One of the biggest educational needs in my school is to develop critical thinking skills in the students. I teach in Shanghai, China and all of my students are Chinese nationals who have grown up in a very strict exam-based education system. They are used to memorizing facts and listening to teachers tell them everything they are supposed to know for the test, but they have not had the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills. However, these students have left the local schools in search of a better education that will prepare them to study abroad in the future. They want a well-rounded education but they struggle to adapt to learning in a different way.
I teach IGCSE Global Perspectives which aims to help students develop skills of planning, analysis, synthesis, collaboration, evaluation, and communication. We study global issues from multiple angles using research, reasoning, and questioning skills to gain understanding and form judgements. This course is an excellent resource for my Chinese students to develop their thinking skills, but it is so different than any other course they have ever taken. They want to learn the necessary facts, but they struggle to synthesize and analyze facts in a way that leads to good evaluation. I want them to produce solutions to global issues, but they are waiting for me to spoon-feed them canned solutions. For example, when I ask them to consider courses of action to improve a social problem, almost all my students will start with “The government should…”, as opposed to being able to produce more creative and relevant responses.
The instructional strategies that I employ to assist my students are more inductive in nature. These young people have been taught deductively their whole lives, with their eyes on their books and their ears listening to the teacher. Getting them to make eye contact and communicate their thoughts with the teacher and their fellow classmates is a challenge. I use Socratic lecture methods, questioning them and drawing out answers from places in their minds they didn’t know existed. We do collaborative group work both in and out of class so that they are learning from one another. I show interesting and thought-provoking media to spark discussion and debate. But as this is more of a challenge in my context than it would be in America, I need to find better ways still to help these students develop their critical thinking skills.
As I researched ways to use technology to foster creative thinking, one idea came up again and again. It is to use online discussion forums to facilitate communication. I can still use the Socratic method by asking open-ended questions on the discussion board, but the online aspect has several unique advantages that will benefit my students. I can require every student give input, something that is hard to do in limited class time with many students. Also, students will have the opportunity to think more deeply and for a longer time before they respond, as opposed to in class when they only have a few minutes or even seconds before we move on. For my students who are still premature in the development of their minds, this time and space should help them immensely.
We use the Edmodo website for my classes, so it will be natural to put these discussions on there. I can pose an open-ended question or perhaps make a provocative statement and ask for the students to respond. I could make it a one-day homework assignment asking for at least one comment, or I could let it last all week and require three comments from them in response to their classmates. I can also engage in the dialogue if that is helpful. And we can then review the discussion board in class on the screen and I can highlight some the most thoughtful answers, perhaps even continuing the discussion. In doing this, I am using a simple technology to enhance a time-tested method to help students learn.
I can gauge progress and success by monitoring the growth and development in the level of discussion produced on these online discussion forums. As we do this multiple times, I expect to see students using more reason and logic, developing more valid arguments, and more deeply evaluating others’ responses. I hope this can be one more successful method to attack the wicked problem of the difficulty in fostering creative thinking.
1. Greenlaw, Steven A. and Stephen B. DeLoach. “Teaching Critical Thinking with Electronic Discussion” The Journal of Economic Education, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Winter 2003), pp. 36-52.
2. MacKnight, Carol B. “Teaching Critical Thinking through Online Discussions” Educause Quarterly, 2000, No. 4.
3. Yang, Ya-Ting C., Timothy J. Newby, and Robert L. Bill. “Using Socratic Questioning to Promote Critical Thinking Skills Through Asynchronous Discussion Forums in Distance Learning Environments” The American Journal of Distance Education, 2005, 19(3), p.163–181.