Reflection and critical thinking
   Encourage students to move beyond sloppy reasoning


Reflection is one of the major processes teachers should invite and support during learning expeditions. 

We are being reflective when we think about our thinking. Does what we are saying or thinking make sense? Is it reasonable? Do we have enough evidence to support what we think? Are we being logical? Are we being honest? Are we being fair?

In Habits of Thought, Richard Paul of the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking says that the basic building blocks of thinking are

(1) Beginning with clearly stated goals and purposes for study and inquiry;
(2) Formulating and framing problems and questions;
(3) Developing a defensible perspective and point of view;
(4) Assessing resource materials and texts for honesty and fairness;
(5) Questioning assumptions and biases;
(6) Making valid inferences; and
(7) Evaluating consequences of judgments and reasoning.

Classroom discussions can prepare the way for critical thinking when students are invited to:

(1) Summarize what others have stated;
(2) Elaborate on concepts and ideas;
(3) Relate topics to their own knowledge and experience;
(4) Give examples to clarify and support ideas; and
(5) Make connections between related concepts.

Often students don’t reason well in the classroom. Sloppy thinking is sometimes accepted or praised by teachers because it although it is poorly reasoned it offers the socially fashionable positions. According to Paul, teachers too often let students get by with “random and undisciplined” thought:

Most people . . .do not have “evidence other than the stuff of their subjective reactions to justify their preferences. They prefer because of the way they feel not because of the way they reason. To choose because of these subjective states of feeling is precisely to lack criteria of evaluation or evidence that bears upon objective assessment. When challenged to support subjective preferences, people usually can do little more than repeat their subjective reactions (I find it boring, amusing, exciting, dull, interesting, etc.) or rationalize them (I find it exciting because it has a lot of action in it.)

The traditional way to teach critical thinking more rigorously is through teaching writing. Students can be invited or assigned to tackle topics that require analysis. In such writing, they should be clear about the purpose of their argument, and then teachers can question whether the evidence and reasoning they put on the page are sufficient to accomplish that purpose:

The fundamental criterion to use in analyzing and evaluating reasoning comes from an analysis of the purpose of the reasoner and the logic of the question or questions raised. For example, if a person raises the question, say, as to whether democracy is failing in the USA (in the light of the dwindling number of people who vote and the growing power of vested interest groups with significant money to expend on campaign contributions), we can establish general criteria for assessing the reasoning by spelling out what in general one would have to do to settle the question.

Heritage Projects provide many chances to help students “reason their way” into school subjects “instead of being spoon-fed information that they memorize and then forget.”

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Asking questions in the classroom
   Review your own questioning to avoid routines

Checklist for teachers to observe their own questioning practices

____Asks student to support answer with evidence or argument

____Asks student to specify criteria when expressing judgments

____Asks questions that go beyond facts

____Asks questions that stimulate reflection beyond the class itself

____Asks questions which focus on a particular relevant aspect of the matter at hand

____Asks related questions in a series

____Asks questions which require recall of information

____Asks questions which require processing of information:

____Grouping and classification

____Compare and contrast

____Specify cause and effect or other relationship


____Asks questions with more than one right answer

____Asks student to apply information from reading or lecture

____Asks questions which require students to generalize

____To make inferences

____To evaluate

____Asks questions on matters of opinion, where any answer is right

____Asks questions which encourage hypotheses about the unknown or untested

____Asks questions that relate to the experience of the student

____Asks a variety of questions for different pedagogical purposes:


____Practice (drill)

____Self-awareness (student to realize he isn’t getting it)


____Variety, change of pace in classroom


From “Looking for Good Teaching:  A Guide to Peer Observation,” by B. B. Helling, 1976, Danforth Faculty Fellowship Project Report, St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN.  (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 186 380).

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Evaluating books, primary documents, photographs, movies, websites, songs
   Who made it? How? For what purpose?

When members of learning expeditions have their research question and begin examining texts and other cultural artifacts, it is important that they continue asking questions not just about the topic they are studying but about the cultural artifacts themselves. Who made them? For what purposes? What assumptions did the creators make? How true are the implicit and explicit claims that are made.

As we examine various cultural artifacts--books, primary documents, photographs, videos-- we should continue to ask questions.

Principle: All cultural artifacts are constructed by someone. It’s easy to think of a newspaper clipping as something natural and to accept its message uncritically. But the more we know about how it was constructed, and by whom, and for what purpose, the more we know how to think about it. The same is true for books, television programs, songs, and movies.

Questions: Who created this cultural artifact?
What other people were involved?
What are the various parts that make up the whole?
Is anything missing?

Principle: Every communication medium has its own rules. Newspapers signal a story is important by using large headlines. Movies make a scene feel scary by using dissonance, atonality, and percussive notes to jar the nervous system. A moving camera conveys disorientation or excitement. A cluster of footnotes establishes an air of authority. The more we learn the syntax, grammar and metaphorical systems of the communication medium we are examining, the more we can enjoy them (as well as defend ourselves from manipulation).

Questions: What techniques are used to communicate emotions as well as facts?
What techniques from the arts (visual arts, dance, music, theater) are used.
What emotion does the artifact arouse? How?
What makes the artifact seem to be “real” rather than a work of fiction or imagination?

Principle: Most cultural artifacts are created for some purpose, which means there is some audience the creator intends to influence. Thinking about various audiences and how they interpret various messages can further our understanding.

Questions: How well did this message fit with your view of the world?
What other interpretations are possible or likely?
Who was the intended audience?
What can you learn from how other people interpret this message?

Principle: All messages have embedded assumptions and values.

Questions: What is the cultural context of the creator?
What judgments are made or assumed?
What political or economic views are communicated in the message?
What ideas or values are being “sold.”
What type of person is the recipient of the message invited to admire?
What kinds consequences of conduct are implied, stated, or depicted?

Principle: There is no necessary relationship between who created a cultural artifact and how true it is. Though it is often useful to think about the purposes for which an artifact was created, it is sometimes important not to stop there. Otherwise, critical thought tends to wither away, and people simply take sides based on their perceptions of which group the artifact supports or opposes. Since truth-seeking rather than side-taking is the main point of critical thinking, people who want to think more clearly will also evaluate the accuracy, precision, and truthfulness of cultural artifacts.

What principles are being asserted, either implicitly or explictly.
What evidence is provided in support of those principles?
What reasons are provided or suggested for believing those principles are true?
Is the evidence sufficient for the claims that are made?
Are the reasons logical?

Note: This worksheet heavily revises the five key questions proposed by the Center for Media Literacy. The rationale for this revision is provided in Thinking critically about critical thinking

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Reflection: learning to ask essential questions
   Questions and questioning may be the most powerful technologies of all. Jamie McKenzie

By focusing on the enduring questions that lie at the heart of various academic disciplines, we are also focusing on issues that individual students wrestle with. Thus, essential questions provide the link between students’ lives and the curriculum.

Though an expedition will normally focus on questions that can be answered--Why did people move to Montana during the 1960s? How has the use of the land changed in this valley over the past 100 years? What adventuresome journeys did our grandparents make, and what do they think they meant?--good expeditions continually discuss and reflect on a set of essential questions.

In Corvallis, Phil Leonardi’s classes inquire into how and why the physical and cultural landscape has changed through time. In Ronan, Christa Umphrey’s classes are organized around these questions: How did our community and society change in the 1960s? How was the Mission Valley influenced by social forces in the 1960s? Why do people rebel? And in Simms, various strands of the project led by teacher Dorothea Susag are held together by this overarching question: How do popular myths obstruct our understanding of underlying realities?

Such questions meet the criteria for essential questions that Grant Wiggins described In Understanding by Design:

1. They point to the heart of a discipline such as history or science. They are the “big ideas” framed as questions. They are essential because they point toward core issues in the different disciplines and lead toward enduring understandings. The big ideas at the heart of literary studies, for example, include the belief that our opinions should be based on reason and evidence and that through vicarious experience we can expand our knowledge and understanding.

2. They are arguable. They have no obvious right answers. They can be pondered, explored, discussed, and lived with.

3. They recur in professional work and in life, because they grow out of important conceptual and philosophical issues.

4. They engage student interest and can function as a doorway to inquiry.

Teachers often begin unit planning by listing the activities that will be done. If these activities aren’t at some point selected and shaped by three or four overarching questions, the unit will inevitably lack focus. The key questions frame the sequence of activities and they provide structure to the lessons, the field work and note taking, and the culminating scholarly products through which students exhibit their answers.

Project-based teaching easily degenerates into a series of disconnected activities. When students experience a unit as a smorgasbord, they often have trouble understanding the big ideas the unit should have uncovered. “Why are we doing this?” they wonder. Faced with a series of activities, they may not be particularly interested in learning what records are kept in courthouses or government archives. But when they can be engaged in a few key questions, the use of such resources becomes easier to see.

Organizing instruction around returning at key points to a set of essential questions makes the unit’s intellectual challenge more clear, more coherent, and more engaging for students. The essential questions for the expedition should be posted in the room, they should recur in class discussions, and they should appear at the top of handouts.

Though most teachers pose lots of questions, many are leading questions rather than essential questions. Leading questions can be answered by finding the facts. They are intended to uncover content, or to prompt recall, or to get facts on the table. “Who started this town and when?” Often, they are merely rhetorical or thinly disguised statements. Though such questions can be useful, a steady stream of them stifles thoughtfulness and engaged inquiry.

Just as good stories raise questions in the listener’s mind but delay providing answers, good teaching often introduces important questions that will not be answered right away. To create a sense of anticipation and to help them make sense out of the sequence of activities, students should encounter the big ideas and the overarching questions as early in the unit as possible. Event can follow event, as naturally as a story unfolds.

It’s true that the essential questions are sometimes too abstract and inaccessible to “hook” students at the beginning, so more specific unit questions can be used to organize particular content and inquiry. The essential question, “Who is a friend?” might lead to a unit question, “In A Separate Peace, is Gene a true friend of Phineaus’?”

Of course, the overarching questions won’t work well as research questions for individual writing projects. They are far too big for that. Rather, they provide the organizing motive for the entire class, driving the readings and discussions. When students begin forming their own research questions, the essential and unit questions serve as the background and context for their narrower inquiries. While the class may think together about the essential question, “Why do people rebel?” an individual student might interview one person who protested the Vietnam War, not attempting to provide a comprehensive answer to the big question but shedding light on one aspect of it.

The main reason all this matters is that students need to wrestle with big ideas, but big ideas are seldom learned through lectures. Instead, they come to be understood by being explored, questioned, taken apart and put back together, used, reorganized, and confirmed. To reach understanding, students need to personalize the questions, sharing examples and experiences that bring the questions to life.

Without engaging big ideas through such active inquiry, most students will end up with a hodgpodge of opinions and cliches rather than knowledge and understanding. Teachers need to do more than state what is known. They need to design inquiries that allow students to see how knowledge is developed and upon what evidence it is based.

Questions and questioning are the tools that lead to insight and understanding.

Here are suggestions for essential questions:

Whose story is it? From what point of view is this document or textbook written?

What principles are in conflict? Which is most fundamental?

Whose decision should it be?

What is friendship? Who are your true friends?

What is the relationship between popularity and greatness in literature?

Is there such a thing as a typical “American character?” A typical “Montana character?”

Why did (do) people come to the New World? To Montana?

What is the American Dream (is it fact or fiction)?

How has changing technology changed society?

What is a hero?

What is the role of government?

What is the role of leadership during times of great change?

What is freedom? Who is most free?

Can societies survive without enemies?

How do needs of the individual conflict with the needs of society?

How do I find beauty? What is beautiful? Why is beauty important?

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Getting ready to be interviewed
   A guide for interview subjects

An explanation of the purpose of the oral history interview to be given to interview subjects before the interview.

Thank you for helping the Heritage Project save our history. The Heritage Project allows young people to help research and write community, family and individual histories. The materials created in the Project are preserved in local libraries and museums as well as in the Montana Historical Society Library-Archives .

To prepare for the interview, you might spark your memory by reviewing any photographs, letters or newspaper clippings you have saved. You might look at any souvenirs or objects you’ve kept. Please consider bringing photos, medals, uniforms, news clippings, or other souvenirs from the time period.

We are interested in your memories and thoughts about your life experiences, so we would like to hear any stories or details that are important to you. The “official” history of the time period with dates and facts and figures is readily available in many published sources, but your interview will help us to go beyond the official record to get a sense of how things felt and seemed to people such as yourself, who were there.

Of course, you do not have to answer any questions that you do not want to answer. Once the interview is completed, you will be offered a chance to review the transcript to make any corrections or revisions you feel are needed. Once you have reviewed the transcript and signed a release form, a copy of the transcript and tape will be made available to the public for research purposes. You can place restrictions on the material if you choose, such requiring your permission before it is used or specifying that it may not be used for a certain number of years. Such restrictions reduce the value of your story for researchers, so we prefer to avoid them, but this is up to you.

Unless otherwise requested all materials will be made available to the public and covered under standard copyright law. More information about copyrights and restrictions are available upon request from your library or the Montana Historical Society. Most interviews last about an hour.

We are grateful for your willingness to help.

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