Happy September! Since we’re at the beginning of a new school year, I thought I’d share a little pedagogy with you. Specifically, I would like to draw your attention to the importance of developing critical thinking skills in our children. In fact, one of our goals as educators should be to help our students become critical thinkers. It’s not enough for our students to be able to memorize and regurgitate information. It’s not even enough for them to be able to understand and explain the information they have learned. Once students begin middle school, they need to develop even higher thinking skills.
Enter Bloom’s Taxonomy, a hierarchy of critical thinking skills laid out by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom in 1956. For decades educators have been using these six objectives to help students develop critical thinking skills. So it’s something homeschoolers need to know about. Here’s what it looks like:
Bloom identified six levels of thinking skills, knowledge being the lowest order and evaluation being the highest. According to Bloom, each skill is necessary for the development of the next. For example, in order to apply knowledge (#3), you need to understand it (#2). Or, in order to create something (#5), you need to have analyzed the components you will be using (#4).
In 2001 Anderson and Krathwohl spearheaded a group of educational psychologists and educators to revise Bloom’s Taxonomy. In essence, they simplified the terminology and switched the order of the last two objectives, so that Evaluation (now Evaluate) comes before Synthesis (now Create).
What I love about Bloom’s Taxonomy, revised or classic, is that critical thinking is no longer a nebulous buzz word. Instead, Bloom’s Taxonomy gives educators a solid scaffolding on which to build a systematic method for developing critical thinking skills.
So here’s the big question: How are we supposed to implement this in our home schools?
Here’s the great news: If you are using a classical curriculum, you will notice that the stages of learning ( primary, grammatical, dialectical, and rhetorical) correspond nicely with Bloom’s hierarchy. A well-planned classical curriculum should cover all six objectives throughout the elementary and high school years.
If your children are in the Primary stage of learning (Gr. K-2) you need mainly be concerned with the 1st objective – Remembering. If your kids can memorize facts and narrate back what they have learned, they’re in great shape.
During the Grammar stage (Gr. 3-6), you want to keep focusing on the acquisition of knowledge through observation and memorization. “This approach,” writes Laura Berquist, “both trains the mind and gathers together material for use in the next part of the Trivium, the dialectic. What is attempted is not a mere accumulation of facts, but a method of learning.” Work on getting your students to narrate back information in greater detail. However, you also want them to begin to understand what they are learning (objective no. 2) and to apply their knowledge (objective no. 3).
The Dialectic Stage of learning (Gr. 7-9) is characterized by an emphasis on developing analytical skills. While we continue to work on all the earlier objectives, this stage is a time to hone in on analytical powers. Here is where many textbooks and curricula fail. I have found that many textbooks geared for middle schoolers do not encourage students to analyze, think critically, or reason. Instead, they continue to keep students at the levels of knowledge and comprehension, simply requiring them to regurgitate information.
This is particularly true of one-size-fits-all homeschool curricula. While there are advantages to everyone in the family studying the same subject matter, we need to be sure that middle schoolers are challenged to think analytically.
Students in the dialectic stage need questions that require them to think outside the book. They need to compare and contrast, organize material, recognize the relationships between components, discover the flawed logic in fallacies, and collect evidence to build arguments. Read on for examples of questions which do just that.
The Rhetorical Stage (Gr. 10-12) focuses on developing correct judgement and persuasively defending and communicating one’s opinion or what one has found to be good and true. Writing persuasive essays and book critiques as well as speaking publicly and debating are important practices during this stage. The goals of the rhetorical stage aligns well with the 6th objective of Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy, Evaluate (Justify a stand or decision). The doctoral student defending his thesis needs this skill par excellence, as do lawyers, policiticans, lobbyists, scientists, theologians, etc.
While there may be some debate about whether or not the seventh skill, Create, should actually come before Evaluate, the main point is that it, too, is one of the higher order thinking skills. This does not mean that young children are incapable of being creative. However, it does mean that in order for one to create something of objectively good value, a person must have mastered the pre-requisite skills.
This is why, unless a child is naturally gifted at writing or art, creative writing and drawing/painting can be very frustrating. Many young children just do not have the necessary skills to write creatively or draw a picture out of their heads. Before asking your children to write or draw creatively, help them work their way up Bloom’s hierarchy to achieve the skills they need to be creative successfully. At the earliest stages, this means copy work for writing and tracing/coloring for drawing. Then a writing program like IEW for writing and a lessons in drawing such as Draw Write Now and Drawing Textbook. And then, finally, moving up to true creativity.
But enough of educational theory. Let’s get practical.
Whether or not you use a classical curriculum, you can help your students develop critical thinking skills by asking them the right questions.
Below are a series of tables that show how you can apply Bloom’s hierarchy to different subjects. The examples I give are neither perfect nor comprehensive, but I do hope they will give you an idea of the types of questions you should be asking your children at each of the levels.
Grammar and Composition:
Looking at this chart, one might think that a student should not write compositions until he is in the dialectic stage. Certainly, writing can be very taxing and frustrating until a student has mastery over spelling and grammar, has developed a rich vocabulary, and has content to write about. You can encourage your students to write their own compositions during the grammar stage, but be ready to help them with every step of the process, from brainstorming for ideas, to outlining, to choosing vocabulary, to composing sentences and paragraphs.
Diagramming sentences is almost a lost art nowadays, but it is an excellent analytic exercise. Students who learn to diagram complex sentences develop a very strong understanding of how each word in a sentence functions. Voyages in English has students diagram one sentence each day. (You need the practice book.)
One reason why Classical educators insist on Latin is that it teaches students to think analytically. For, in order to translate a sentence from Latin into English, a student must analyse the ending (and therefore function) of each word.
And last but not least, math:
Well, that’s all for now! I hope this post has given you some useful ideas on how to teach your children to think critically. Next post, I’ll write about using literature to develop critical thinking. Until then, happy teaching!
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