Educating trainee teachers in critical thinking

Effective approaches to training student teachers in critical thinking so they can apply it across multiple disciplines and pass on their knowledge to their own pupils, by Joseph Sanacore

Joseph Sanacore's avatar
Long Island University
6 Jun 2022
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The internet has caused a blitz of information that challenges us all, young and old, to distinguish between facts, opinions and biased news. Responding to this knowledge explosion requires an ability to think critically when immersed in different types of content. To support this effort, university schools of education need to accept responsibility for training future teachers not only to understand the critical-thinking process but also to promote critical thinking in their own student teaching and classroom practice.

Although critical thinking has many definitions, the Foundation for Critical Thinking helps to merge commonalities for understanding that can feed into curricula. These commonalities support thinking that is self-disciplined, self-directed, self-monitored and self-corrective. With these dispositions, individuals can improve thinking by analysing, evaluating and reconstructing it. Critical thinking, however, is most effectively taught when applied to content. Education students benefit from opportunities to think about thinking across different content areas.

The following considerations can help education faculty to promote critical thinking among trainee teachers so that they, in turn, can support such efforts with the children and adolescents who are entrusted to them.

1. Develop a profound understanding of critical thinking. Education faculty usually work steadfastly to teach their students to engage in critical thinking. Faculty themselves, however, might not have a comprehensive understanding of the critical-thinking process. This can result in teaching fragmented aspects of the process instead of a comprehensive exploration of the concept of critical thinking and its transfer value to different content areas, such as English language arts, science, social studies, mathematics. One way of increasing an awareness of critical thinking for faculty and students is to reduce lecture and short-term memorisation formats and increase peer-to-peer and student-to-faculty interactions.

2. Encourage active student participation. I often refer to critical thinking as higher interactive thinking skills (HITS) because it is hard to demonstrate profound thinking without engaged communication for interpreting meaning. One of the biggest enemies of critical thinking is passive thinking, which implies that others should be doing the thinking for us. Our education majors need to be actively engaged in their courses so they can internalise what they are learning and think about it in ways that will benefit their teaching.

Faculty and students can develop interactive lesson plans for developing course content in which everyone cooperatively makes decisions about instructional objectives, strategies, resources, enrichment follow-up activities and assessments. Another important consideration is to give education students opportunities to revise, revise and revise their work. I have learned through the years that when my students engage in frequent revisions, their thinking and their grades improve. They also come to realise the value of thoughtful revision and the need to encourage it in their student teaching and teaching practice.

3. Ask questions that are challenging and open-ended and motivate students to ask their own questions. Well-planned questions encourage students to analyse and interpret arguments and related information, to provide evidence for favouring a particular interpretation, to understand multiple perspectives. These critical reflections support enquiry, analysis and assessment, and they are more likely to boost engagement and deep thinking when teachers provide more time to think before responding. As professors, we often feel stressed about covering lots of course material; however, sometimes less is more, especially when the instructional focus is deep thinking. I usually follow this guideline: the deeper the question, the longer the wait time. Using this guideline has reduced students’ impulsive responses and has encouraged them to frame their own thoughtful questions.

4. Remind students that no text or person is neutral. Our education majors benefit from tackling critical-lens questions that help to deconstruct texts and explore counter-narratives. In the thoughtful article “Confronting bias with children’s literature: a preservice teacher’s journey to developing a critical lens for reading the word and the world”, Katie Kelly, Lester Laminack and Evelyn Gould suggest related strategies and questions including:

  • How does this text centre certain ideas, values or groups while marginalising others?
  • What does the author want me to think, feel or believe?
  • How does this text perpetuate stereotypes?
  • Who does this text privilege?
  • Who is silenced or under-represented in this text?
  • What purpose is served by that omission?

These and similar questions can easily be adapted in developmentally appropriate ways to accommodate the higher-level learning needs of all students.

These four considerations represent only a sample of the many ways to teach and learn higher interactive thinking skills (HITS). When education students apply advanced skills to substantive content, they are more likely to feel confident in modelling these skills in their own teaching and classroom practice. This instructional direction is necessary for supporting literacy worldwide.

Joseph Sanacore is a journalist, researcher and professor at Long Island University Post Campus.

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