Saturday, September 14, 2013

Why all teachers should be trained to "think like a lawyer."

I am not a lawyer. At one point I thought I wanted to be one, and actually my first major in college was pre-law, but a stint as an intern for a defense attorney quashed that desire. Instead I went on to a Political Science degree and later became a teacher but as I reflect on my 15 years in the classroom and current work helping teachers and schools I've come to realize the importance of "thinking like a lawyer". While thinking about lawyers may conjure all kinds of connotations the core skill to focus on here involves the art of questioning.
Much of my professional life involves training teachers in project based learning and while there are a number of learnings I want teachers to leave my workshops with perhaps the most important one is the art and value of questioning. Great projects start with a great question for investigation and continue the cycle of inquiry throughout. While not all teachers and schools may go wall to wall PBL what I hope is that they will continually practice the use of questions to lead others and uncover information. Great lawyers are skillful at questioning in client interviews, jury selection, and courtroom examination as they lead and uncover important information in building their case. While we don't want to think of our classrooms as settings for putting students on trial we definitely want to use Socratic Method to lead them, much like a lawyer leads someone on the stand, to an understanding without saying the answer ourselves. In the famous scene from A Few Good Men shown above you see Tom Cruise as an attorney leading Jack Nicholson. In the end Nicholson says the things that Cruise's character hoped and while our motives are different, this practice of using questioning to lead students is precisely what we want to model in our classrooms.
Of course not all questioning is used to lead students in pursuit of productive struggle. As teachers we also want to use questions to engage students and formatively assess their progress and modeling the practice as a habit of mind shows students how to do so themselves. Formative assessment uncovers student progress so we can know how to respond in order to build deficiencies.  This requires asking the right questions and as this (kind of cheesy) Mindtools video to the left notes, asking the wrong questions doesn't get us the information we need. Using methods like Socratic Seminar and Critical Friends Groups pushes students (and teachers) to learn how to do this and certainly highly evolved PBL classrooms have students constantly engaged in inquiry and questioning.
As we strive to prepare for college and career readiness it's important to note that great questioning requires the deep critical thinking that make students successful in both settings. This kind of rigor shows up as students learn to use different types of questioning and while teachers may be experts of content, the skills that trained lawyers excel in are the true key to unlocking student learning. Strong instructional design sets scenarios where students engage with the content by asking questions instead of the teacher dictating it. This intentional architecture includes ill-defined
problems that require students to identify things they need to know that should line up with your subject matter so they're working to uncover content instead of the teacher merely "covering" it. While teachers may be used to having all the answers I'll leave you with a question that stems from this comic that in the full version feels almost like a cross-examination...Is it better to have all the answers or all the questions?

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Assessing creativity with critical thinking

The other day as I showed one of the new Common Core ELA aligned presentation rubrics published by the Buck Institute for Education to a few colleagues I noticed a somewhat strong reaction to the word "creativity" being included in one of the sections. To be clear, this rubric is meant to assess a demonstration in project based learning that falls in the category of communication but the word creative shows up in the above standard "presentation aids" section. While the list of potential 21st Century Skills developed by various groups and organizations can be overwhelming many like to focus on the four C's (critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity). While I have argued for inclusion of compassion in a previous blog entry I think it's worth exploring the intersection of critical thinking and creativity and consider merging them for assessment purposes.

Just over one year ago, Grant Wiggins argued the merits of assessing creativity in a blog post. In that post he mentions synthesis as a level of thinking for creativity. I agree and think we can expand that to include evaluation and application as well. Using Sir Ken Robinson's definition of creativity, the process of having original ideas that have value, you can see how this might apply to the upper level of Bloom's taxonomy. Isn't the process of creating valuable ideas really evaluating, analyzing and applying prior knowledge in order to synthesize it into something original and useful? Paul Curtis of New Tech Network recently addressed this creative process through questioning in his recent blog, A Good Question is Better Than a Great Answer. As  he notes, "it is clear that fostering creativity and innovation can only happen if students are asked questions that don't have a predetermined correct answer". As students engage in in-depth inquiry, the process of moving from left to right in the image above would necessitate the application of prior knowledge (activated by a Driving Question) as a point of divergence followed by the analysis and evaluation of the ideas generated to converge toward solutions. Through this process of synthesis comes Robinson's "original ideas that have value." Returning to Grant Wiggins, he offers a rubric for creativity that includes language of synthesis like:
  • The problem has been imaginatively re-framed to enable a compelling and powerful solution
  • There is an exquisite blend of the explicit and implicit
that make even more clear the intersection of critical thinking and creativity 
Incorporating elements of design thinking and project based learning to identify challenges and solutions of value can be a fantastic invitation to creative thinking. Fostering creativity is one thing, assessing it is an entirely different matter and in my work training teachers implementing PBL, the issue of assessment is often one of the more daunting challenges. As a teacher, on presentation day, having too many things to assess in a short and intense time can be overwhelming and counterproductive. Instead of using separate rubrics meant to assess creativity and critical thinking you might consider using one with the language of critical thinking while looking for student processing toward original ideas that have value.