Hannah Evans – Assistant Headteacher
It is far from surprising that, when asked, teachers who are working on a collaborative KS5 transition project here at Sarah Bonnell revealed that their main reason for signing up was to enhance the way in which their students think critically. They want them to engage in independent thought and establish lines of argument. Isn’t that what we all want from our students? A sense of personal response, of real engagement in and evaluation of the things that they are learning about? It’s what John Hattie calls “deep learning”: when students can ‘think critically and develop a deep understanding’ in their lessons. This is an area of pedagogy I am really interested in and, as a teacher of mixed ability classes, I am even more interested in the ways in which I can engage all students, regardless of their starting points, in this type of learning. Here are a few strategies that have worked for me because they really do foster insight and enquiry for all.
What would Simone say?
Whichever author, monarch, sociologist or scientist students are learning about, share a current news story with them and ask them to consider what the figure would think. For example, what would Elizabeth Ist think of Brexit? What would Dickens think of the rise in food bank usage? How would Simone de Beauvoir respond to the ‘Me Too’ movement? What would Genghis Khan think about increasing diversity in the UK? The idea is to get students to negotiate the ideologies of key thinkers so that they can be confident in applying them in their critical essays.
I learned about this strategy from one of our maths Lead Practitioners; she told me about the Harkness Method which encourages students to take control of their own discussions by setting challenging questions about a text or topic. John Hattie’s research found that classroom discussion was ranked the seventh most effective strategy out of 150 strategies to enhance learning, so it seems essential that we consider the ways in which discussion can be harnessed to generate critical and evaluative thinking. The diagram below details the way in which the process can be set up and facilitated. For me, the most interesting part of it is the fact that when students set the questions for the discussion, they give them a challenge rating, thus ensuring that they are constantly evaluating the sophistication of their own ideas and questions.
Giving students the right language so that they can sound critical in their approach is really empowering for students who may not have an existing flair for using an evaluative style. I like to challenge my students to use one new critical technique in their essays each time to encourage them to reflect on the way they write, not just what they are writing about. Students enjoy building up their repertoire of sophisticated methods and I will often ask students to share their ‘showcase sentences’– sentences that really demonstrates sharp and clear expression of thought.
Model high expectations of critical thought
Sharing great critical writing with your students is, I think, the best way to enhance their critical thinking and style. Some of my favourites are Caitlin Moran, Elizabeth Day, Barack Obama, Virginia Woolf and Gary Younge. These great journalists and orators will save you hours of model writing time and inspire students to see that having a critical viewpoint really does matter in the real world.