Can we level the playing field? (Part Three)

12 May


This is the third in a series of blogs sharing our experiences of setting up a critical thinking programme with Year 12 students.

So, we’ve identified our Year 12 cohort and it’s difficult to work out who is more excited about starting: us or the students. We could exaggerate and say that there was a buzz spreading across the school but we’ll just say that a small number of students and staff were looking forward to getting started.

Let’s start with how we designed the ‘taught’ aspects of the course. We wanted the sessions to encourage lateral thinking but also to be relevant and accessible to the students. We came up with a basic structure for each session as follows: begin with a ‘big’ critical question and ask students to write down their immediate thoughts individually. Next, introduce a stimulus to potentially support or challenge their initial ideas. Examples of stimuli we use include video clips from Newsnight, Have I Got News for You and QI. Again, students have a few moments individually to reflect on any ideas they have developed or changed and jot down their thoughts.

The main portion of the session is then divided into three follow up questions for the students to discuss. Our role in this section is to observe, listen and try to say as little as possible (a particular challenge for the verbose Miss Light!) We split the group in two for these discussions and each one of us observes the dialogue of one of the groups and makes a few notes (this kept Debbie busy so she didn’t have a chance to say too much!) After discussing each question for about 7 minutes, the teachers give a quick summary of the ideas they have heard during their group’s discussion (comparing the different directions that the thinking takes proves to be very interesting) and then the students have an opportunity to jot down any key points from the discussion before the groups are mixed up and the next question introduced. Once the three questions have been explored there is time to revisit the initial ‘big’ question and the students record any final thoughts on their notes sheet.

The ‘lesson’ lasts an hour and at the end of each session we collect in the notes sheet from each student. This is nothing to do with marking – we simply find it interesting to read the thoughts of each student and see how their ideas develop throughout the session. We give the notes back to the students in the following session so they can reflect on their own thinking. We’d be interested to hear any thoughts on marking for these sessions – would anyone be inclined to add comments and questions onto these notes sheets?

It can be a bit difficult to picture a session when it is explained in such a functional way, so we thought it best to give an example of one session. We’ve chosen the one that we had the most fun writing (apologies to our colleagues who had to try and work in the staffroom while we howled with laughter putting the slides together!)

To begin the session the ‘big’ critical thinking question is introduced: ‘How important is a shared language for communication across the world?’, and students jot down their initial ideas. Next, the stimulus material is shown: firstly, a video from CBN entitled ‘English no longer the global language’ showing a news report about primary school students in the US learning Mandarin Chinese, then we follow this up with some slides showing various gestures, and task the students with guessing the meaning of each in a particular language (see the picture above).

Students record any further thoughts following the stimulus material and then sit in two smaller groups to discuss the follow-up questions. These questions are: ‘Are words always the best form of communication?’, ‘Can we have thoughts without words?’ and ‘Should it be business that determines what becomes the global language?’

Students then have a few minutes to reflect and record their final thoughts as they are reminded of the initial question.

Memorably for me, this particular session raised some interesting discussions on whether students who are multi-lingual always think in their first language or if they automatically think in their second language(s) if their knowledge of those languages is strong enough. Interestingly, some students said they read something and thought about it in words, whilst others pictured what they were reading. It appeared to us that those students who thought in words were those that were quick to speak about their opinions whereas those who thought with pictures seemed to be more considered and slower to speak.

Reflecting on this process we wish we could have filmed each session because it is difficult to remember all the fascinating discussions that occur. The reason we decided against it is that we didn’t want to intimidate the students and affect how naturally they would participate in the discussion.

So, back to the programme, what happened next? Unfortunately for the programme, (but very fortunately for her new school) Debbie secured a promotion at another school and moved on at Christmas. At this point we had completed 6 out of 10 sessions of the taught programme and the students had taken to it very well. Mel was devastated to have to ‘go solo’ for the remainder of the programme, but it was a great opportunity for the students to take more of a lead. We will discuss how this worked out in the next blog and describe the student led seminars.

As promised, before we go, the answer to the barber of Stubblington question is that the barber must be a woman. This can be explained in many ways but the key points are that the barber shaves all the men who don’t shave themselves and only the men who don’t shave themselves – if the barber was a man, whether he shaved himself or didn’t shave himself he could not meet both of these requirements.

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