Critical Thinking at Hess Academy: Upper Elementary

This is an ongoing series of blog posts about critical thinking and cultivating honesty and integrity within students across the grade levels. Check out the posts about lower elementary/Kindergarten and Preschool for a peek into their approaches to this mission.

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For my descriptive review of a school project for Grad School, I decided to investigate what it looks like across the grades to “cultivate critical thinking” and foster a “strong supple core of honesty and integrity” (quoted from school website). I wondered how this mission is interpreted across the age groups, and how classroom communities respond when students inevitably wander into gray areas as they cultivate their own big questions. Today we will look into the upper elementary classroom in Katie and Lucy’s room.

Critical thinking at this stage is supported primarily through democratic classroom practices. Daily Morning Meetings bring in and honor student voices and create a sense of shared community investment. These lead to class meetings as problem solving spaces. I teach students discussion strategies that preserve dignity and refrain from shaming, and students begin to bring problems to the table with the goal of solving problems rather than attributing blame and punishment. Identifying problems and coming up with multiple solutions is one of the features occupying the highest tier of critical thinking according to Bloom’s Taxonomy, and by looking at the problems within their own classroom communities and participating in their resolution, students get hands on experience with this type of thinking.

At this developmental stage, it is expected for students to begin testing boundaries and questioning constraints of appropriate topics and school behavior. Students may bring things to the circle that are questionable content, wishing to talk about movies and video games rated for teens and adults, or letting conversations devolve into inappropriate territory with violence and silliness, or trying out inappropriate words. Asking questions is a key component developing critical thought, but it can be challenging for the teacher when students begin asking tough questions about their rights to explore these topics. As the content becomes more serious in studying war and violence in history, students question where the line should be drawn in discussing these topics with their friends in their free time. If adult language is appearing in the literature we read, students wonder why that’s okay if using these words themselves isn’t?

What I have found is that the best ways to deal with these issues is by modeling my own thought process, acknowledging that the gray area is real and worth contemplating, stating the problem it poses for our school community, and turning it back to them to resolve. I have found that teaching a democratic class structure that honors student voice and community takes care of a lot of these issues naturally. When students are invested in their learning community, they often check themselves and each other for the good of the group. Teaching critical thinking and questioning can be a scary thing for teachers who are afraid of turning over control, but the benefits are a group of learners who feel internally responsible and powerful to impact positive change within their classrooms and beyond.

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