Wednesday, January 31, 2007

CT 1: The Wheel and the Cross

When I arrived at Punahou nine years ago the sophomore English course was a genre-based course consisting of one semester of "Novel/Short Story" and one semester of "Poetry/Drama." During my first year at Punahou I fell in with a group of teachers who were having regular meetings to talk about critical thinking and how teachers might best be able to teach courses which made an explicit attempt to teach students thinking skills in the context of the content-area classes. Most of the people in the group were familiar with the work of Richard Paul, and were using his schemata for organizing thinking about thinking. Perhaps his most familiar graphic organizer is often called "The Wheel."

Paul breaks critical thinking down into elements (purpose, question, information, inferences, concepts, assumptions, implications and consequences, and point of view). Grouping them in the form of a wheel suggests that, while each of these elements exists a kind in simultaneous interaction with all of the others, it is possible to focus in at any given time on one or another of the elements in order to test or examine one's thinking.

After my proposal for a new course called "Sophomore English: Critical Thinking" was accepted, I began using the wheel with them as point of entry into critical thinking or metacognition. But I was never quite comfortable with the fact that the wheel put these terms into geographical contiguity with one another without making clear what the most frequent or most logical channels of connection among them might be. It was useful to see them laid out together, but it was

The second year I was teaching the course I attended a conference led by Richard Paul at which I was shown a different way of organizing the elements. It was called "The Elements of Reasoning in Graphical Form," (it can be found it The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking and Tools ) and it represented the elements in such a way as to show some of the ways in which one might lead to or be connected to the other in the actual process of thinking:

I liked this version better, but as I began using it with classes I found it a little bit cluttered, and I also found that as I was explaining the basic idea of the elements and their relationship to one another in class, I found myself using my own body as a point of analogical reference. I would say something more or less like this:

One way of monitoring your own thinking is to take a status check of where you are. I am standing here. If I raise my hand and point out in front of me (at which point I do so), that's the direction I might be headed in. That's might represent my future, my purpose, my goal. If I started to walk in that directions, depending on exactly which path I took, I'd wind up in perhaps one space, or perhaps another. And whatever decisions I make, conscious or unconscious, intentional or accidental, will have implications and consequences. (I sometimes recite Frost's "The Road Less Traveled" as a way of illustrating this point.)

Everything that has happened so far in my life that has brought me to this point is behind me (Looking backward over my shoulder). That would include my past education and experience, any information I might have available to me, any assumptions I was making, and so on.

One of the most productive and interesting moves to make, from a critical thinking perspective, is the sideways move. If I'm standing here, I see things one way. But if I take three steps over here, (doing so and then turning), suddenly I have different point of view, and I am able to notice different things. For example, now I can see that Kainoa has a backpack behind his desk, which I didn't know before.

There are a lot of basic critical thinking paradigms: structured routines that you can use to test yourself and move toward clarity, significance, breadth, and depth. One of the ones that I will be asking you to practice frequently is simply to think or write your way through three questions that are closely related to what I have just tried to demonstrate: Where am I now? Where am I trying to get to? How might I get there? To which you might want to add a fourth: Is there another point of view? Is there another way of thinking about it?

As I went through this explanation, I realized that the graphic above was really an upside down representation of the way I was thinking, so I tinkered with it and basically re-drew it to come up with a somewhat simpler version that more closely matched my intuitive sense of the way the elements are related to one another. For lack of a better term, I'll call it The Cross:

Somewhere along the line I also realized that rather than simply start off with this visual representation, I might make it a more interesting experience for the students to come up with their own maps of the critical thinking process. So that's usually one of the first things I do now. Early in the first semester, before we even begin talking about the elements or standards, I ask the students to work in groups of two or three to come up with a visual representation of what thinking looks like. Then I give them sheets of chart paper and ask them to draw out their ideas and present them to the class. Then I explain that in the interests of having a common vocabulary, and so that they will frame to understand how the various followup activities we will do are interconnected, I share The Cross with them. I make a point of explaining that this is a fairly crude and fairly tentative representation of a much more complex and multilayered set of processes, and that we will during the course of the semester be working together to come up with a clearer and more sophisticated common sense of what we are doing. But this is a place to start.

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