Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Big Questions

I'm doing some research this school year around teaching, improving, prompting higher order thinking skills with students.  When I tell most people what I'm up to they often ask "What's a higher order thinking skill, and how would I recognize one on the street?"  That, of course is a good question and one that is either not easily answered (because you're dealing with something that can be very subjective) or easy to answer (because due the somewhat vague nature of the subject, almost anything can made to fit)
One of my goals in this work is to write more often, so if you follow this blog you'll be able to see my progress on that goal at least.  As far as higher order thinking skills goes I've chosen to base my research primarily in the reading work we do in class.  To get this rolling I've been prompting the class to develop big ideas or thesis statements (if you prefer the fancier words) about their reading.  Higher order thinking is generally defined as creative problem solving where there is no specific solution.  It can also involve creating or synthesizing new or unique ideas from existing material.  That's really just a thumb nail sketch of the concept but it works as a starting place.  For me, the "big ideas" or "thesis statements" are statements that a reader can make about some aspect of the book they're reading, they can then gather evidence to support that statement.  As an example, we're reading Number The Stars by Lois Lowry as a read-aloud and yesterday we came up with this idea; "During war time people are often forced to be more resourceful and creative".  As evidence we noted that the family was sewing, knitting some of their own clothes, they had fashioned a small stove that could fit into their fireplace that would not only heat the room but could be used for cooking, that people shared beds to conserve heat as well.  At the moment, the work we're doing together in the read-aloud time is more sophisticated than what the students are doing on their own and that's one reason why the read-aloud time is so important.  This is the opportunity for the students to interact with quality literature, rich in characters and ideas.  If the only reading going on during the day is from a reading program chances are their won't be much progress in higher order thinking skills.  I would argue you need a higher quality literature to prompt higher thinking, or put another way, you can only think as high as the material allows.  Presently some students are starting to try out developing big ideas to think about.  One student reading Freckle Juice said "My big idea is that this guy really wants to have freckles, he did...(and they listed five different things he had done to become freckled)...and it's crazy." So, they had taken the first step, they had an observation/idea and facts from the story to back it up.  "He must really want freckles, because he did this and that." When talking with this student I asked a few questions about why he would have wanted freckles and she shared that she thought it was because he wanted to look like everyone else, which was crazy.  Right there was a lead in to the next level of big idea - I asked if she'd be interested in adding on to that idea with the question of "Why do people try to look like everyone else?"  At this point we'd stepped into a more global big idea, one that could be discussed outside of the book.  One way to think about this work is that it's about pulling thoughts and ideas out of books and setting them free in the "real world".

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