Facilitating the smart aleck

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We talk about wanting classes full of critical thinkers. I think this is a great goal and I am generally very high on empowering students to authentically think through complex situation.

But it’s not all pros. Cons do exist. (Nothing… nothing… is all rainbows and unicorns.) Especially when you consider that critical thinking is a skill we are becoming more equipped to foster and practice, while discernment is a skill that is best taught by life experience and generally comes along much more slowly.

So, we need to make sure that we are embarking up the critical thinking mountain soberly. The fact is that “critical thinking” is an easily-transferable skill set — this is why it is so attractive to us. But what happens when the students decide that they want to turn that critical thinking on you as the teacher? When our undiscerning young learners want to practice critical thinking in an authentic setting?

Are you being fair? Are your instructional decisions reasonable? Did your grading of that test make sense? Your work becomes much more scrutinized when you have 25 sharp-minded critical thinkers on your journey with you. And with their lack of discernment that almost goes without saying (students don’t behave professionally), you are almost empowering smart alecks – on purpose.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. This came out of a third grade class.

The teacher is trying to talk about division. The book uses the example of someone who knits glove who makes the fingers of the gloves separately. The question was if the person created 25 fingers, how many gloves could they make. Seems like a pretty straight forward intro-to-division word problem. Except…

One of those kids was a critical thinker.

And she said, “Why would that person make 25 fingers? That’s five gloves. Wouldn’t she make 5 more fingers? Or quit at 20? Why would someone make 5 gloves?”

Interesting questions. Critical thinking questions. And for some teachers that would be a great question. For others, it would sound like the wonderings of an tangentially-on-task smart aleck.

In reality, it might be nothing more than the mental overflow of a student who is really exploring a context they way we taught her to. And the context didn’t immediately make sense, so she asked a clarifying question. That sounds like critical thinking. But, in the ears of some teachers, the word “critical” is in bold. And while, I suppose, it is possible that the student was intending to be disrespectful, I think it is exceedingly more likely that she wasn’t.

We wanted her to engage context. She did. We wanted her to think critically. She did. We wanted her to apply her answer to check for sense making. She did.

But it’s not going to stay in math or science or reading. This skill set transfers, remember. So, you may want to consider each of the following:

  • Making sure your grading policies are properly aligned to the messaging about teaching and learning in your classroom. (Critical thinkers can poke holes in inconsistencies.)
  • Making sure your student discipline policies are consistent with your messaging about teaching and learning and applied equitably. (Critical thinkers see patterns and draw conclusions from them.)
  • Making sure that each of your activities is meaningful and has value toward the learning goals you have for your students. (Critical thinkers tend to be more comfortable making their own decisions about what is and is not worth their time.)
  • Make sure you develop a habit of adjusting your planning based on their feedback (or at the very least, have a darn good reason why you won’t and be willing to be transparent. Critical thinkers ask questions and know the difference between useful information and useless information.)
  • Be prepared to sell your coursework and learning targets and spend some significant energy inspiring and compelling students to engage it. (“Because it’s going to be on the SAT” isn’t a natively meaningful sound byte for many of them. So, if this is the best you got, you are going to have to at least take this argument to the next level. They will if you don’t.)

In general, these are things you should be doing anyway. But, if you are properly fostering critical thinking in your students, you may find that some of the elements of you coursework that you felt were “good enough”, may not stand up to the scrutiny of 25 critical thinkers with still-under-development discernment and very little professionalism (as we understand it) looking to poke holes in it.

Embrace that. The smart aleck in your room might well be practicing the skills that we want him or her to have. The trick is to recognize what we are looking at. They might be trying to be critical thinkers and apply their new skills. Take their effort. Analyze it with them. Teach them how. Model respect.

Throughout geometry, we’d explore proof-writing (which is basically a formalized, mathematics version of persuasive writing.) I used to sell it to my students by saying “Stick with me and I will teach you how to win an argument with your parents.” And I’d refer to that all year. “Let’s look at the argument you are trying to make.”

And rule #0, is if the argument is going to work, the LISTENER needs to change his or her mind when you are done. That means keeping them with you the whole time. That means not doing or saying anything that will shut them off. So, if you are trying to convince your parents (or other adults) to change their minds, you have to present your case in way that won’t shut them down. Now we are talking respect, evidence, cool heads, eye-contact, word choice… That’s proof writing. That’s argumentation.

That’s taking the smart aleck’s skill set and turning into functional critical thinking.


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