A few weeks ago The Economist magazine ran a thought provoking article on the impact of today’s technology on tomorrow’s jobs.  The basic conclusion was that we are not ready for tomorrow’s jobs. Why? David Price, in his book “Open” argues that the future for many college graduates will be one where they face the dichotomy of a high skills/low income work environment. In essence, John Dewey saw it coming many moons ago when he said that “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”

The reality is that change happens and you can either swim upstream of flow with the current. VHS tapes aren’t coming back, in a couple of years we will be reminiscing about DVDs? Remember the Blu-Ray versus HD DVD debate a few years ago? Now many of us stream content directly in our homes and on our connected devices. So given how technology is impacting all of our lives, what can I do to prepare my students for being successful in the future?

My two cents, help them learn how to think critically. Sounds pretty simple right? As defined by wikipedia, critical thinking is a process that leads to skills that can be learned, mastered and used.  In other words, a purposeful cognitive process that we use to make sense of the world around us! The real question is what does this look like in a classroom full of four and five year olds?

In my Early Childhood classroom at the International Community School of Addis Ababa we use the High Scope curriculum Plan-Do-Review sequence during the center time (free play) portion of our schedule to help define a child’s thoughts. The analogy is akin to an adult baking bread. You don’t simply walk into a kitchen and pull a baked loaf out of the oven. There is a conscious thought process involved. What ingredients will I need? Which recipe will I use? To what temperature do I set the oven? Will I have time to finish before I need to meet my friends for dinner or should I do it another time? A child’s play, to the untrained eye might appear as misleadingly disorganized and random, but it is, or at least should be, thoughtful and purposeful.

Plan BookHow do you plan purposefully? I use a few different strategies. A couple of times a week we use plan books where the students draw in their plan, basically what they would like to do during their center time (free play) and the teacher writes in their words. I love this approach because I save their planning books throughout the year and you can really see each child’s development as they start adding more details to their pictures and attempt to put down some invented spellings. At other times we plan with puppets telling what we want to do, sometimes we drive cars to where we want to go. What you use to plan doesn’t really matter, however what is important is to ask children to elaborate on their thinking. For example, if a child says they are going to the construction center to play with blocks then you can elaborate by asking “tell me what you are going to do with the blocks,” questioning to extend the child’s thought process.

When the center time is done, a crucial and often neglected aspect is that of reviewing. What are the lessons learned? What can I do better next time? How can I improve on what I did? Think back to baking bread as an adult. If that loaf comes out flat and hard as a rock wouldn’t you wonder what went wrong and how you could make it better next time around? The IB learner profile lists thinker and reflective as two distinct traits, however I would argue that taken in tandem they equate to critical thinking.

SparklesAnother, perhaps more authentic way of stimulating critical thinking in our youngest students is to have them solve problems that are real, or pertinent to their situation. I allow my classroom to become a place where I can create experiences that allow my students to discover and explore, or as children’s author Nicola Davies so eloquently stated during our recent PD session, “make children wonder, stimulate their natural curiosity.” Lilian Katz, a renowned Early Childhood educator, makes the connection between learning and relevance. Basically, when we have a need to solve an immediate problem (that is relevant to us) we are very interested and engaged and this is when learning is at its most powerful.

The constructivist teacher … sees education and its attendant curriculum goals as the result of children learning by resolving cognitive conflicts through experiences, reflection, and metacognition, critical thinking is at the heart of the teaching and learning process. (Davis-Seaver, Jane)

Good quote hey? Translated it means, allow your students to have direct experiences instead of vicarious ones, learn by doing, observe the consequences of actions, and apply lessons learned. This year I have been fortunate to work with Sarah Shafer and Ana Medina to create, develop, and refine some very cool units of inquiry and it is through these units of inquiry that the critical thinking magic starts. During a unit on tools we told our students that the dolly was broken and that they had to figure out a way to haul the water canister (20 liters, about 5 gallons) to the drinking fountain. Lift, push, pull, roll: some ideas were off the wall outlandish, some were practical, some worked and some didn’t but the end result isn’t important – the critical thinking process the students had to go through is what really matters. Or try a chameleon as a class visitor during a unit on sharing the world with living things! Not obvious what you have to do to make sure Sparkles (yes, we named him or her) is happy and healthy. The students thought, and researched, and experimented and figured it out! However, I am sure Sparkles was happy go back to his real habitat after a week spent in an Early Childhood classroom!

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If Martians took over our school and enforced a diktat that each student could only take away one skill from a year of learning in my classroom I would choose to have them walk away with the ability to think critically. Why? Because critical thinking is a trans-disciplinary skill that transcends specific content and will give my students a competitive advantage in being able to adapt and evolve to the changes they will face not only in their educational careers but throughout their lives.  As a teacher I can help my students to achieve this goal by making them plan their play, reflect on their actions, and create authentic learning experiences How about you? What skill do you want your students to leave your classroom with at the end of the year?