Critical Thinking: Our Greatest Tool During Distance Learning

Whether it is a text message, email, video lecture, or website post, students during distance learning are primarily interacting with information– not people. In today’s world, students have endless amounts of information available at their fingertips. They can recall facts from the internet with lightning speed. This has been exacerbated by the shift towards distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, in which students need to be on their devices to even attend class. While we are incredibly lucky to have technology as a means to keep us safe and connected while the Coronavirus continues to run rampant throughout our country, online learning also presents an entirely new set of complex challenges that have forcibly shifted the paradigm of commonly accepted teaching practices.

As a history teacher, I have been asked the question, “Why does learning dates and facts in history matter if I could just Google the answer?” Well, facts are an important cornerstone on which to develop historical knowledge. However, teaching our students to simply remember and regurgitate historical facts is not enough. What truly matters in both my classroom and the real world is the development of critical thinking skills: examining sources, analyzing their meaning, and forming a judgment.

Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy. Image Source

“Remembering” is the lowest-order level of thinking in Bloom’s taxonomy, and while it is obviously important in everyday life, encouraging students to simply “remember” facts puts them at a severe disadvantage in a world that grows increasingly complicated every day. Students need higher-order thinking skills such as analysis and evaluation. These skills familiarize students with deriving information from text in order to adapt to this online environment. If students can understand the interconnections between people, ideas, and events in the past, they will also be equipped to use their critical thinking skills to maintain human connections today.

Featured Lessons:

In response, my lessons seek to foster critical thinking in my students. Each one requires students to (1) examine and analyze primary source documents through scaffolded questioning, (2) evaluate the source’s significance, and (3) form a factually based judgement about the source.

First, my “Good Friends Fight Together” lesson scaffolds primary source analysis regarding the various alliances at the beginning of World War I. I could simply tell my students which countries fought on each side of the war, but it is far more important for them to think about the relationships between each country. This lesson gives students the opportunity to analyze primary sources (either written documents or political cartoons) that illustrate the relationships between countries at the start of the war. They will discover for themselves who was on what side and why they chose to fight the way they did. Understanding the series of causes and effects based on global relationships leading up to WWI is far more relevant to my students in 2020 than simply remembering what the alliances were.

Next, my lesson entitled “You Know Your Rights. Right?” guides students in analyzing primary sources centered around the Federalist vs. Anti-federalist debate on the Bill of Rights. This lesson teaches students about the many opinions and rationales behind what rights are guaranteed in the United States. It might also challenge preconceptions by demonstrating that a Bill of Rights was not considered obvious, and some founding fathers like Alexander Hamilton actually believed its inclusion to be dangerous. After completion of this lesson, students will be able to explain the logic behind each position, an incredibly important skill in the aftermath of the 2020 election.

Third, my “Investigating Imperialism Mystery Activity” lesson allows students to act as detectives to uncover the definition and significance of imperialism. Students could easily Google the definition of imperialism and move on in their day; however, this lesson leads students through the process problem solving through investigating patterns. The goal of this activity is for students to think critically about the features of a larger concept, a skill that they could apply to other convoluted situations in today’s society, such as how a virus spreads or causes of the Black Lives Matter movement.

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