Teaching for Critical Thinking: How to Prepare Students for the Real Test….SURVIVAL!

by Julie “Jules” Troyer Ph.D.

How to prepare students for the real test: SURVIVAL

Click on the link above and watch the brilliant young Suli Breaks spoken word on why he hates school but loves education. The poignant monologue from a student who has attended a reputable higher education institution and found himself dissatisfied with how well it prepared him for the real world, is an excellent wake up call to all educational consultants, teachers, and administrators. It is our responsibility as educational professionals to prepare our students for the real final test….survival. You might say, “that is too lofty an aspiration” or “survival is too dependent on contextual circumstances, how do we prepare students for something we cannot anticipate?” The answer is simple to provide….. but arguably difficult to put into action: teach critical thinking skills.

What is critical thinking besides a buzzword in modern education? Often it is helpful to define things by their opposites and in this case Suli Breaks points out nicely that survival is more than simply a score on an objective assessment based on timed regurgitation of memorized facts. Critical thinking is not memorization. Critical thinking is not passive. Critical thinking is not objective. Critical thinking is not easily measured. Looking at critical thinking through the lens of what it is not, highlights why it is arguably so difficult to teach. It is difficult to measure, is very subjective in nature, and requires students to actively generate knowledge or solutions. This poses a difficulty for teachers who are pressed for time, accountable for reaching measurable learning objectives, and often required to produce easily understood products of learning to administrators.

We want our students to survive, darn it, we want our students to thrive in life! The real point of education is to help them do this and the key to navigating this brutal, magical, and always changing world we live in is effective critical thinking. Critical thinking has as many definitions as there are answers to the question “what is the meaning of life” but there are certain themes that remain consistent. Critical thinking is analysis, problem solving, original thinking, utilizing higher order thinking, synthesis of available information, and actively engaging with information. Writing across the curriculum is one way higher education programs can ensure teachers are focusing on critical thinking and students are using it as a tool to elaborate on the material they are learning. Too often, writing is minimized in higher education because it is more difficult to grade than objective multiple choice tests and it time consuming to provide feedback. One way of improving the reliability of critical thinking writing assignments is using very detailed rubrics. Rubrics also offer teachers, administrators, and educational consultant’s quantitative data that can be easily analyzed and used to substantiate learning objectives have been attained.

Clearly, Suli Breaks would have preferred his higher education to have more writing assignments and less objective test scores. The ability to communicate effectively in writing (and in speaking) repeatedly is shown to correlate very highly with success in many domains of life. Teaching our students to analyze and synthesize complex material prepares them for the myriad of problems that life may present them with, writing is undeniably one of the most effective ways of promoting diverse critical thinking skills.

As a final note, encouraging critical thinking in students also involves getting them excited about what they are thinking about, making it relevant to everyday life, and bringing the material to life. I have shown this video in my classes and asked students to create a response to it. I have had students create their own spoken word video’s, write poetic pieces addressing some the key issues brought up, and write traditional essay responses. One common theme to all of these responses was it made them think about why they were attending a higher education institution, what they wanted out of their experience at a university, and how they thought it would help them out in the future. Many of these students were surprised at the answers they provided for themselves. The act of consciously analyzing and synthesizing the problem/question changed what they expected from the experience. This is the power of critical thinking, usurping expectation based on wishes with probability based on reason.

critical thinking is the key to not only surviving, but thriving!

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8 Comments

  1. Rebecca Mathis says:

    I loved this article. As a Teacher of the Deaf/Hard of Hearing, most of my students struggle with reading, writing, and other various critical thinking skills. Providing methods to approach tasks like reading/comprehension and writing is a constant focus. A large number of children who are deaf do not reach a reading level higher than 4th or 5th grade, and their writing often reflects their reading level. It is a constant battle weighing the importance of these academic skills with everyday life skills that most hearing kids have through incidental learning. My life goal is to teach students to become independent and capable individuals that can function in a hearing world successfully. This article and video is something I plan to share with all general and special education teachers in my school system. Some have heard versions of this before, but this adds the perspective of Suli Breaks. His words are current and relevant to what our students feel/think in the world we live in now.

    • Rebecca,
      The ability to make information relevant and to see from the perspective of our students is vital in constructing engaging and memorable learning experiences. As you point out, this is true of students with all kinds of abilities and it is a constant balancing act to present both the academic basics and the life skills necessary for our students to thrive in the “real” world.

  2. Rakia Malachi says:

    I really enjoyed the video at the beginning and this post. I feel that education is mostly memorizing a lot of information, but not really understanding it and applying it. If we learned how we could use the knowledge that we gain in school in the things that were relevant to us then I think we would have better attitudes toward the education system.

    • Rakia,
      You are exactly right, it is all about understanding how what your learning can be applied in your life or in your profession! It makes the information meaningful and relevant and thus important and worthwhile.

  3. Brooklyn Daniel says:

    I agree that critical thinking is immensely important. In order to be a successful adult you have to posses this skill. Even watching the news requires critical thinking. We have to be able to discern what is really going around us and, unfortunately, this is not a skill that we naturally possess.

    • Brooklyn,
      You make an excellent point that even watching the news requires critical thinking, it is critical to remember “spin” is everywhere! It is also true that most of us are naturally trusting, we have to learn that things are not always as they appear and develop the critical thinking skills to discern what really is going on!

  4. Pratap Srivastava says:

    How to prepare students to exist is in real world and what problem they are facing why they are not attending classes it’s well explained here and if we do apply these things it could help us out

    • Pratap,
      Students often need to be reminded that what they are learning in the classroom really will help them in “real life!” I find that attendance and performance are improved when students are consistently reminded where they are going to be using these skills in the future!

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