Why a Community of Thinkers?
In the classroom, one of my favourite goals is to encourage my students (and often colleagues!) to become a community of thinkers. I try to create a safe environment in which everyone’s opinion is valued. Below, I share a few simple strategies to boost your students’ thinking skills.
Strategy I: One strategy to promote “a community of thinkers” frame of mind is a simple, but effective icebreaker called “3Rs”: Readiness, Responsibility, and Respect. Students are divided in groups and are each given an R; they are then asked to come up with classroom rules and guidelines for that area (e.g. Readiness: Have homework ready, bring materials to school, be on time and well- rested…). Every group then presents their work to the rest of the class. After that, I combine everything into a live document that we use during the term. The document can be posted on a learning platform or you can create a website with your students. It is vital to involve students in decision-making for the class to make them feel committed to and a part of the learning community (Lipman, 1991; Newmann, 1990, as cited in Case & Balcaen, 2008).
Strategy II: Another strategy I use to build an atmosphere in which thinking is valued is to accept students’ answers without dismissing them; even a wrong answer can lead to great reasoning and, eventually, the solution to a problem or a great discussion. Miller (2015) advocates that failure and errors are part of the learning process and help build an environment in which critical thinking and inquiry are fostered. If answers are not completely accurate, I ask questions such as Do you think we can find a better solution? Can you tell me what won’t work with the solution you currently have? Is there anything we can still use to create a new solution?
Strategy III: Gini-Newan (2011) states that peer feedback encouraged in a respectful and constructive fashion can be a very effective tool for critical thinking. I usually give my students a very simple form for peer assessment at the beginning of the term: It is a mere checklist including easy enough criteria to observe (e.g. for a presentation, I may give points such as “the speaker made eye contact with audience; the speaker used appropriate volume”, etc.). As we progress in the term, the form evolves and gets updated to include some critical thinking questions (e.g. Did the speaker connect with the audience? What made the presentation interesting? What was the best part of the presentation and why? If you had to help your classmate to improve their presentation, which respectful and useful advice would you offer?).
Strategy IV: I find that reasoning by using evidence is also an important part of building a community of thinkers. Since I prepare international students for undergrad or grad programs, I make an effort to really nurture such skills. For example, sometimes I write a question on the board and invite students to think quietly, share with a small group, and then discuss as a class. I have learned to allow students to have five minutes to think and/or share before taking up the topic as a class. My strategy is to help them think on purpose and pose questions that invite finding evidence (e.g. Why do you say so? Is there a sentence or a passage in this story that makes you say that?). This strategy is also successful because it gives me time to circulate among groups: It is paramount, in fact, to spend some time listening to each group; some students are reluctant to speak in front of the class, but are fine with small groups.
Strategy V: Sometimes, with more advanced groups, I open an online forum, so students can take their time thinking and responding to each other and to me. The topics and questions you choose can be related to what you are learning or they can be complementary, so the students can have some extra practice thinking more deeply about a certain topic, problem, or issue.
It is important to remember that people can contribute to the critical thinking community in different ways and it is vital to provide a diversity of outlets to encourage everyone to participate. According to Haskell (1984, as cited in Seixas, 1993), “The critical community provides a surer approach to truth than individual scholarship could ever achieve”, but in order to create such a community, I firmly believe in nurturing not only ideas, but also an atmosphere of respect in which students are invited to safely contribute and thrive.
What strategies do you use to nurture a community of thinkers in your classroom?
Case, R., & Balcaen, P. (2008). “Supporting a community of critical thinkers.” In: Case, R. & Clark, P. (Eds.). The Anthology of Social Studies: Issues and Strategies for Elementary Educators, Pacific Educational Press, Vancouver.
Gini-Newman, G. (2011). Peer feedback to support critical thinking. Centre for Teaching and Supporting Innovation. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hnp_BeNMvLo
Miller, A. (2015). Freedom to fail. How do I foster risk- taking and innovation in my classroom? ASCD Arias.
Seixas, P. (1993). The community of inquiry as a basis for knowledge and learning: The case of history. American Educational Research Journal, 30(2), 305–324. doi: 10.2307/1163237