When we developed our initial list of desired student learning outcomes during our 2013 Learning Summit, participants were unanimous that critical thinking must be part of students’ preparation for life in the twenty-first century. Whether in college, work, or civic life, our students will need to know how to analyze and synthesize information to solve complex problems and contribute to their communities. As we refined our DSLOs, our research, as well as feedback from SAS students, parents, and educators, confirmed that critical thinking skills must be central to the SAS educational experience.
This focus on preparing students to assess and apply knowledge is partly a response to the unlimited information we can now access with the swipe of a finger. Today, finding information is not the issue; the real challenge is understanding that information, judging its worth, and using it to grapple with complex issues and challenges. The critical thinking DSLO is closely related to content knowledge because together they give our students the foundations and the tools for meaningful and constructive engagement with their world.
SAS students learn critical thinking skills from the earliest grades. Our Reggio Emilia-inspired program in the ELC encourages children to work together as they investigate topics that interest them; guided by their teachers, they engage with questions that arise and express their learning creatively. As they get older, students are taught a variety of ways to manage, analyze, and synthesize information: visual tools like timelines, Venn diagrams, and mental modeling, as well as note-taking, outlining, brainstorming, comparing and contrasting, editing, responding, and revising. Students become comfortable with relevant terms like analyze, evaluate, synthesize, question, connect, investigate, explain, reflect, theorize, and summarize. Across our academic departments, they see their teachers consciously modeling critical-thinking approaches by thinking out loud while engaging with subject-area content.
Like several other DSLOs, critical thinking is difficult to assess using traditional tests. Over time, I have seen a significant shift toward alternate forms of assessment at SAS. Rather than relying on tests that ask basic content knowledge questions, our students now are asked to show their critical thinking skills through solving problems and explaining their reasoning in writing, conversations, and presentations. Teachers are interested in the thought processes they demonstrate, rather than solely the end results. Essentially, students are increasingly asked to “make their thinking visible” in their assessments.
Parents can also see this shift in how their children’s classes are organized. In math, for instance, while there is still an emphasis on memorized facts, it is more important that students understand why and how math rules work. Social studies courses have shifted from chronological or geographical units focused on facts to ones that ask students to critically think about concepts like conflict, sustainability, and poverty. New advanced topic courses in our high school, with their emphasis on depth over breadth, interdisciplinary connections, and real-world applications, are also representative of our increased emphasis on critical thinking. Student-driven inquiries like TRi Time and Catalyst give SAS learners opportunities to apply these skills in areas of personal interest.
We love seeing our students engage with complex issues and demonstrate their critical-thinking abilities in different courses and activities. By ensuring they can evaluate, select, analyze, and synthesize the information at their fingertips, we ensure that our students are ready to rise to the challenges they will face as they move through life.
My next article will explain the desired student learning outcome of creativity. Feedback, questions, or comments about our Learning at SAS series are always welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please get in touch!