Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Critical Thinking Happens When Students Get To Choose

There is much written about the importance of critical thinking lately, which includes learning about questioning, including all kinds of questions for students to identify and utilize.  The site Edutopia often shares information about schools who are emphasizing goals for critical thinking like this one.   And, the topic of inquiry has been discussed in several places in the reading that I do, like this blog, information also from Edutopia.  I want to argue the case for increased student choice as a support for improvement in critical thinking. 
Students at the school where I work choose individual units of study.  It is the core of our philosophy for individualized education.  Within the chosen topic, with student input, teachers write a curriculum for each student to follow that includes a variety of different curriculum areas, connected to the students’ needs as much as possible.   The learning within each unit also includes consideration of both process and product, along with what a student’s challenges in learning are, as well as his or her passions.  For example, if a student is enthusiastic about communicating the results of research in artistic ways, some of the expectations will give choices in art, music and drama.  And if a student wants to practice additional public speaking perhaps because it’s been something he or she is apprehensive about, several opportunities to communicate learning in a speech or a performance will be offered. 
 Students are encouraged in different ways age appropriately to begin the research for the unit, making notes of questions that arise as they learn more and more.  They write those questions, offer sub-topics and give this work to the teacher, who completes a beginning unit of study for the student.  The student begins.  The unit of study that has been written is considered a path for the student and a guide for the teacher to follow, yet within the study, side paths can and will be taken, new ideas pique student interest, and sometimes the student answers a critical question that is of high interest, and wants to move on to another topic. 
All of the meanderings and completion of research is overseen by the teacher, who can be viewed as the backseat passenger, along for a terrific ride, yet not the driver.  That person who chooses the car, to extend the analogy, and guides it down streets sometimes pre-determined but sometimes turning off down side streets to view something that catches the eye, to examine it more closely, is the student.  From the youngest to the oldest, students are asked to drive wisely, stop when necessary for deeper questioning and more research, and enjoy the ride along the way. 
The learning outcome in both content and in process because of student choice and empowerment is great.  Students consistently use critical thinking and questioning in order to proceed to areas they wish to go.  The teacher is the person who teaches what students need to know in order to keep going!  Both are empowered to reflect and act.  Critical thinking occurs within the learning because the student continues to analyze and evaluate situations in order to make the choice that seems right personally.   It’s a contented place to be ever growing as a learner for both students and teachers.


  1. This sounds like an incredible learning experience! Choice leads to passion for a topic. Your students are so lucky to have this as part of their regular curriculum. Do they know how lucky they are?

  2. Wow--this is exciting. What a great way to learn for both students and teachers

  3. Wow! Sounds like an inspiring and exciting school to work in! I bet there is such a "buzz" of learning taking place all the time!

  4. This element of student choice has popped up 3 times in my blog reading in the past 2 days. I think policy makers (at least the admin in my district) need to read more blogs. Thank you for sharing not just the sentiment, but the description of what it looks like.

  5. Back in the early 70's, I had a teacher named Mrs. Brent. She was the only teacher in the school that didn't use workbooks and she allowed us tremendous choice. Your post carries an important message. Best practice is best practice, whether a child is gifted or just a regular kid, like I was. Mrs. Brent had it figured out 4o years ago. I'm with Christy. I wish decision makers would read your post and realize that we need to stop dumbing down curriculum if we want all children to achieve at high levels.


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