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A Perspective on the Role of Critical Thinking in Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment (3/29/14)

As a career educator and a former school district superintendent, I developed and guided the implementation of curriculum, instruction, and assessment for a number of years. The work of guiding schooling in the various districts that I served in is a deep passion of mine. In my work over time, I have seen the conversation on all three topics evolve up through the current era of accountability in PK – 12 education in the United States. Although the conversation has constantly evolved, one theme remains consistent, the need to produce high school graduates who can become productive members of society.

In the current era of accountability in education, the conversation on the ultimate ends of schooling has focused more precisely on producing graduates who are “college and career ready.” Much of the discourse that surrounds college and career readiness is driven by the new curriculum that has been adopted throughout the United States, the Common Core. While flawed in some of the elements of its design, the Common Core provides the first viable attempt at nationally aligned curriculum standards in the United States and it challenges educators to teach and assess at high cognitive levels. Because of the elevated instruction that it requires, the Common Core pushes students to be able to think critically about the content, developing habits of mind for use in adult life.

While critical thinking might seem like a given objective of PK – 12 schooling in the United States, the emergence of the Common Core and the discussion that it has caused in regard to best teaching and assessment practices has shown just how significant its absence has been. To meet the requirements of the Common Core and develop the critical thinking skills that students need to be successful when assessed on the curriculum and in life, educators must change their approaches to instruction and assessment.

To promote critical thinking, instruction must be rooted in authentic experiences or models. This includes practical applications of the content, field excursions and lab experiments, along with a focus on the use of knowledge to address real world problems. One of the most successful curricular approaches to providing authentic experiences/models for students, that is interdisciplinary in its scope, is problem based learning. In a problem based learning delivery model, students are presented with a real world scenario that requires resolution.

For example, in an advanced problem, students in a STEM engineering class might be asked to plan to erect a structure like a bridge to connect a main highway in a semi-rural community. Projects like this force students to think critically about not only the bridge itself and the math that is involved in building the structure but also its potential environmental impact, archaeological implications of the project, impacts on traffic patterns, economic impacts etc . . . This type of thinking allows students to see the practical applications of the content that they are studying as well as how the use of their knowledge is global in its scope. This method also develops the habit of mind for students of evaluating problems and determining core issues to develop viable solutions.

Also, under the requirements of the Common Core, assessments must promote critical thinking among students. In regard to the use of more traditional forms of classroom assessment be it oral or pen and paper based, educators must expand their testing practices. For example, in assessing literacy standards delivered through historical texts, teachers must move students from showing that they know “who” discovered America and “what” the Declaration of Independence is to understanding the effect of each of the causes of the American Civil War and the economic theories that drove the actions of the tycoons of the First Industrial Revolution in the United States. This type of assessment requires open ended questioning, collaboration among students, open debate of ideas, and a requirement that students justify their positions based on facts. Using these types of approaches to assessment, educators promote critical thinking in students and model and promote a habit of empirical study that students carry into adulthood.

To close, the Common Core is a source of great debate in the United States today. While most states have adopted the standards, questions about implementation and assessment of the standards abound. Lost in this conversation, however, is a realization of the value of the standards themselves, imperfect though they may be. For the first time in the history of public schooling in the United States, there is a coordinated focus on the national development of critical thinking skills through a purposed curriculum. Even though all students may not be headed to college as the Common Core would prepare them for, the critical thinking skills that students will hone while in school under the Common Core are invaluable because they will be the skills that students will use when applying knowledge in real world contexts throughout their adult lives.


Shawn McCollough
President & CEO