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teaching critical thinking skills

04 Oct Teaching Critical Thinking: A Visible Thinking Caravan

By Mark Exton, Rabat American School

Who remembers Y2K? As we headed towards a new millennium, we educators fixated on two main things: Y2K – the Millennium Bug – and that new phrase, ‘Twenty-first Century Learning’. Y2K ended up being totally anti-climactic, thankfully, but well into the second decade of the new millennium we are still struggling with both agreeing on a definition of twenty-first century learning and truly implementing it.

Harnessing the 6C’s for 21st Century Learning

Maybe it’s the ‘C’ in C21 that sparked it, but pretty much aside from the ‘fluencies’ movement, the good and the great seem to encapsulate the idea of twenty-first century learning with a particular number of C’s! The Partnership for 21st Century Learning has four C’s – Collaboration, Creativity, Critical thinking and Communication. Pat Bassett, a former President of NAIS started with five – all the above plus Character – before adding a sixth, Cosmopolitanism.

I saw Pat Bassett at an AASSA conference a few years ago, and, while I really appreciated his broader C-based definition, what really grabbed me was how he viewed organizing for the 6C’s. He pointed out that if we really value this stuff, as we appear to value math, science, physical education and the rest, then surely we should organize for it in the same way, with scope and sequence documents, etc.

Teaching Critical Thinking Skills

This struck a chord because I’d already started to think about how readily we educators throw around phrases such as “Of course we do critical thinking, we run the IB Diploma!”, etc. My sense was that many of us were talking a good game but failing to walk the walk! I also had a strong idea that approaches such as examined Critical Thinking courses were not the way to go either! All of this eventually led me to looking more closely at the area of critical thinking, and what this might look like as a more organized and more intentional facet of young people’s learning.

My journey started here in Morocco, at an International Baccalaureate Africa Europe Middle East (IBAEM) conference in Marrakech, in October 2008: I attended a breakout session by a couple of teachers from the International School of Amsterdam about something called Visible Thinking. A few years later I shared some of the ideas with colleagues in Lima, Peru, but it was really only when I became head of school at Hiroshima International School in Japan that I really investigated what it was about: finally, I had the power! 😉 The upshot was that some two-thirds of the school’s teachers signed up, in teams, for HGSE’s 13-week Making Thinking Visible online course. By working in teams and by persisting with the thinking routines that were at the core of the course, the staff at the school started to reach a significant critical mass…but more of that in the workshop. With a change of my position, the work has started afresh at Rabat American School, and is developing in quite a different way. We are now looking to join up with some local ‘fellow travelers’ as we continue the journey.

After six years of teaching Pre-K and KG in a UK public school, Mark ventured overseas for what he thought would be a two-year stint in Cairo…and that is now 25+ years and 6 schools ago. He has taught Pre-K through to Grade 11, across grade level homeroom, IT, design thinking and social studies, and also held curriculum coordination, divisional principal and head of school positions. Mark has tried to get into jobs that he enjoys rather than worry about the career trajectory, and most of these have been within schools running IB programs.

Mark has had the great fortune to share most of this journey with his wife Jane, a PYP teacher and workshop leader, and his daughters Lara and Nina. Sometimes they allow him to go play golf or watch Manchester United on the big square box!

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