Shifting to Critical Thinking, Simplexity and Boiling the Frogs

There is a parable that states that if you throw a frog into boiling water, it will immediately jump out.  However, if you place the frog into cooler water, and slowly turn up the heat until the water boils, the frog will remain until it is too late.

(The above parable is a little graphic, but it I find it compelling as it summarizes the challenges of helping to bring about change.  By the end of this post, you hopefully will see where I’m going with this.)

Today I had the awesome privilege (for the third time but who’s counting) of  hearing Garfield Gini-Newman speak to Principals and Vice-Principals in our board.  Garfield is a lecturer at Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and a Senior Consultant with the Critical Thinking Consortium (TC2).

It was a fabulous morning discussing and examining the concept of critical thinking through the lens of our district’s instructional framework of the Big Five*, and how we can shift the instructional practices in our building to one that is based in inquiry and thinking challenges, from those that are rooted in superficial rote memory skills.  This was the most intriguing part for me.  To an extent Garfield was preaching to the choir today, but I understand that as the instructional leaders in our buildings it is our mandate to nurture, invite and support this framework with our staff. 

I am not naturally a patient person. My instinct is to run through the halls of my building tonight after hours and pitch out every workbook, cursive writing sheet and piece of chalk in the place, and announce triumphantly that we will be doing business differently from now on, deliver a stirring speech on the wonders of critical thinking and engaging tasks, wait for the applause, and isn’t this exciting everyone?

But no.  So how do we support a shift in practice that is so monumentous in its core beliefs regarding learning without reluctant staff members throwing up the barriers, locking their classroom doors and shutting me out?  Well, I learned a new word today – simplexity.  The key is simplexity, the interrelationship of the simple and the complex (I Googled it when I got home and got Angela Maier’s 2008 post  as one of the top hits).  Garfield suggested that the key factor to moving your more reluctant teachers along is to accept it as a process, and invite and encourage staff to “tweak” what they are currently doing in the classroom by taking a task that is a recall-based (“look-it-up”) question/task and by changing the wording, or the timing, you’ve completely changed what is expected of the students with regard to the level and complexity of their thinking and what they produce.  For example: Who is the protagonist in Macbeth?  Simple.  If you’ve read the play (or even if you haven’t), you’ll most likely regurgitate a one-word answer.  But what if you’ve first explored the concept of protagonism, then asked the same question before reading the play?  Now you’ve got the background knowledge to set criteria for what a protagonist is, and the students are then investigating, accepting and dismissing ideas as they read, making a judgment and supporting it.  And they may argue that it isn’t Macbeth!

Another example from my own life.  My niece has been given the task of building (her sheet said create, but I disagree) a model of the solar system.  Low-level engagement and at best she’ll learn the order of the planets (and perhaps a clever mnemonic).  Now, by simply tweaking the question to something along the lines of, “If you had to colonize any planet in our solar system to sustain human life, which one would you choose?” and by asking  it at the outset, you’ve set up a critical thinking challenge.

The above hopefully illustrates a deep and complex shift in practice via a simple method, hence the simplexity. And it is simplexity that will hopefully “boil the frogs” in our building.

*For more information on our district’s Big 5, specifically our initial focus on the task, please visit Shannon Smith’s blog post.

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