Encouraging critical thinking and prediction casting

Whenever I am planning a History lesson, I always consider the skills that I am going to develop among my students. I like to teach skills and content as mutually exclusive so that the pupils can see the link between the material that they need to master and the skills they need to make sense of it.

With this strategy in mind, I developed the following task that focused on developing the meta cognitive skills of a group of 14 year old students studying the impact of the Treaty of Versailles.

After reading several research papers on meta cognition, I understood that when teachers model explicitly how to 'think' through a task, the impact can be considerable on students who are then able to understand the processes that lead to learning. Schunk (1989) goes further and claims that such meta cognitive skills are deepened when students model their thought processes and understanding to their peers. I decided to test this hypothesis with my History class by following the insight gleaned in my research.

Schraw (1998) outlines the processes required to foster and encourage meta cognition:

1. Slow down (Stop, read and think about the information)

2. Activate prior knowledge (What do you already know? What don't you know?)

3. Mental integration (Relate main ideas. Use these to construct a theme or conclusion)

Schraw commented that,

"Students that employ these strategies are more systematic and strategic when solving problems".

Dweck and Leggett (1988) echo this when they wrote,

"One of the most salient characteristics of successful learners is their goal orientation"

The research backs up the view that when teachers introduce, model and support specific goal orientations, they afford their students the opportunities to become more successful learners with determined mindsets. Such students persevere and attribute their success to controllable causes. (Ames & Archer, 1988) By adopting this as a strategy we are teaching our students an awareness of themselves as active agents of their learning.

When we ask our students to actively think, we are asking them to perform a skill that is not automated. We are asking them to adopt a degree of mental awareness and curiosity. This requires effort. Many students will have learned and adopted automated learning processes that allows fluent decoding of information, the identification of patterns and connections. Others will find this incredibly challenging and will need scaffolding to support this awareness and development of their meta cognitive skills. It is argued that such automated skills are an essential first step in allowing meta cognitive skills to develop.

The more research that I undertake on the issue of meta cognition, the more I realise that the most 'successful' students (not measured by short term success in tests) are those that have been exposed to concept of themselves as learners; the ones that have have been taught that they can achieve. Some students will believe that they are simply intelligent and have a 'fixed mindset'. These students can lack flexibility and become incredibly stressed when others outperform them or they fail a task. Their whole sense of identity is wrapped up in an unwavering acceptance and belief in their innate abilities. Dweck writes extensively on this issue and I have to say that from my classroom experience, that I have witnessed the negative impact of a fixed mindset on both the perceived most and least able students. Research has also found that high IQ does not correlate directly with effective and developed meta cognitive skills. Therefore, meta cognition is a general skill that can be taught and can lead to improved education outcomes for all students. Sarac et al conclude that,

" Meta cognition is one of the best predictors of academic achievement. "

I am not an advocate of inquiry-based learning as a starting point for a new topic and so, the task below followed an hour of direct teaching of the Treaty of Versailles and its impact. My students also watched a few short documentary film clips and undertook some reading and note taking for their homework which was completed in advance of the lesson outlined next.

I began a short exposition about the use of political cartoons in today's media. I have a number displayed on my classroom walls so this was easy to draw upon as a resource. I asked them about the purpose of political cartoons. We considered the following cartoon from The Telegraph which appeared the week before the General Election in the UK (12th December 2019):

We discussed the symbols within the cartoon above, identified the individuals pictured along with the context and made assumptions about the political bias/interpretation of the cartoonist. They were all able to identify the key message behind the cartoon. I introduced the concept of 'irony' and advised them that this was the difference between the ways things are and the way things should be, or the way things are expected to be. I explained that cartoonists often use irony to express their opinion on an issue. I asked them to make predictions about what readers might assume or believe after viewing this cartoon and how this may have an impact on voting behaviour.

I then linked this preliminary discussion to the historic political cartoons from 1919. I projected the 10 political cartoons onto my classroom whiteboard and they displayed as a loop. I divided the class into small groups of three and handed each group two of the political cartoons that were looping on the whiteboard. I had laminated the cartoons ahead of time so that I would be able to reuse them in subsequent years and lessons. The cartoons I used are shown below:

The groups were given 5 minutes to consider their first cartoon and discuss it. They were then handed out a worksheet onto which they had to record their ideas. Students were encouraged and directed to self-question - a key component in the development of meta cognition. You can see this below:

This task can be adapted by giving out a greater number or fewer cartoons for analysis or by doing this task as a whole class. It can also work as a homework task and then followed up in the subsequent lesson.

I found that the students enjoyed puzzling out the meaning of the cartoons as if it were a code to crack. There was much discussion about connections between the themes within the cartoons and they had to use their prior knowledge within their small groups to draw conclusions and make predictions.

Once the task was completed, one group of three had to explain one of their cartoons to another group of three, and vice versa.

The more I focus on teaching specific general meta cognition skills the greater success I believe my students feel and experience. This serves to foster a 'can do' attitude to their studies and has the effect of lifting up mentally those students that often believe that they 'can't'. Self-belief is so very important to our young people. We, as teachers, should be doing everything we can to raise them up and realise their potential as learners.

If you would like to use these resources freely, please just contact me to access the downloadable material.

More political cartoons from this and other eras can be found here.

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