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Can We Teach Creative and Critical Thinking?

What are the elements of a lesson plan to teach students how to think creatively and critically? And how do we measure what they've learned?

When a teacher gives a test, he or she is trying to measure students' ability to recall and apply information learned over a particular period of time. The exams make it relatively straightforward: Did the student get an answer right or wrong? Was mastery of skills demonstrated?

But how is creative or critical thought defined and taught? And by what assessment can we measure it, if at all?

Critical thinking is, among many things, the ability to understand and apply the abstract, the ability to infer and to meaningfully investigate. It’s the skills needed to see parallels, comprehend intersections, identify problems, and develop sustainable solutions. According to the Foundation for Critical Thinking, sound critical thinking is imperative to social progress. It is with our thoughts that we shape the world: Thinking creatively shapes social and cultural structures. It affects the way blame is placed, the way ideas of right and wrong are developed, the way leaders are elected, and the way we understand our place in the world as individuals and as a collective. It helps define, or complicate, who “we” are in the first place.

Teaching critical and creative thought, however, is challenging: First, critical thinking may mean different things to different instructors, principals, and/or districts. Second, it can be hard to know what students are taking away from lessons and curricula designed to cultivate critical thinking skills.

There are ways to navigate through these obstacles: Cultivating critical thinking may be accomplished with modeling. A teacher may explicitly show students how to make connections between their experiences and those of others, show them how to link pieces of literature, or explain the relationship between a piece of modern music infused with metaphor and the poetry lesson from last month. Particular curricula, ones that ask students not just when and where things happened, but why and how, and what contemporary parallels can be drawn, can enhance these skills.

Critical thinking can also be elicited in less directive ways: School trips, service learning requirements, and various other kinds of hands-on situations allow students to make connections at their own pace. In any case, critical thinking skills are probably best infused over months and years, the result of both direct and more subtle instruction, during which teachers suggest, and insist, that students investigate further, making—but more importantly, justifying—inferences and conclusions.

Students at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, Massachusetts, engage in so-called "expeditionary learning" projects, which are designed around a topic (for example, botany or urban renewal in a particular city) selected by the students or their teachers. Through research, participating in service learning, talking with seasoned professionals within a particular industry, fieldwork, and by preparing presentations and papers on their topics to share with their schoolmates and the larger community, students build critical and problem solving skills that will serve them for life.

So, if it is possible to teach this type of thinking, how then can we measure if students are developing these skills? This is likely the more confounding question. It’s hard to design test questions that effectively measure a child’s ability think creatively. One way may be to scaffold questions that increase in complexity and demand, which may allow students the opportunity to reiterate, to explain, and then to synthesize information they've gathered. Asking students to make connections between different strands of a curriculum may also be a good way to measure these skills. Assessments may also come in more spontaneous moments, when a child responds to a question or a moment with quiet brilliance or sensitivity. (It may be, however, that the most meaningful measurement takes place once a student is launched into the adult world.)

At the heart of teaching critical and creative thought is the ability to ask the right questions to students. In turn, they need to be able answer in a way that demonstrates their ability to see the parallels and intersections; perceive linkages between historical moments, between the period and the art, between the circumstances then and now; to comprehend the relationship between “us” and “them”, between “we” and “they,” and, ultimately, whether dichotomies like “we” and “they” are useful—and, if so, how.

Illustration by Will Etling

Zoe Burgess has been working in education for seven years. She is a Teach For America alumnus, and currently works as an education consultant, research assistant, and writer.

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