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How I Created a Critical Thinking Classroom   

by Jan Ogino

In the last five years, I have learned to teach my first grade students how to think, not what to think. But it wasn’t easy. Feeling I was a critical thinker myself, I thought through what I needed in my own learning environment – different ways to show what I learned, the freedom to make mistakes, an open-minded environment, and a climate free of judgment. I decided I had to focus more on the student and less on myself as a teacher, emphasizing learning and not what or how I was teaching. What a humbling experience it has been!

Critical thinkers monitor, reflect, refine and correct their thinking. They ask questions for clarification; they argue and debate. They make informed decisions and offer solutions. They are open to interpretations and possibilities. They apply knowledge by connecting or combining ideas. They need an environment that promotes all of these things to become effective and well-prepared students.

A thinking classroom is a talking classroom. To develop critical thinking, you have to know what students are thinking. That means they have to talk; a lot and often! My students talk about everything, every day. They are not afraid to challenge the thinking of others or to be challenged. They have learned to express their thinking in front of large groups and collaborate and work in small groups. In the process students of all levels have raised their ability to use academic language to express their thinking. Lesson learned: Talk more. Shush less.

Look for and remove the obstacles to thinking. Anything that narrows the thinking is an obstacle: bias, fear of failure, negativity, inflexibility, low expectations and linear thinking are just some examples. My goal for teaching was not the right answer but the process of getting there. The classroom has become our laboratory to explore and collaborate and mistakes were welcome opportunities to reflect on and refine our thinking. Lesson learned: critical thinking isn’t about being smart and should not have limits.

Facilitate more than instruct. I use direct instruction only when teaching a new concept and then I get out of the way! I ask my students lots of why and how questions to get to the process of their thinking. When students asked me questions, I deflect those questions to other students to answer to see if they can explain their thinking to others. I facilitate from the back of the room, so I am not the center of the learning. Lesson learned: students learn more from each other than from me.

Have students solve their own problems. Problem solving requires critical thinking and I realized I was robbing them of opportunities to think when I solved problems for them. I stopped refereeing disputes and let the students talk through them. My table managers now take care of classroom materials and learning aids and they determine who manages these on their own daily. Students solve problems in their own learning or seek the help of others. Lesson learned: students don’t need me for everything.

It’s all of these lessons that have helped me become a more effective teacher and my students are achieving much more than I ever thought possible. These critical thinking skills will be valuable as they progress through school and beyond.

Jan OginoTo learn more about how critical thinking skills are an important piece of Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards, visit ArizonaAimsHigher.org.

Jan Ogino is a first grade teacher in the Peoria Unified School District and has been teaching for 20 years.