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Critical Thinking at Roycemore

Influential author and educational advisor, Sir Ken Robinson, once said, “The ability to think clearly, to consider arguments logically, and to weigh evidence dispassionately is one of the hallmarks of human intelligence.” The ability to truly think and understand is vital in an environment that is cluttered with information overload, and during a time in our history where technological advances are calling to question the kinds of skills and competencies people will need in order to ensure that their jobs won’t be made redundant by technology.

Critical thinking is an essential skill that will help ensure an individual remains relevant in this now Fourth Industrial Revolution, and we have included it as a primary competency under Scholarship in Roycemore’s Portrait of a Graduate.

A 2019 Harvard Business Review article posits that one can improve their critical thinking skills by 1) Questioning Assumptions; 2) Reasoning Through Logic; and 3) Seeking a Diversity of Thought and Collaboration. Roycemore students are taught to collect and analyze relevant information, to question assumptions, evaluate and interpret evidence, and to use logic and proper judgement to come to a conclusion. Students are also part of an intentionally diverse student body that provides opportunities to take multiple perspectives, as well as multiple disciplines, into account when working to solve problems.

Beginning at a young age, our preschool students solve problems through making observations and plans, and then testing those plans. STEM challenges in Kindergarten involve projects where students have the opportunity to explore, design, test and repeat experiments involving science, technology, engineering or math. STEM challenges are all about the thought process and thinking like a “STEMist” improves problem solving in all areas of life. Some of the STEM challenges have included Build a Bridge, Create a Robot, and Design an Aluminum Foil Boat.

In the Lower School critical thinking continues as students begin to develop important executive function skills through practicing problem solving in math, brainstorming, learning time management and decision making skills, synthesizing ideas, and practicing verbal reasoning by explaining how and why. A variety of integrated units involve important lessons that include critical thinking. For example, in Lower School French, students are taught a process to employ when faced with an unfamiliar text in another language. When they are unsure of the meaning of a word, they are encouraged to identify words that either look or sound similar to English, to embrace their own prior knowledge, and to make logical inferences to determine the main idea. Another example from French class is an assignment where students watch a short video of interviews of French people on the street who respond to questions about news or culture. This is followed by discussions where students are asked to think about the cultural differences they see and why they think certain things might be the way they are. Students may even be asked to research more deeply to gain a deeper understanding of the French culture.

Inquisitiveness and research are encouraged and fostered in the Lower School so that students are well prepared for Roycemore’s Middle School. Humanities students are taught to critically analyze what they read both in modern and historical texts. They study what is happening in the world around them to assess geopolitical movements, and compare and contrast policy to gain an understanding of how decisions are being made. Such approaches allow students to gain new perspectives in hope that they are equipped to play an important role in creating a better future for themselves and our world. Students are taught to examine multiple points of view through studies that include learning about indigenous people like the Taino, studying resistance to the Holocaust, analyzing political cartoons, and examining articles that lay out the pros and cons of various issues and then debating them. Weekly writing assignments and journal prompts force students to think outside the box or intentionally examine different perspectives. Critical thinking also involves engaging students in their own self-assessment through student-led conferences, where they learn to gather artifacts and reflect on their learning. Students evaluate their progress and offer explanations of their progress and goals to their teachers and parents. Many opportunities are created during a student’s four years in middle school to take charge of their learning so that they are prepared for Roycemore’s Upper School.

Critical thinking involves teaching students HOW to think rather than WHAT to think. Regardless of the course or grade level, upper school students are challenged to build upon their prior knowledge and understanding from discipline-specific content to continue their growth as a scholar. In Philosophy, students learn how to state a position as charitably as possible. They then learn to evaluate the position critically using the Good Thinker’s Toolkit developed by Thomas Jackson. This is a process that is known by the acronym, W.R.A.I.T.E.C. W=What do you mean by…?, R= Reasons, A= Assumptions, I= Inferences, T= Truth, E= Examples/ Evidence, and C= Counter-Examples. In Art class, students use critical thinking when they look at the art works of established artists to determine how the art was produced and what message the artist was trying to convey. Critical thinking is also employed when students create their own art and reflect on how to make it stronger aesthetically.

A unique human attribute that is difficult for a computer to replicate is the capacity to judge a situation from both ours and others point of view. In upper school social studies, students read and analyze primary and secondary sources for the effects of the author’s point of view on the information. Students are challenged to develop their own understanding of events based on many sources. This is accomplished through essays and other written assignments, but more importantly through robust discussions to provide opportunities to see a variety of viewpoints and determine their validity.

The COVID-19 pandemic this year has provided an opportunity for upper school math students to engage in problem solving and understanding through statistics. Students have examined the number of cases and deaths both nationally and globally and then analyzed the patterns in the data. Attaching the development of these mathematical skills to an important global issue that students are currently facing brings the acquisition of math skills to life. The pandemic is also an example of a real world problem that required innovation. It represented dilemmas for which there were no easy solutions, rather data needed to be collected, and patterns needed to be understood in order to draw conclusions. Our AP Chemistry students were given a similar opportunity in class this year. They began the year by recalling skills and content learned in Chemistry and using it to solve the problem of finding the width of aluminum foil (measured in atoms). No instructions were given so students had to think critically and devise a plan of how to use their resources to approach and solve the problem (what materials to use, what procedure to follow, data to collect, etc.).

The journey of the Roycemore student from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade is one that embeds opportunities to gain critical thinking skills. As young brains develop, they need challenges that stretch their minds in a variety of ways. The prefrontal cortex is the home of critical thinking in the brain and the last part of the brain to develop. The most significant changes take place between the ages of 8 and 16. As a PK-12th grade school, Roycemore is well positioned to help a young person develop important critical thinking skills in the grand adventure of their intellectual development.

Circling back to Sir Ken Robinson, he states, “… the need has never been greater to separate fact from opinion, sense from nonsense and honesty from deception. Clear, critical thinking should be at the heart of every discipline in school and a cultivated habit outside it too.”