Critical Thinking?

This image summarizes the 4 principles of critical thinking: to evaluate the info we receive, to understand it, to question and alayze its origins and purposes and finally to apply it in useful contexts

What is critical thinking? What does it look like in our classrooms and schools? Is it something we can quantify? I modified Tom Shimmer’s 21st Elevator Answer Challenge by asking colleagues if they could explain critical thinking and what it looks like.  Some people had concise answers, but too many had no real answer, especially about how it looks in their lessons or classrooms.

As a district, we spend a significant amount of energy and time on critical thinking, but how effective this is if we don’t really know or can’t agree on what it is. Recently I spent a day at another high school which has spent the last three years pushing the concept of critical thinking for staff and students. I was really impressed by how much success the current administration has had with this initiative (I had been part of the team which first started this journey 5 years ago), but what became apparent to me was the work which still needs to be done. It’s not enough to have posters in class rooms and try new teaching strategies. Tasks need to be rigorous, assessments need to reflect the learning practices, and assessment feedback has to help the student improve his or her work. As a system, we need to keep working on these essential elements in order to move beyond the words on a poster and into some real change in our practice and student learning.

What does learning look like?

Recently I have been involved in a number of discussion about Assessment and Evaluation.  These discussions have been informal and formal, social and professional  in nature.  Of course as we have just finished the first semester and the marks associated with those courses it not too surprising that A&E is a hot topic. Eventually the conversation turns to the issue of what learning looks like.  How do teachers know if the students have actually learned what they are supposed to learn? How do teachers know what they should be teaching? Some students have asked me how teachers know if the students actually learn anything during a course, and by learn they clearly mean beyond the information required for the test or exam.

As a teacher and department leader, I often wonder whether or not other teachers actually take the time to review curriculum documents to see if what they teacher is actually aligned with anything other than a sentimental view of how things have always been done (thereby justifying not changing anything).  In a discussion last week, one colleague was concerned that we were being asked to revise course material and rubrics because curriculum documents had changed two years ago.  I know teachers are very good at covering important and relevant material, but how good are we at feeding and nurturing our courses so that they do not get stale?  Why are some teachers afraid or hesitant to reflect on what and how they teach?  If we do not make any attempt to reflect on how we teach, we are not really able to effectively reflect on the learning of our students because there may be little alignment with what they should be learning.

Ontario’s guiding document for Assessment and Evaluation is Growing Success which provides the seven guiding principles for assessment:

To ensure that assessment, evaluation, and reporting are valid and reliable, and that they lead to the improvement of learning for all students, teachers use practices and procedures that:

• are fair, transparent, and equitable for all students;• support all students, including those with special education needs, those who are learning the language of instruction (English or French), and those who are First Nation, Métis, or Inuit;

• are carefully planned to relate to the curriculum expectations and learning goals and, as much as possible, to the interests, learning styles and preferences, needs, and experiences of all students;

• are communicated clearly to students and parents at the beginning of the school year or course and at other appropriate points throughout the school year or course;

• are ongoing, varied in nature, and administered over a period of time to provide multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate the full range of their learning;

• provide ongoing descriptive feedback that is clear, specific, meaningful, and timely to support improved learning and achievement;

• develop students’ self-assessment skills to enable them to assess their own learning, set specific goals, and plan next steps for their learning.

Given these principles, why are students across the province still be confronted with classrooms which do not reflect positive change and awareness of current A&E practice?  Of course it is unfair to paint all classrooms and teachers with this brush.  As witnessed by several interesting Twitter feeds, including the #otf21c feed at the end of last week, many teachers engaged in professional growth that will be reflected in their classrooms through their teaching and assessment and evaluation practices.

It has taken me a while to get through writing this post because the issues around what learning looks like keeps coming up in conversations.  I keep thinking about how I work with my students to get them to a point where they can show me they are learning something.  Some days the only assessment that really happens is personal — Did I really get the ideas across to my students in a meaningful way?  Do I need to change how I teach certain concepts?  Learning needs to occur for the student and the teacher if we want to avoid missing an opportunity for growth.

A Day In the Chair

I spent the day in the VP chair, something I enjoy doing because it gives me a different perspective on the school in which I work.  Every time I am the VP Designate I am reminded of how hard that job is and how few teachers actually understand that fact. Even though the list of responsibilities left for me today focused on talking to kids who have been skipping or who need help getting ready for exams, I seemed to spend the entire day running after kids who were making poor choices and helping teachers, support staff, and parents solve a myriad of issues.  Occasionally every teacher feels he or she is at the breaking point and they want help NOW.  I get that; I ‘ve been there too.  But did I really appreciate the help I receive from my Admin team? Probably not every day.  Nor do I always remember how challenging some students can be for some teachers.  The work that VPs (and Ps) put in every day goes far beyond what I experience on my occasional stints in the office, so I am grateful for the incredible job done by these school leaders.

To Everything There Is a Season

I created this video on to show my students what they can do to illuminate a text.  While I was originally really impressed with the site and its possibilities in the classroom, I am not sure if is not just more hype.  Anyway, check out the video based on the poetic theme of the Cycle of Life. The images are all stock from Animoto, but the text is from Ecclesiastes, To Every Thing There is a Season.

To Everything There Is a Season.


Connected Learning

I try to spend part of each teaching day staying connected with other teachers through various means such as Twitter and the ECNing because it is important to grow as an educator.  This evening a friend called to pick my brain about some Independent Learning and Critical Inquiry ideas he wants to use in his class.  We talked about what he is doing and how he is already seeing changes in how his students are reacting to their own learning through the class blog.  We talked about some good books he might want to look at as next steps for his own growth, like Jim Burke’s What’s the Big Idea? .   Then our call made a sudden shift; we went from talking about learning on the phone to co-creating and editing some work on Prezi.  Suddenly our chat about learning turned in to active collaboration.  After we finished our chat/collaboration, I checked my Twitter feed to discover this:

 Alec Couros 

@courosaAlec Couros
Presenting a workshop on learning networks at a conference in Hawaii. Please say hi, let us know where you’re from, why plns important.

How fortuitous that this posting would appear.  PLN’s are the most important part of my professional growth. Yes they occur with people in my school and in my board, but increasingly they are occurring with people all over the globe.  My classroom is not just room 123; its doors are open to so much more now.

The Year Begins Anew

Jelly Fish

Photo of Moon Jellyfish, Vancouver Aquarium

The first day of classes for January 2011 has ended, and I find myself back into the educational swing of things after a two week break during which time I read books and blogs for pleasure, scarcely thought about school, and instead focused on family.  My students assumed I had spent my holiday time on Google given how much we use in class for collaboration and research (and my excitement after the GWEOCDSB event in November), but I surprised them by telling them honestly that I had not really been online at all.  Sure I had planned to update my webpage, read lots of great bloggers, and even blog for myself, but this just did not happen.  Do I regret this? Of course not because I spent tons of time skating and playing hockey with my son and daughter, learning about games like the wizard chess-like Crusade and Conquer and Gobblet Gobblers with all the kids, and reading and laughing everyday with my wife and children.  Two weeks of relaxation and personal reflection have been wonderful for me.  I have come back to school refreshed and ready for the end of the first semester.

So where does this leave me at the end of the day? I have a renewed respect for family-work balance. My family is what makes me who I am in front of my students; my students remind me daily why I love and respect my family.  New Year’s resolutions are not really something I believe in, but I do think making some simple goals is important.  In addition to maintaining and furthering the family-work balance, I have joined some Flickr photo groups (Twitter PLN 365/2011 and 52/2011 Group and #Project52) so that I actually use my camera and do something with the photos I take.  Also, exercise and healthy living will be a focus for 2011 thanks to the Fit42 Challenge.  Of course I would never have found these activities had it not been for the excellent people who make up my PLN on Twitter.  A hearty thank you to all who have contributed to my continued learning this school year.

As I finish typing this first blog post of 2011, Johnny Cash’s rendition of “We’ll Meet Again” has just started playing on my iPod.  While this song does suggest an ending, this year it stands for a beginning.  The year ahead offers may new opportunities and experiences. I hope to meet some of you again on the journey ahead.

“We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when,
but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day!”