How Keystone teaches critical thinking

Mar 01 2024

How Keystone teaches critical thinking

“The principal goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive, and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered.”
-Jean Piaget

Two experiences on a recent weekend reaffirmed why Keystone is such an exceptional school. The first took place on Friday afternoon, when one of our seniors and I met to discuss an essay he was writing on the Israel-Hamas conflict. Over two and a half hours, we grappled with the complexity of the topic, and attempted to untangle the various arguments.

Again and again, I was impressed with this student’s desire to see all sides of the ongoing war while forming and refining his own thoughts. To his credit, he has strong opinions; however, he also demonstrated a mature and sophisticated desire to comprehend each side of the argument and delve deeper than what is shown on the news.

His avoidance of simplistic explanations and his willingness to acknowledge the complicated history could serve as a model for adults who spout ill-informed slogans or posture on social media while not truly understanding the issue. I left our discussion believing that if other young adults are as open minded and willing to question as this young man, there is hope for our world.

Then on Sunday, I had the pleasure of watching the hard work of our students pay off in awards and accolades at the Alamo Regional Science and Engineering Fair at St. Mary’s University. Once again, Keystone students excelled, and four Upper School students are headed to the International Science and Engineering Fair in May in Los Angeles. We congratulate all of our students who participated and wish all the best to those moving on to the next stage. We also congratulate the middle and upper school science teachers and Ms. Holden and Mr. Nydegger for their work with our students.

It was particularly affirming and delightful to hear the students share the results of their research and what they learned. Their unwillingness to take at face value what others may have said about their topic but do their own analysis and learn their own lessons demonstrated the critical mindset and determination we wish for all young people. The students’ desire to pursue their research and make a difference in the world was heartening and elevating.

Our students learn at an early age how to think critically and analytically.

“Critical thinking takes a lot of practice and is hard work. When I hear critical thinking, our DBQ (Document-based Question) essays in social studies come to mind,” explains third-grade teacher Ms. Steward. “Students are examining primary source documents and then forming an opinion they can defend. Students collaborate in small groups and talk through their opinions on topics such as “How did Cabeza de Vaca Survive?” and “What Caused the Dust Bowl?” or “Why Did the Spanish Missions Fail in Texas?” before they clarify their thinking through writing. Using the DBQ Project helps students not to just memorize dates and definitions, but to see history come to life through their understanding of primary sources such as maps, letters, speeches, and artwork.

Students in third and fourth grade are also in the thick of science fair right now. They just turned in their first drafts of their results and conclusions. Students are figuring out if their hypothesis was correct or not and using their critical thinking skills as to why.”

This process continues in fifth and sixth grade, where Social Studies teacher Ms. Rardon asks students to think long and hard about the world around them.

“In middle school we focus our attention on essential questions that relate to various topics of study. For example, we use the question “How does geography shape people’s lives?” “Why is history important?” and “What makes a culture endure?” she explains. “This allows students to not only make connections with the civilizations or cultures we are currently studying, but also allows students to make connections to past learning or personal experiences.”

This emphasis on clear and critical thinking continues all the way through Upper School, where students learn how to move beyond received wisdom and perhaps outdated approaches. In Ms. Hall’s 12th grade English class, students learn an approach that will help them in college and beyond.

“My favorite educational theorists are Paulo Friere and Lev Vygotsky. From Friere, I have learned the value of curiosity. From Vygotsky, I have learned the importance of constantly pulling/pushing/tugging kids to their next cognitive level. I think the seminar format I have developed for the US students in my English classes is one way to do what both Friere and Vygotsky espouse,” Ms. Hall says. “Our seminars happen after we have completed a work of literature. Most recently my sophomore students participated in a seminar on “Lord of the Flies” and the seniors participated in a seminar on “The Remains of the Day.” Here is how it works: The day before the seminar each student develops three questions. These questions are scaffolded, requiring students to create an OPENING question which asks them to begin the process of exploration. Then they create a CORE question which asks students to explore cause/effect relationships in the text. The third category is a CLOSING question which directs students to make a connection between the text and self. A CLOSING question could be worded like this: ‘What do you think Ishiguro wanted readers to take away from Stevens’ actions in the scene on the pier?’

On the day of the seminar, the classroom desks are in a circle, and students bring their questions, their books, and a way to take notes. I am on the outside of the circle taking notes on participation. The seminar typically takes all class period. Students are then asked to bring their books and notes to class the next day when they will write a response to the seminar. In the response, they will speak candidly about what they agreed with, what they disagreed with, and what they heard that was new to them. This reflection piece is critical in terms of solidifying the learning.

Students begin the study of the book several weeks earlier with little to no knowledge of what the book is about, and they end by creating questions about their curiosities and then participate in a discussion and writing which inevitably show that their thinking has been challenged. It’s a joy to watch the learning unfold!”

In their classes, on their projects, and even in their informal conversations, Cobras show a desire to look at subjects from all angles and viewpoints, and Keystone teachers challenge and support them to dig deep and formulate their own opinions and thoughts. As a result, our children and adolescents become excellent scholars and thoughtful citizens. We can look forward to the great things they will do as they endeavor to improve the lives of others and themselves.

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