When it comes to education, high-stakes test scores tend to attract more headlines. But the skills involved in critical thinking are what educators say are crucial to preparing children for the adult world of careers and citizenship.
“I think it’s the heart and soul of what we do as classroom teachers and educational researchers,” says Misty Sailors, a professor and assistant chair of the Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching at The University of Texas at San Antonio.
While tests can measure basic skills, “there is so much more that we owe our children in education that builds toward the kinds of communities and kinds of society we aspire to in the U.S.,” says Sailors.
Parents can help by reading with their kids and talking about what they read, she adds. “Critical thinking can take place.”
At San Antonio’s Alamo Heights Independent School District, “we want our kids to be creative problem solvers,” says Dana Bashara, assistant superintendent for elementary education. “Our school is very passionate about it. We’re preparing students to be 21st century learners.”
Creativity is essential, she says. “You have to be purposeful in allowing time for creativity to develop and providing the opportunities to let that happen in the classroom.”
The district’s K-12 schools also provide no-cost programs for after-school creativity.
“Destination ImagiNation is an after-school program that has involved tons of our kids. They’re excited and passionate about it,” Bashara says. “Some students work on public speaking. One team can be an acting team, another a building team, another a community service team.”
At an international Destination ImagiNation tournament last year, fifth-graders teamed up to build a project with chopsticks. An Alamo Heights High School team scored points at an improvisation session.
What is her advice for parents to help get kids thinking? “Help guide them in being that problem solver, not giving them the answer. Set the boundaries, but let them work within the boundaries to come up with their own solutions.”
The Science of Critical Thinking
At San Antonio’s Highland Park Elementary School, “everything has a science flavor to it,” Principal Joseph Cerna says about the curriculum. Because science involves critical thinking and problem-solving skills, science is the underlying theme in every class for pre-K and K-5 kids.
For example, there is “brain science” behind the fine arts classes at this in-district charter campus of the San Antonio School District, Cerna says. “Fine arts are visual arts, music and movement, or dance. The oxygen flows, the energy levels increase and the educational experience becomes more memorable than it would have been,” he explains. “We activate both sides of the brain.”
Teachers also incorporate science and math in reading and literature classes. It’s part of a program now in its fourth year that he hopes becomes a model for other schools. Firefighters and police officers still visit on career days, but so do astronomers and other representatives of science-based jobs.
“When we were thinking about creative thematic units, we thought about what content to integrate. Science just seemed to be the strongest hook – the content area that fits everywhere,” he says. It’s also an area where many public school systems around the country fall short compared to achievement scores in other countries.
“You don’t hear much about a social studies deficit, but you do hear about the science deficit, especially with females. We want students to come in and absorb science,” Cerna says. “The underlying approach here is to make it where everything you do can be science. Everything interrelates throughout the day.”
At the end of a course, students use their critical thinking skills to present their findings.
“We still operate as your school next door. We still have the same schedules,” he says. “A lot of it looks similar, but when you get in the classroom and see the end-of-unit presentations, that’s when you see the difference.”
In an era when new technologies are continually being introduced, gadgets are not the emphasis at Highland Park Elementary.
“If I buy it today, it’s going to be out of date three years from now,” Cerna says. “This is a science and creative thinking emphasis. You’re learning those soft skills that companies want.”
Educators consulted local business, higher education and government representatives when developing the initiative.
“They told us, prep your students in problem solving, teamwork and creative thinking, and the business/career field will handle the technology,” Cerna says.
His advice to get kids thinking? Many museums and other popular field trip destinations have lesson plans or guides that can serve as a springboard. Parents can ask for a copy.
“You can learn how a simple, entertaining experience is actually science,” Cerna says.
Creative Ideas at Play
At the three campuses of the public charter school district Brooks Academy of Science and Engineering in San Antonio, the focus is on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. Here, educators begin developing critical thinking skills in children in elementary school through play, says Brooks Academy spokesperson Jeniann Colon.
“The activity of play keeps children engaged and removes the negative stigma associated with STEM fields as too hard or lackluster,” Colon says. “This foundation cultivates students’ problem-solving and analytical skills, allowing them to academically flourish in the more intensive STEM courses offered in middle and high schools. Students are encouraged to apply their skills to solve real-world problems.”
For example, she says, Brooks Academy students designed a drainage system to resolve a rainwater overflow problem on the school parking lot. Elementary and high school students helped build a new playground at San Antonio’s Brooks Park.
Ixchell Gonzalez, Brooks Academy’s superintendent and head of schools, says parents can turn to teachers for reading lists and learning activities to keep their children engaged in critical and creative thinking outside the classroom.
“Participate in the learning process at home using the tips and tools teachers share with everyday situations: during grocery shopping, playing games in the car and having them tell stories during dinner,” Gonzalez says. “Parents play a vital role in the education of their child, and it is important to continue learning what they can do to encourage their children’s creativity.”
Renee Haines is a San Antonio freelance writer.