Critical thinking and information literacy – Part I

Screenshot of “The Jackalope Conspiracy”
What do you think about the information on this web site?

Could critical thinking skills be learned as a self-extending system?

Can children be taught how to think critically within an information literacy context? That is, it seems to be a consistent educational goal that students of all ages are able to critically evaluate the information that is conveyed to them. So, how does the ability to think critically develop? Is it like learning to read? Is it more like learning to play soccer? Or, it is more like something else?  I have been trying to answer these questions for years, both as a teacher and as a learner.

My best guess at the moment is that educators need to conceive of teaching critical thinking as developing a self-extending system in students and that learning to be critical about/of the information is more like to learning to be literate (readers/writers/speakers of language). I am beginning to research the parallels between Reading Recovery instruction and critical thinking instruction.  More on this in a later post…

Facilitating the development of critical thinking is nothing new to educators; being able to critically analyze information is an essential skill in learning and knowledge building. In the past, students might have found information in a book or newspaper, on the radio, from a friend, in a diary, and so on. These days, the information is usually digital and is found on the web, in an eBook, or through a mobile app. Wherever the information comes from, I believe it is critical that students develop a filtering system that is sensitive in various ways. Information cannot, and should not, simply pass from the medium that conveys it into the receiving brain without any checks and balances.

Consuming information is like consuming food

Years ago when I decided  that I was going to try to explicitly teach critical thinking skills to my (elementary) students, I needed a way to explain what I meant to my younger students. I had a few ideas that I used. One that worked quite well was drawing a comparison between consuming food and consuming information:

  • Be choosy – Do you grab the first food you see on a buffet table and put it in your mouth when you are hungry? Probably not… usually you are looking for something you know you like or that you think would look good to eat.  You should be just as choosy with the information you find.  The  web provides information like a buffet dinner but you have to be choosy/picky (that is, critical).
  • Use your senses and past experience – When you choose food to eat, your body has built-in systems to tell you if it is good food or not – before you decide to put food into your mouth to taste it, you use your sense of sight and smell to check it out; you might even touch or squeeze the food to see if it is ripe or fresh.
  • Eating information – Eating information is no different to eating food but, before your brain does the tasting, you need to also rely on your other senses and past experiences with information.  Use your eyes to look for clues about the author, the reason for the information’s existence, advertising.  Use your nose to smell out fishiness (like bias) or foul odors like information that is past the expiry date.  Past experience (i.e., current knowledge) must also be tapped into-how does this new information fit with what you already know?  Learning and practicing these things became the  focus of various exercises and challenges.

I am planning to write more on this topic… Developing a critical thinking filter with students is a very interesting and complex problem but one that is, I feel, well worth exploring, discussing and figuring out.  In Part II, my plan is to reflect on some current strategies I have used, and that I have seen other use, to address this problem.

Integration of Technology – Sandbox Visualization

Children Playing in Sandbox

Image Credit: Children Playing in Sandbox by Flickr user njsnowdog

There are some interesting parallels between a sandbox where technology is integrated and a classroom where technology is integrated. There is a great article called Seriously Considering Play by Lloyd P. Rieber in which his description of a sandbox as a natural Microworld intrigued me.

A sandbox where
technology is integrated

A classroom where
technology is integrated

Can often be messy but not disorganized A student centered classroom can often seem a little chaotic to an outside observer and can be a little intimidating to a teacher not used to it.  Learning cannot always be quiet, solitary, time-limited, paper-and-pencil tasks.
Tools are just there; no big deal. Technology should also be no big deal in a classroom.  There should not be a “computer lab day” or project where technology will be used (as opposed to other projects).  It should be used much like calculators are now.  Grab it when you need it.  Use it. No big deal.
Lots of cheap but effective technology (tools like pails, cups, shovels, rakes, cones, wood, plastic animals, etc.) Delicate and expensive computer hardware is confined to labs and immobile workstations.  Cheap, mobile, wireless, and durable digital hardware for classrooms is the next barrier to overcome.
Plenty of tools available whenever and wherever children want them (not stored in a tool box somewhere) Classrooms need to be brimming over with these devices just as now they have plenty of paper, pencils, books, etc. Every child has a chair, desk, textbook, notebooks, writing tools… why not a various wireless computing devices, too?
Hands-on Hands-on learning is student-centered and complements constructivism, the scientific method, situated learning, problem based learning, and differentiated instruction.
Social – everyone learning and working together.Discussions going on Vygotsky maintained that social interaction comes first, then learning; that is, learning takes place in the context of social interactions.  Like a sandbox, a classroom should support this view.
Everyone is engaged.Everyone is self-directed. Classrooms should be like sandboxes.  You rarely find children who fail at playing and experimenting in a sandbox.  The sand is the content, the tools are the technology, and the other kids are fellow students.
Adult working alongside the children (not sitting in a chair or at desk) The adult in the picture is not on the sidelines but integrated with the students, working with them, assisting, and probably coaching, suggesting, praising as well.
Hardly any instruction to teach children how to use a sandbox or the tools in it. Sandboxes require almost no instruction before use. Regarding learning technology, my contention is that the measure of good computer software/hardware, educational or otherwise, is quickness and ease with which it helps you to accomplish what you want to do.  If there is a “steep learning curve” you must endure, then the software/hardware is, in my opinion, ineffective.

Further Reading:

  • Koehler, M. J., & Mishra, P. (2009). What is technological pedagogical content knowledge? Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 9(1). Retrieved from
  • Mishra, P., & Koehler, M. J. (2006). Technological pedagogical content knowledge: A framework for integrating technology in teacher knowledge. Teachers College Record, 108(6), 1017-1054. (You can read it online here)
  • Reid, S. & Cash, J. (2009). Microworlds.  Retrieved from the ETEC 510: Design Wiki:
  • Rieber, L. P. (1996). Seriously considering play: Designing interactive learning environments based on the blending of microworlds, simulations, and games. Educational Technology Research & Development, 44(2), 43-58. (You can read it online here)

Reluctant Student Bloggers

Blogging Research WordleI had a great conversation with some middle school teachers recently. They have been using Kidblog to encourage their students to share ideas, thoughts, and reflections with the rest of the class. It has been working well but one teacher brought up the point that there always seems to be a subset of her students who do not post with any detail or with very much thought behind their words. She has been encouraging them but they have not responded. This has now become a pattern.

We brainstormed a bit trying to come up with reasons why students might not willing or able to create well thought out, reflective posts.

The students might:

  • be too socially aware that the rest of the class is reading their posts and so be hesitant to post very much
  • not know what to write about
  • not be fully aware of the expectations behind the blog post
  • need more support with how to construct a paragraph of writing
  • not care about posting
  • not think that what they have to say has any value
  • have forgotten to post

Thinking about all of this relates, I think, directly back to good pedagogical practice in language arts. Writing a blog post is simply a different form of writing than what they are used to, perhaps.  It might be assumed that a blog would be a more engaging format for students and that might be true for many by not all.  A writer who lacks confidence will have difficultly expressing in any form.  So, it might be that these students have difficulty writing in any format for any purpose.

This feedback about students who are reluctant to post much on their class blog is not that common but I do encounter it from time to time.  I think that sometimes educators assume that all students today are “digital natives” (which they are certainly not; sorry Mr. Prensky) and that just by giving them the right digital environment in which to write will draw out the self-expression that has been so slow in coming on paper.  This is by no means the assumption that is always made but I think that situations such as this provide material for professional reflection about how to best develop written self-expression in any medium by students.

Further Reading:

Another Adavantage of BYOD – IYOA (Install Your Own Apps)

For many years, board owned computers have been used in schools and usually they are locked down. In other words, they come with a pre-selected set of applications for students and teachers to use in their daily work of learning and teaching… and that’s it. Special software is usually installed to prevent new software installations or reconfiguration of current applications.

One of the most exciting aspects of a full BYOD implementation in schools is that the student owns the device and, therefore, the student makes the decisions about what apps to install that help the most with learning. Giving the student this control makes sense and gives them ultimate flexibility over how they learn and create. In terms of self-regulated learning, I think this represents a big leap forward. Also, it seems reasonable to assume that a teacher could understand a great deal about how a student is learning by examining the array of apps they have installed on their device and listening to the reflections of the student regarding why they were installed.

It is an excited prospect knowing that these devices can dynamically adapt to the minute-to-minute needs of the learning environment and the learner. The affordance of being able to quickly find and install a new app makes these devices the ultimate customizable device. I think that the learning implications of the often used phrase “there is an app for that” are significant. I discussed Seymour Papert’s foreword to Mindstorms in my last post. In the last paragraph he wrote, “the computer is the proteus of machines” and I think this certainly still applies in this case.

I feel really strongly that we have to think carefully and strategically about how BYOD initiatives are implemented in the classroom. One of the learning strategies that should modelled is how to find, install and experiment with new apps that might facilitate learning in a specific situation. Or, how can you use your existing apps in a new learning situation? Or even–how can you design your own custom app to meet your learning needs?

What were the gears of my childhood?

The idea I reflect upon most often from Mindstorms is the one in the foreword. In it, Seymour Papert presents the thesis of his book and probably of his career as well. He discusses his childhood fascination with gears and how they developed into powerful, personal and lovely objects to think with. He was able to use his understanding of how gears worked to understand new abstract concepts, such as a system of equations with two unknowns. He wondered if there could be an analogous experience for every child. The problem, of course, is that every child will not have the same fascination with gears. But, in the last paragraph, he hints at one possible solution: “What the gears cannot do the computer might. The computer is the Proteus of machines. Its essence is its universality, its power to simulate.”

And so he goes on to describe how Piaget’s epistemological theory could be combined with computer programming, and an “object to think with” or, in this case, a Turtle. The marriage of these three ideas formed the basis of what he called a microworld. A microworld is a simulated environment where certain rules applies and various commands allowed tasks to be performed in this world. Children are put in control of the Turtle with the idea that the Turtle can be taught new words in a special language called LOGO (places to get it). Children begin by figuring out how they themselves would move in a certain way, for example, in a circle. Then, they tell the Turtle how to do it… In the real world, the child might take a step forward, then turn left a tiny bit, then take another step forward, then turn left a tiny bit, and so on… repeating these movements would result in the child moving in a circle on the floor. Eventually, through much playing, feedback, laughing, and trying out ideas, this could be translated into LOGO and look something like this: TO CIRCLE REPEAT 360 [FD 1 LT 1]. Then, CIRCLE can be used now as part of another program. CIRCLE has become a function that the Turtle can perform.

In a very real sense, computer programming served as the gears of my own childhood. What happened to Papert with gears happened to me with programming; my experience was very much as he described in the foreword to Mindstorms. As I learned to program (starting in grade 8), I learned strategies and ways of thinking that I applied to problems for the rest of my life. As I became more proficient programmer, I looked at problems in new ways. I could break them down into the smallest parts possible and figure out how a potential solution could fit together as a set of instructions using variables, functions and multi-use procedures.

This was also my first experience with constructionism. The act of building these computer programs strengthened my thinking in a unique and personal way. And it did not happen quickly. It took a number of years to develop proficiency and economy in programming. It is a discipline that takes a long time to learn. These days, I think Scratch is most in sync with Papert’s original thesis… the fact that there are several million shared programs on the Scratch web site makes it clear that people are learning with Scratch in a way that is fun, creative, and social.

Further Reading:

At long last…

Hello world!  Welcome to my first public blog post. I have been active on Twitter for a while now and there are times when I want a little more than 140 characters to discuss an issue related to educational technology, pedagogy, psychology, or science.  I’ve started this blog as a place for those ideas. Special thanks to people like Dean Shareski, Will Richardson and Chrissy Hellyer whose blogs have inspired me to share ideas and to more intentionally examine my own teaching practice and learning strategies.

I called this blog because another goal is to explore constructionism through writing this blog and connecting it to my experiences as a teacher and learner.