Analyzing a painting by Henri Matisse, a young student raised her hand to comment on the artist’s use of bright blocks of color.
“I wonder why she looks so sad in the picture because it makes you think happy thoughts because of the colors,” she said.
Don’t let the erudite subject matter fool you: these young art appreciators are part of Dori Handel’s second-grade class at The Galloway School in Buckhead.
Using a “critical thinking” activity to teach art, she asks students to tell her what they “see, think and wonder” about a painting.
“We believe there is a lot of value in critical thinking, open-endedness, and allowing students to have a voice in their development,” said Polly Williams, director of admissions at Galloway.
Around Atlanta, teachers at public and private schools are using creative ways to bring critical thinking into their classrooms.
Amy Seely Flint, an associate professor at Georgia State University’s College of Education, said critical thinking requires that students explore the information they are learning. Rather than looking for one correct answer to a question, students are asked to look at a subject from multiple perspectives.
But Flint said many public schools have rigid requirements that do not allow room for activities that promote critical thinking.
“We’re not doing much of that because districts, states, and even federal policies want to be able to quantify education,” Flint said. “It’s impossible to have kids engage in critical thinking if they are looking for one right answer.”
Critical thinking has always been important, but it is making a comeback after years of being pushed out of public education, Flint said.
“It certainly was very much part of curriculum in the mid-‘80s through the late ‘90s,” Flint said. “As federal policy started kicking in, it became less prevalent in schools. People are recognizing the policies around No Child Left Behind have really failed. They’re saying let’s go back and remember what education is really all about.”
Esther Silvers, principal of Montgomery Elementary School in Brookhaven, said all teachers at the school are now incorporating “thinking maps” into their lessons.
Thinking maps are used to get students to consider the source of their information and how they present their answers to questions.
“Kids really need to be taught how to think and how to organize information,” Silvers said. “It also helps with their writing, enhances their writing. They have to substantiate their answers.”
Critical thinking isn’t just for little kids, though.
Audra Ward, chair of the science department at The Marist School, said critical thinking is an important element of the Advanced Placement Biology course she teaches to high school students.
She said in addition to giving lectures about the information, she tries to include a historical perspective about when a scientific discovery was made and talk to students about ways the information could be used.
“One of the most common pieces of feedback I get from students that take my class is they actually have to understand the material,” Ward said. “It’s not about the memorization or the regurgitation at all, it’s about being able to apply it.”
Ward said nationally, the standard curriculum for AP science courses will be updated over the next few years to incorporate more critical thinking.
“I am really excited that in AP sciences we’re moving more toward a critical thinking inquiry approach and it’s going to be a really great change,” Ward said.
At Woodland Elementary School in Sandy Springs, students participate in an activity called “Brain Power Day” once a month.
According to Robyn Bernstein, who teaches talented and gifted students at Woodland Elementary School, children engage in activities to stretch their thinking, encourage creativity and work together to solve problems.
Williams said technology will make critical thinking an even more important skill in the future.
“Collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving are really the primary skills kids are going to need in the work place of the future,” Williams said. “There’s just too much content now. The ability to access info at your fingertips has made it so content is overwhelming, no one can really be an expert.”
She believes more and more schools will begin to move away from memorization-based learning and toward project-based learning.
“The industrial model of education, born out of industrial age, is really going away. It’s just a matter of how quickly schools are going to shift,” Williams said.
Flint said outside of school, critical thinking is an important skill, too.
“In everyday life, we’re navigating and negotiating and problem-solving and problem-posing and trying to figure it out. It seems to me that’s what we’d want kids to do,” Flint said.