Critical Thinking is a Teachable Practice

by Harmony Button

The Waterford Writing Across the Curriculum initiative grew out of my thinking, reading, and discussion with my colleagues in various departments.  We knew that writing was important, but we were caught in the age-old dilemma: how do we move through our academic program, covering the material that needs to be covered, while still emphasizing writing as a skill that exists outside of any particular discipline?  And even more of an enigma: how do we find the time to provide the feedback our students need to improve their writing skills?  How do we use writing to change reluctant writers’ attitudes towards their own writing, and their writing processes?

As a school, we were poised to shift our attitudes toward and practices of writing, as we were on the verge of making a school-wide transition to a new learning management system, Canvas.  Although we had long embraced the opportunities of technology to enrich student learning (in fact, The Waterford School was first founded in association with the Waterford Institute, a software company that pioneered technology for early interactive learning interfaces), our move to Canvas was the first time that we had committed to school-wide use of a single LMS system.  Along with the organizational benefits of Canvas came new opportunities to ask students to compose, discuss, comment, edit, reflect on and revise their writing.

The following ideas are deeply influenced by my reading in John Bean’s seminal work, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom.  This text is steeped in solid research and is widely used in educational institutions to guide teachers’ use of writing in their classrooms.  The following comments are based on ideas from Bean’s work, as well as ways in which his text can be used as a guide to better teaching.

Goals of the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) Initiative at Waterford:

1. To make better use of writing as a means of critical thinking, in order to increase student engagement with their learning. (Writing as a process of thinking, vs. a product for communication).

2. To offer a variety of classroom techniques and writing assignment strategies to teachers across all disciplines that could be easily integrated into curriculum while aiding in the transition to Canvas.

Critical Thinking is a Teachable Practice:

Critical thinking is the practice of 1) raising vital questions, 2) collecting, evaluating, and interpreting relevant information, 3) testing conclusions, 4) recognizing the limitations of your systems of thought and considering other alternatives, and 5) communicating effectively with others in order to solve complex problems. [Bean, from Paul & Elder, 2]

In order for students to engage in critical thinking, they must feel as if there is something at stake — something worth thinking about, or engaging with. They must be able to see a relevant problem. Once presented with a puzzle, students’ natural tendency is to begin to tinker with it, to begin the process of searching for a solution.

Students will maintain engagement much longer if they know the purpose behind solving any problem. They may require frequent explanations or discussions in order to buy in to the relevance of some kinds of problem-solving. It is a teacher’s responsibility to have honest, convincing answers to these questions, and to respect and welcome brief discussions as they arise.

Writing as a Tool of Critical Thought

Writing as a learning tool is most effective when it is exploratory. By Middle School and Upper School, students often view writing as a means of communication which is evaluated on its grammatical correctness or structural efficacy.  They see it as a way of demonstrating knowledge, rather than a vehicle for exploring ideas.  This is why students fail to see the purpose in writing assignments, especially outside of the humanities.  They treat them as busy-work and use them to regurgitate knowledge.

In order to alter this perception and make the most of writing assignments as learning tools, teachers should reconsider how and when they ask their students to write. Increasing the number of low-stakes, process-based writing opportunities students encounter will help to lower writing inhibitions, offer students opportunities to read and comment on each other’s ideas, and will not significantly increase a teacher’s grading load.

The process of writing is almost always an introspective one.  It forces the writer to confront his or her own voice (or uncertainty thereof) and therefore, a sense of self.  This forces the writer to remember their own agency as a thinker and a being in this world. It can be highly uncomfortable and feel burdensome to many.  When students think that they have nothing to say, they can feel angry, resentful, or insecure.  They may feel like the question is not relevant to them, or is too far over their heads, or else they just don’t care.  They have not yet found a problem that is worth solving.  A good writing prompt asks a difficult question, but often scaffolds it into stages, to (hopefully) engage all.

All Teachers Can Teach Through Writing

Writing is the process of critical thinking and the communication of the results. Teaching writing structure is, at heart, just the practice of teaching students how to prioritize and analyze. This is obviously not just the domain of literature teachers, and the belief that writing is a “skill” that is learned in English class is really very destructive to student learning. There are a few misconceptions about the practice of teaching writing that often prevent teachers from making use of it in their classrooms:

1) I’m not that good at grammar. I wouldn’t know how to give feedback on writing.

The best feedback requires no special terminology. Treat each piece of writing as an attempt to communicate. Does it make sense? Do you follow the thought process? Does it follow the conventions of your discipline? What is at stake? What difficult thing does it grapple with?

2) I’ve already planned my curriculum, and it’s full. I don’t have time for writing.

We often field questions, engage in discussions, or ask students to explain things verbally. These are good practices, but they tend to focus on one student at a time, while others remain passive. Alternating these common practices with brief in-class writing prompts will re-engage the whole class and invigorate conversations when you return to them. Asking a student to explain a solution rather than just provide a solution is far more beneficial to that student’s long-term learning than running through a gambit of multiple tasks. Self-reflective assignments following tests or projects boost student efficacy and improve future performance. Over time, students who engage with all aspects of learning through writing also become far more critical, engaged readers and listeners. They become more efficient learners. Integrating writing into your curriculum is one of the most significantly effective teaching strategies you can use to improve overall learning success.

3) I simply CAN NOT grade all those essays.

There are lots and lots of ways to integrate writing in ways that do not increase your grading load. In fact, it is pretty commonly accepted that students do not benefit from feedback that is given on “finished” work as much as they do from feedback that is given mid-process. Shifting your feedback from finished products to drafts and revisions can actually save teachers hours of grading time, and it can be far more rewarding for a teacher to feel as if they are engaged in a conversation with a student, rather than drowning in a never-ending stream of mistakes they’ve fixed before.

4) Writing is not suitable for my course.

The belief that writing somehow belongs in the realm of English class is a relatively recent one, and it is quite destructive to student attitudes toward the benefits and goals of improving their own writing. Writing is a tool of learning as well as a means to communicate learning.

5) No, really written work is a lot harder to grade and I am very tired.

Reading student writing is often a practice of looking for the idea that is hidden in a blur of ambiguity.  It can be exhausting.  But the best writing assignments require the student to do a great deal of thinking for a small bit of writing.  You get much more bang for your buck when you integrate writing assignments into your courses.  Also, Canvas and other LMS systems can help you be efficient and stay organized.

Very often, the best practices in integrating writing in our curriculum also force us to face our own insecurities or weaknesses as teachers: organization, sense of purpose, classroom management, grading efficacy, and so on. Teachers who are daunted by the prospect of including more writing in their courses should understand that there are various levels to integrating writing (or just improving student engagement through critical thinking) that are pragmatic and suitable for every teacher.

Ways to Make Use of Engaging Ideas by John C Bean

1. Look for opportunities to include exploratory “low stakes” writing. (120, 131)

2. Whenever you ask students to write, specify audience and set context. (39, 52)

3. Ask good questions: subject has to be problematic and significant. (17, 89)

4. Relate new learning to existing knowledge; promote “deep learning” through more effective reading and engagement (138, 151, 183, 202)

5. Make use of active learning strategies inside the classroom. (149 – 211)

6. Use writing to narrate process and increase students’ reflective abilities; add variety to the form and style of “formal” writing assignments. (111, 116, 118, 134)

7. Scaffold writing projects; reverse engineer projects from desired goals; make sure evaluative writing contains exploratory stages (and built-in reflection and feedback). (33, 64, 96, 208, 246)

8. Even on near-finished drafts, don’t fix student “mistakes” — identify areas that need work and let students find & fix mistakes for themselves. (39, 82, 162, 310)

9. Tailor your rubrics to fit your grading needs. Use rubrics to counter & balance holistic grading. (267)

10. Take time to norm your grading criteria with colleagues; give more effective feedback on student papers, set clear grading criteria that keeps the quality of ideas front and center. (287, 317)

This book works really well as a teaching manual — use it to rethink specific parts of your teaching practices, instead of trying to revolutionize everything at once. Look for moments when Bean points you back to other chapters to move non-linearly through this text.

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