Three Tools for Teaching Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Skills

Kristen Sligner’s Grade 2 class used a case study about an ice cream company to explore tensions. After completing their Pro-Pro charts and creating a reframe question, students brainstormed possible solutions. Here students are clustering their ideas before focusing on ones to pursue.

Kristen Sligner’s Grade 2 class used a case study about an ice cream company to explore tensions. After completing their Pro-Pro charts and creating a reframe question, students brainstormed possible solutions. Here students are clustering their ideas before focusing on ones to pursue. (Courtesy I-Think Initiative)

As the world economy shifts away from manufacturing jobs and towards service industry and creative jobs, there’s a consensus among parents, educators, politicians and business leaders that it is crucial students graduate into university or the workforce with the ability to identify and solve complex problems, think critically about information, work effectively in teams and communicate clearly about their thinking.

While many teachers agree with this premise, they don’t often know exactly how to teach these skills explicitly, especially because many of the mandates and required curriculum seem to push in the opposite direction. Process-oriented skills are hard to pin down; teachers can see them in certain students, but developing these competencies in students who aren’t already demonstrating them can be tricky. A few teachers in Ontario, Canada have been experimenting with tools they think could make the difference.

Jason Watt has always had very high expectations for his students, whether they were seven-year-olds in grade two or the young adolescents he now teaches in grade seven at Norseman Junior Middle School. But Watt was frustrated that in order to meet his expectations his students would often have to redo their work six or seven times. He often received writing responses that were a simple sentence and he was struggling to empower his students to push their thinking further. Many of them already had deeply ingrained ideas about what they were and weren’t good at, what they could and couldn’t accomplish.

“I wanted the kids to realize there is no bad answer,” Watt said. “There’s just an appropriate answer or a not-quite there answer.” In a training on “integrative thinking” at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Watt finally found the tools he needed to develop students’ critical thinking. Several Ontario school boards (the Canadian version of school districts) are now supporting training in the effort.

Originally developed by Rotman’s former dean, Roger Martin, integrative thinking is a broad term to describe looking for solutions through the tensions inherent in different viewpoints. Martin noticed that effective CEOs understood that their own world view was limited, so they sought out opposing viewpoints and came to creative solutions by leveraging seemingly opposing positions. For the past seven years, a spin-off group called the I-Think Initiative has been training teachers in the Toronto area on how integrative thinking can build critical thinking in students from a young age.

LADDER OF INFERENCE 

One of the tools Jason Watt learned about in his training is called the ladder of inference. It’s a model for decision making behavior developed by Harvard professors Chris Argyris and Donald Schön. Essentially, it helps students slow down and realize which data they are taking into account when they make a decision and how the data they choose is informed by their past experiences. Assumptions are often made in a split second decision because the brain is wired to prioritize data that confirms the model a person already holds. The ladder of inference is a way to check those assumptions.


Watt first used the ladder in a very basic way; he showed his grade two students an image of a soccer player lying on the ground, one leg up, holding his head. The image was intentionally a little vague. At first Watt’s students concluded that the man had fallen. But as they worked their way up the ladder of inference they began to notice different aspects of the image and add those to their “data pool.”

“Students started to realize there was a lot more going on in the picture just in terms of data than what they first said,” Watt said. For example, students would say the man was hurt. That’s not a data point, it’s an inference. Watt could tease out from them that they thought the man was hurt because he was on the ground, holding his head and had a pained look on his face. “I started getting much deeper, more thoughtful answers from students,” Watt said.

As students practiced using the ladder of inference in various content areas they also started to use it on their own when dealing with social problems. When there is a disagreement, students now use the ladder of inference to back up and think through the data they chose and the assumptions that stemmed from that data. Watt says now students solve problems on their own or ask a friend to help them make their ladders.

“We’ve learned that there’s nothing wrong with questioning, so the kids have become much more willing and accepting of criticism because it’s not really criticism anymore,” Watt said. He feels the integrative thinking tools have naturally encouraged his students to build a growth mindset about all aspects of life because multiple viewpoints or ways to solve a problem are a core part of why integrative thinking works. Difference is the strength of the model.

Students in Jummi Kim’s grade 1 class are making their thinking explicit using the Ladder of Inference. They are tracking where a conclusion of theirs comes from. Using post-its allows students to move parts of their thinking around as they gain clarity.
Students in Jummi Kim’s grade 1 class are making their thinking explicit using the Ladder of Inference. They are tracking where a conclusion of theirs comes from. Using post-its allows students to move parts of their thinking around as they gain clarity. (Courtesy Jummi Kim)

PRO/PRO

Another integrative thinking tool called the pro/pro chart offers some good examples of how students are learning to think flexibly. Most people are familiar with pro/con charts, but in a pro/pro chart the group thinks through the positives of two different ideas. Rather than deciding between two choices, this tool helps students identify the positive traits of different viewpoints, and then create a third option by merging the good qualities of both.

Watt asked his students to brainstorm ideas for the worst restaurant of all time. When they had a good list of terrible ideas, Watt then asked groups of students to each take one idea and explain why it was the best restaurant of all time. One group had initially proposed a restaurant with no seating would be the worst; they reframed that to say if everyone was standing up they would move through the restaurant faster and turn more of a profit. A second group had said a restaurant in the woods would be terrible; they reframed that as dining under the stars.

“They were coming up with these really good ideas out of a terrible idea,” Watt said. “It helps kids see that they are capable and switches those mindsets.” Watt built on the activity, asking the groups to pitch their ideas in a Shark Tank or Dragon’s Den style contest. Students came up with hilarious slogans and designs for their restaurants and what started as a silly, fun activity became a rich interdisciplinary project with written and oral communication, presentation skills, media literacy, and of course, the process skills that enable them.

“The students now are no longer afraid to think,” Watt said. “They’re being more creative thinkers.” He even uses integrative thinking in math instruction, asking students to use the ladder of inference to determine information in a word problem, or asking them to do Pro/Pro charts for different multiplication strategies and then letting them come up with their own third way. His students’ math scores started skyrocketing, and even better, they no longer felt they weren’t “math people.”

PROVOKING SELF REFLECTION

Jennifer Warren became curious about integrative thinking through her daughter who kept coming home from her grade six classroom saying things like, “we had the most interesting discussion today.” That piqued Warren’s interest.

“The way she was talking about her own thinking developing, I was kind of thinking I didn’t think my students were saying the same kind of things,” Warren said. She wanted to be sure she was provoking the same response from her high school English students at Dundas Valley Secondary School in Hamilton. So when her board of education decided to fund the I-Think training she signed up.

Grade 9 students from Branksome Hall beginning their Integrative Thinking experience with a challenge from the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. Here are their Pro-Pro charts.
Grade 9 students from Branksome Hall beginning their Integrative Thinking experience with a challenge from the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. Here are their Pro-Pro charts. (Courtesy I-Think Initiative)

The integrative thinking tools gave Warren a solution to a problem she and many other teachers have struggled with for a long time: how to deepen student thinking. Until then, Warren had tried to do this by modeling what deep thinking looks like. She was confident she could help any student become a strong writer. But the integrative thinking training forced her to ask some hard questions about her instruction and prompted her realization that her students were recreating her example, not creating in on their own.

“It completely flipped what mattered to me in an English classroom,” Warren said. She used to be mostly concerned with the product. Now, “instead of defending a stance, I’m so much more interested in having students reflect on their stance and shift and explain why they shifted. That metacognitive piece is more interesting to me now.”

CAUSAL MODELS

Warren starts the first semester by asking students to do a causal model — another core integrative thinking tool — of their values. She asks them to pick three to five things they value, anything from profound qualities like independence or kindness, to passions like music or hockey. They then having to dive deeply into why they value those qualities, what caused that? Often this requires them to have conversations with family about values taught to them from a young age.

She then asks them to make visual representations of their causal models and present them to one another. “I like that because they realize people don’t value the same things that they do,” Warren said. Those causal models go up on the wall as a reminder that everyone in the class is different and that the diversity of values, perspectives and opinions makes them better problem solvers.

Warren teaches a course for students who failed the Ontario literacy exam, a graduation requirement. The kids in this class often don’t have a lot of self confidence and are often missing some key literacy skills, like the ability to elaborate on a topic in writing. The ladder of inference has been an incredible tool to help Warren walk students through their thinking, modeling the tool step by step, climbing up or down the ladder as students offer insights from the text.

“It was such a simple and elegant way to allow someone who couldn’t wrap their head around inferring to do it well,” Warren said. She thinks the visual of a ladder helped these struggling students pin their thoughts to different steps and make connections.

She’s also found the tool to be helpful when she has disagreements with students. She’ll use the language of the tools to describe to students what data she’s using to make conclusions about their work ethic, their attendance, their behavior. But she always asks, “What am I missing.”

“It changes the conversation,” Warren said. It gives her a voice to express her disappointment to students in a way that is transparent and uses the shared language of their critical thinking tools. And because integrative thinking is based on the fact that one’s understanding of something is always incomplete, constantly shifting, there is room for students to be participants in the conversation.

TRUE COLLABORATION

“I’m completely and utterly blown away whenever I use one of these tools with my kids,” said Kristen Slinger, a grade two teacher at Norseman Junior Middle School. Before learning about integrative thinking, Slinger would have said she has been doing collaboration in the classroom for the past ten years. But she’s shifted her definition of collaboration and now sees what she was doing before as merely asking kids to write on the same piece of paper.

“When you use these tools [students] realize that they hit a roadblock when not everyone is participating,” Slinger said. The natural need for every students’ voice in order to solve the problem creates genuine collaboration.

Slinger remembers one boy who came from a Montessori background. He was used to a small school and small classes and was overwhelmed when he joined her class of 20 and the broader school of close to 700 students. Slinger said he was selectively mute until Christmas, an issue she raised with his mother. The news came as a surprise to his mom who said he was very chatty at home. Slinger kept the boy in a consistent group so he could develop trust with a few peers and slowly he realized that they really wanted to hear his opinion.


“It would have taken me probably months longer to get him to that point, but it was that idea that his peers valued what he had to say,” Slinger said. He went from never talking in class to volunteering to be the student who went around to other classes polling students on their favorite lemonade for a project.

Slinger said before she learned about integrative thinking she would get interesting responses from students, but she wouldn’t know how they got to their conclusions. The integrative thinking tools help make student thinking visible. “It’s the thinking that’s been put into the responses and the way it’s been broken down,” Slinger said. When she can see the steps of their thinking she has more ways to push them to go even further.

“I haven’t take a course in a very long time that has reshaped my entire program,” she said.

GETTING STARTED

“The safest way in was by using fiction stories,” Slinger said of her own attempts to use integrative thinking. “Find that story that maybe has that emotional clincher that may have different endings and then stop there and use the ladder of inference to come up with what they think might happen at the end.”

Jason Watt suggests starting with an activity that’s part of the curriculum every year. That way a teacher new to the practice can compare the kind of thinking students demonstrate when using an integrative thinking tool with their previous lesson plan.

One important element of success is choosing a topic that’s engaging to kids, that has multiple entry points and solutions, and that has a real stakeholder. “One of the biggest mistakes is when you give the tension without the problem to be solved from a particular perspective,” said Nogah Kornberg, Associate Director of the I-Think Initiative at the Rotman School of Management.

For example, a grade one teacher offered her students a challenge from the school’s janitor. In the summer the trash is stored outside and becomes infested with bees. In the winter the trash is stored inside and smells bad. What might be a better solution? Giving students the challenge from the perspective of the stakeholder helps them solve the problem for him. If it is just presented as an A or a B solution, they don’t know who to solve for.

Kornberg was a high school teacher herself before becoming part of the I-Think Initiative. She sees the program as offering two things: critical thinking skills and building better citizens.

“We’re seeing quite young students learning how to play the game of school and this is about how to become good thinkers and good questioners of our thinking,” she said. Getting started on this metacognition piece can’t start too young in her opinion. She also sees the tool as a way to empower young people. “Because it’s rooted in problem solving it’s about saying things are the way they are, but we can make them better and I have a responsibility to make them better.”

Rahim Essabhai wholeheartedly agrees with Kornberg; he’s seen the shift in his students. He teaches a class called Business and Cooperative Education for seniors at John Polanyi Collegiate Institute that asks students to work on what big problem for an outside organization over the course of the school year.

“When I have my kids coming back to visit me and they say that this course has gotten them ready for the next stage more than any course they took in high school, I don’t take that lightly,” Essabhai said. And since students are coming up with interesting solutions to problems real businesses and organizations have, they see that their thinking has value.

And he knows students are using the tools beyond his course as well. In a final reflection for his class, one student described how she constantly found herself having to choose between hanging out with her friends and spending time with her little sister. When she did either she felt bad, so she came up with a third option. Once a month she hosted a gathering for all her friends and their little sisters to spend time together.

“They’re not being a passenger in their own life,” Essabhai said. “Nothing is too messy or too tough.” Growing students who feel that way about tough challenges should be an essential function of education.

Here’s a challenge for your students to tackle:


Author

Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

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