Critical Thinking In Primary School

Critical and creative thinking are combined elements in the general capabilities of the Australian Curriculum. The reason being that while the two aren’t interchangeable, they are strongly linked, bringing complementary dimensions to thinking and learning. Creating more opportunities for authentic and meaningful learning experiences is my goal this year. In fact, my #oneword resolution for 2018 is impact. In the past, I have created fun and engaging tasks that students enjoyed, but much of this learning was little more than manufactured fluff. My new ‘do better’ focuses on developing personal and social capabilities, and ethical and intercultural understanding. In a nutshell, I want to teach students how to think not what to think, and I want their learning to have real meaning that impacts their lives.

The Australian Curriculum is a content gong-show bursting at the seams with prescribed learning continuum. I see many teachers attempt to travel the entire width and breadth of the curriculum map in a shallow patchwork of disconnected and irrelevant learning. In an already overcrowded curriculum, are critical and creative thinking skills afforded the focus they deserve in primary school classrooms? My gut feeling is no. I read and reflect on the following statement slowly and often.

Students develop capability in critical and creative thinking as they learn to generate and evaluate knowledge, clarify concepts and ideas, seek possibilities, consider alternatives and solve problems. Critical and creative thinking involves students thinking broadly and deeply using skills, behaviours and dispositions such as reason, logic, resourcefulness, imagination and innovation in all learning areas at school and in their lives beyond school.

Looking beyond the four walls of our classroom and past the school gate is my ambition this year. We will seek to positively impact our community, and in turn, enrich the lives of our students. Pushing beyond buzz words, we hope to become powerful, life long learners. While we are only just beginning to scratch the surface of what it means to develop critical and creative thinkers, this blog post contains some ideas and resources we have used in our upper primary/middle school classroom. What does critical and creative thinking look like in your school or classroom? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.

How Old Is The Shepherd?

Inspired by a blog post by Robert Kaplinsky on critical thinking, I recently pulled aside members of our class one-by-one to answer a single question:

There are 125 sheep and 5 dogs in a flock. How old is the shepherd?

In Kaplinsky’s test, 75% of his students gave a numerical response which fell in line with results gained by Professor Merseth, who popularised the question in an essay in the 90’s. She stated that “researchers report that three out of four schoolchildren will produce a numerical answer to this problem.” This piqued my interest and I wanted to see how my students would respond to such a question.


60% of our class recognised that the question could not be answered with the values provided, and gave no answer. An interesting result. The majority of students who provided a numerical answer were new to our class, part of the year six cohort that had moved up or just recent arrivals at our school. Is it possible that these students felt less comfortable returning no answer and invented one? Or has exposure to maths problems requiring a high Depth Of Knowledge (DOK) started to pay a dividend for our older students?

We are only two weeks into our school year for 2018, and already we have had two attempts at the following Open Middle question:

The constraints associated with this DOK3 problem meant that none of our class found a solution on the first attempt. If the empty boxes were replaced with values, most students would solve the problems in just a couple of minutes, which would represent a DOK1 problem. Students used failing at this task to identify what learning they needed to do moving forward, for most this meant understanding order of operations or BEDMAS. Armed with a range of DOK problems, worksheets, videos and the always popular Kahoot quizzes, students planned and prioritised their own learning for the next week. On our second attempt, five students found a solution, and the majority of the rest managed to complete parts of the problem. Failing forward, this is the cycle we use over the course of the year to create student ownership of learning, a culture of collaboration not competition, and a deeper understanding of concepts.

Socratic Seminars — Harkness Pinwheel

After much deliberation and planning, this week our class finally held our first student led socratic seminar. After exploring options and seeking advice from my digital PLN, the #TG2chat crew, I decided on using the Harkness Pinwheel method. In keeping with my commitment to provide learning opportunities that have a deep meaning beyond our classroom doors, I settled on the following driving question:

How could Australia Day be described as “a day of celebration” and “a day of mourning”?

I curated a Padlet and physical resources that included a range of short texts, videos, images and songs which students were able to explore collaboratively with peers. Students spent the morning discussing, reading, watching, and note taking with full autonomy over the exploration and consumption of resources. Some explored Dreamtime stories while others investigated the stolen generation. The most powerful prompt was the video below which describes how the iconic Australian song, From Little Things Big Things Grow, was inspired by the events of the Walk Off at Wave Hill. Through the song, Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody retrace the steps of Vincent Lingiari as he battles the British Lord Vestey Man on behalf of the Gurindji People of the Northern Territory. It takes a fair bit to coax a tear out of my eyes, but this story gets me every single time.

I was looking to build a range of perspectives and to provide enough opportunities for individuals to find a hook that interested them. But really, I over prepared, as this one incredible provocation provided more than enough talking points for students. Our pinwheel split our class into an observation and a discussion group. The observation group were tasked with tracking who was contributing, asking questions, re-directing and drawing peers into the discussion, and offered feedback about active listening and speaking skills. The discussion group attempted to construct their own questions and wait for pauses in conversation to interject or build on ideas. My job was to sit in the outer circle and map contributions and questions and speak only if comments became pointed against an individual instead of their ideas.

The first group, which featured several confident and articulate speakers who I hoped would model positive speaking and listening skills, managed to generate most of their own questions. The second group less so and needed a couple of redirecting questions.

While both groups asked some thoughtful questions, many were fact based around what they already knew, rather than attempting to explore deeper unanswered or opinion based questions that might’ve provided more connections between resources covered. This provides us with an opportunity to explore how to create more essestial questions.

Too many days blend into each other over the long grind of another school year, but today I will remember for a long time. I hope my students will too.

Self Reporting in English

Our class went gradeless during the 2017 school year. We completely removed all letter grades, scores and percentages as measures of student work and focused on feedback and assessment. However, we are mandated to provide two letter grades per subject each year. So I set up a self-reporting system for English based on a template used by the wonderful Joy Kirr, author of Shift This.

Students had some 25 opportunities to create texts during the year across a range of genres and subject areas. They collected their writing as evidence of learning and at the end of the year, were asked to select and defend a grade based the success criteria we identified at the start of the semester. Essentially, students appraised their texts and chose three pieces each that displayed growth and achievement in writing and grammar and punctuation. This was a powerful experience for students, as they determined what best evidenced their learning. Students were asked to share their grade via video or a written statement. I asked permission of the student below to share his assessment because I was so impressed with the justification he provided and the unscripted language he used to select and defend his grade.

If you haven’t happened upon “Dear Report Cards, You Suck” by one of our year six students, please check it out below. It is a powerful example of how opportunities to revise and resubmit learning and the use of formative assessment can more equitably represent the skills and understanding of students who are failed by a system that inflexible to their needs.

Thanks for taking the time to read, I would love to hear your thoughts or suggestions in the comment section below. Cheers.

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