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Infusing Teaching Thinking Into Subject-Area Instruction

Infusing Thinking

Excerpt from R. Schwartz & D. Perkins (1989) Teaching Thinking-Issues and Approaches, Pacific Grove, CA: Midwest Publications (currently known as The Critical Thinking Co.™)

Kevin O'Reilly, a high school American history teacher from the Hamilton-Wenham School system in Massachusetts, starts his lessons about the reliability of sources of information in history by staging a scuffle in the corridors outside his classroom. He then tries to ascertain what happened by asking students who were in the vicinity. The differences in the accounts his students give are like the variety of accounts that were given about who fired first in the Revolutionary War at the Battle of Lexington (Massachusetts) in 1775. The attempts by these students to determine which of the eyewitnesses to the battle gave the most accurate account, and their reflections on why one account is better or worse than another, arm them with certain critical skills that they draw on again and again in Kevin's classroom. In the immediate context of their study of the Revolutionary War, these skills put Kevin's students in an excellent position to make informed critical judgments of the accuracy of various textbook accounts of these incidents that other students in the other classrooms are directed to read simply to "get the facts."

These skills are, of course, important not only in the study of history. They are also important in ascertaining the credibility of a vast amount of "information" passed to us through a variety of sources in everyday situations, usually through the media. Kevin tries to teach so that these skills will not only be helpful in reading history, but also in this broader arena of the everyday lives of his students: he tries to help them transfer these skills out of his immediate classroom setting into their everyday thinking. Kevin's strategy represents one approach to bringing teaching for thinking into the classroom. He uses traditional materials such as textbooks, and teaches about traditional content like the Revolutionary War, but, he restructures the way these materials are used and this content is taught so that students will develop specific critical thinking skills judged to be of importance both in and outside the subject of instruction.

It is important to note the available versatility in restructuring the use of standard curriculum materials to bring teaching for thinking into a classroom. Cathy, a first grade teacher in the Provincetown Elementary School in Massachusetts, for example, uses the same technique to focus on the same skills as Kevin at her grade level. To do this she follows up a reading of the tale of Chicken Little with a discussion, prompted by her questioning, of whether the other animals should have trusted Chicken Little, and how they could have determined her reliability. She also asks them whether the eventual decision of a whole group of animals that the sky is falling makes Chicken Little more believable than when she is alone in her conviction. What factors would make the group's claim more compelling than Chicken Little's alone?

In restructuring the use of the Chicken Little story with the goal of integrating teaching for the same critical thinking skills that Kevin works into his discussion of the Battle of Lexington, Cathy, of course, organizes her teaching in a grade appropriate way using grade appropriate materials. By contrast, other teachers who do not use the story of Chicken Little to teach for thinking may have as their goals in teaching this story simply helping students to develop listening skills and to learn some new vocabulary. These goals can all be accomplished along with the thinking skill goals that this particular teacher included. By infusing thinking with traditional content, both teachers were able to actively engage with their students as well as enhance their lessons.

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