use technology just because it is there.
  • Don’t substitute dazzle for engagement.
  • Don’t confuse research with inquiry.
  • Diminish student interaction.


Big Idea #4: We need to get students “caught up” in their learning.

Students in school are engaged, but the question is are they Educationally Engaged?  Roland Case defined this as “teachers and students being personally committed to pursuing the educational goals and to successfully performing their ongoing teaching and learning tasks.”  He unpacked the word engagement and made an interesting distinction between being:

  • engaged but not educationally
  • on task
  • and educationally engaged

The question is “how do we get students “caught up”?  The following Five Levers for increasing student engagement were suggested.

Challenge: rich learning opportunities differentiated by ability and interest that invite freely dedicated student effort towards meaningful goal or outcome.  Some suggestions for doing this included:

  • Reducing the demands of the most tedious assignments
    • note form vs full sentences; paragraphs vs pages; orally/graphically vs in writing
    • provide escape mechanisms to avoid the tedium (show me understanding and don’t have to do full deal)
  • Provide more compelling learning activities
    • negotiate meaningful (intrinsic) targets
      • encourage students to prove things to themselves
      • set targets that they can meet
  • Build in real life implications or consequences
    • essays become submissions
    • judgements lead to actions
  • Problematize the subject matter to be learned
    • make critical inquiry the daily mode of learning.

Sell: build appreciation for the practical and amancipatory value of education

  • teach with passion
  • use examples and stories that resonate with their experiences and capture their imagination
  • portray the merits of learning in ways the students can understand.
  • selling at the micro level
    • explain why they need to know how to do it

Empower: provide robust, differentiated range of tools that students apply in self-regulated ways in increasingly self-directed situations.

  • help students acquire ‘tools’ to think critically, creatively, and collaboratively.
  • 5 kinds of tools
    • need to figure out task and the tools they will need to accomplish it.
  • promote self-regulated us of tools.
  • self-regulation (within goals choose how you will meet goals) is not the same as self-direction (choose the goals you want to achieve).

Inform: arrange for timely, helpful, and encouraging feedback on current level of achievement and on what might be required for further growth.

Nurture: support school and home atmospheres that encourage respectful, collaborative and caring behaviour by all.

So to recap.  My big take-aways from this workshop are:

  1. We should end debate about content vs skills and invite kids to engage in critical thought about the curriculum.
  2. The Activity Needs to be the Driver of Thinking
  3. Technology should be a tool to support collaboration and inquiry
  4. We need to get students “caught up” in their learning.

One Comment

  1. Lee

    Well said! (as always). I envy your ability to clearly articulate what’s going on in your head. Thanks for sharing these thoughts and I’m so glad you were able to attend.

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