Guiding students to be critical thinkers and masters of their own education
Every child has unique characteristics and deserves a secure, caring, and stimulating atmosphere in which to grow and mature emotionally, intellectually, physically, and socially. But what does this mean, and how do we as school leaders start the process of creating this environment within our schools? Current teaching methodologies that frame the teacher as the giver of information and not a facilitator of learning can impede a student’s education because the students are not able to search for the information or answers themselves.
As educators, we must discover ways to stimulate students and allow them to draw from their own understanding. In order to do this, we have to evaluate the purpose of school. Is the goal of school to present the educator’s understanding of the subject and then apply the teacher methodology and thought to a concept? Or is the purpose of school to create critical thinkers who can apply a range of skills and attributes to a variety of concepts and situations?
Educators have to begin to ask how they allow students to access their own learning. As we navigate how to improve the educational process for students, we see that there have been concerted efforts to create more pedagogies to allow students to facilitate their own success through the use of inquiry-based instruction. With the No Child Left Behind Act, most schools began to “teach to the test” because federal funding was tied to student academic achievement on state-standardized exams. These schools know the importance of emancipatory education and critical thinking but are worried about meeting state and federal expectations. This created school cultures that looked at the ideas of critical thinking pedagogy and emancipatory education—encouraging students to question and examine their world, using self-reflection as the key way of learning and gaining knowledge.
Students have to be given the ability to use their innate intelligence and ability to reason and understand. This lends itself to the ability to attain knowledge and is crucial to academic and social success.
In education, there are two wills at work—the students’ and teachers’—as well as three additional pieces: the teachers’ intelligence, the students’ innate intellect, and the educational material. Though all are needed and have their benefits, the conflict comes when one piece is not embraced or given adequate opportunity to be used in the educational process. Typically, the students’ innate intelligence is not embraced, which forces students to depend upon the teacher’s understanding to explain the lesson or decipher what they have learned. We use our intellect daily, and it directs our will in every situation. By giving students the ability to extract their own intelligence, you allow them to learn for themselves and begin to tear down the barriers of inequity. To place this into context, assume a student’s intellect is a well of water. In authoritative and progressive education, the students are not extracting water from their own well but from the instructor’s well. Emancipated education gives students the understanding that they have equal intelligences and can extract from their own well of intellect.
Allowing Students to Think for Themselves
In order to emancipate our learners, we must give them the opportunity to think. The Foundation for Critical Thinking explains two essential dimensions of thought that are necessary to assist students in growing their level of thinking: Students must be given both the ability to identify their parts of thinking and to assess their usage of these parts of thinking. The Foundation for Critical Thinking has established some guidelines to help students toward an emancipated education.
All reasoning has a purpose.
- Take time to state your purpose clearly.
- Distinguish your purpose from related purposes.
- Check periodically to be sure you are still on target.
- Choose significant and realistic purposes.
All reasoning is an attempt to figure something out, settle some question, or solve some problem.
- Take time to clearly and precisely state the question at issue.
- Express the question in several ways to clarify its meaning and scope.
- Break the question into subquestions.
- Identify whether the question has one right answer, is a matter of opinion, or requires reasoning from more than one point of view.
All reasoning is based on assumptions.
- Clearly identify your assumptions, and determine whether they are justifiable.
- Consider how your assumptions are shaping your point of view.
All reasoning is done from some point of view.
- Identify your point of view.
- Seek other points of view, and identify their strengths as well as weaknesses.
- Strive to be fair-minded in evaluating all points of view.
All reasoning is based on data, information, and evidence.
- Make sure you have gathered sufficient information.
- Restrict your claims to those supported by the data you have.
- Search for information that opposes your position as well as information that supports it.
- Make sure that all information used is clear, accurate, and relevant to the question at issue.
All reasoning is expressed through—and shaped by—concepts and ideas.
- Identify key concepts, and explain them clearly.
- Consider alternative concepts or alternative definitions to concepts.
- Make sure you are using concepts with care and precision.
All reasoning contains inferences or interpretation from which we draw conclusions and give meaning to data.
- Infer only what the evidence implies.
- Check inferences for their consistency with each other.
- Identify assumptions that lead you to your inferences.
All reasoning leads somewhere or has implications and consequences.
- Trace the implications and consequences that follow from your reasoning.
- Search for negative as well as positive implications.
- Consider all possible consequences.
Use Culture for Understanding and Learning
Another approach for emancipating learners is to implement strategies that allow students to use their own culture and understanding in learning. The philosophy of culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP) or culturally relevant teaching has been widely discussed for many years but has yet to become a central pedagogy in education.
Many people subconsciously confuse the definition of “culture” with “ethnicity.” Ethnic identity is often encompassed within our students’ cultural identity; however, cultural identity is the sum of all of our students’ environmental experiences from family, community, and society. Cultural identity is students’ 360-degree view of the world—an understanding of an individual’s values, perceptions, and norms. It comes to life as students reflect on how people respond to others, how they react to differing worldviews, or how they cope with various situations. As individuals, we tend to traverse our social environment through our culture.
It is essential we use CRP to emancipate our learners and engage them in high-quality and rigorous instruction. This process assimilates and acknowledges what students already know and have experienced, helping them understand that there is more than one way of viewing a subject. It allows them to embrace their culture while developing a love of learning, which embraces their strengths and weaknesses. For teachers, culturally relevant strategies enable them to learn about their students, use student experiences to teach values and expectations in school, and make learning exciting. This leads to the development of effective student/teacher relationships, which are the foundation of student learning.
CRP works with all students—from all walks of life and all cultural backgrounds—and boosts self-esteem and self-confidence, a byproduct of its implementation. It advances critical thinking and educational emancipations, increasing rigor and effective questioning. So, how do you implement CRP? First, you have to genuinely care about your students and be willing to have dialogues about race, ethnicity, and culture. Second, you have to be ready to develop effective relationships and become a teacher or principal who is student-centered, one who takes a vested interest in your students’ families and communities. And finally, a teacher of CRP must be willing to learn about a culture other than their own and examine their teaching practices to make learning relevant to their students.
Emancipatory practices will increase the critical thinking of students and their love for learning, thus inherently having a positive effect on test scores. Emancipatory practices also allow students to work cooperatively while engaging in critical thinking, dialogue, and reflection. The new practices in our nation center around inquiry-based learning and STEM, which are techniques that attempt to embrace methods of critical thinking pedagogy and emancipatory education because they are student-centered and are facilitatory practices. Teachers must facilitate learning, not solely exist as a tool for disseminating information.
Keith Davis is principal of Blalack Middle School in Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District in Carrollton, TX.