Now more than ever, educators are tapping into new skills and technology to promote student growth and help them develop critical thinking skills.

In a recent Q&A, our critical thinking expert, Dr. Sandra Love, chatted with Christal Calhoun, Texas’ 2019 National Distinguished Principal from Tool Elementary School. They shared their experience and thoughts on engaging students in becoming more effective critical thinkers in a virtual environment.

Here are some takeaways from their discussion.

Q: What is a thinking culture?

Dr. Love: We all want to be effective teachers, which takes planning. A culture of thinking is a place where collective thinking and independent thought is valued, visible and intentionally promoted in the classroom – whether that’s virtually or in-person.

Intentional promotion means that critical thinking doesn’t only occur at 1:00PM during math class, rather it is present across all areas of learning. To be most effective, thinking culture should be school or district wide.

A school’s tone is set by the principal, and echoed by teachers – who need to know it’s okay to have a culture where thinking is not only accepted, but encouraged.

For students to be free to think, they must feel safe. School should be a place where students know it’s okay to share their opinions and ideas.

The number one requirement for creating a thinking culture is developing relationships with colleagues, students and their families. Model the importance of relationship-building. Students must feel comfortable with teachers, and each other.

As a teacher, you are a facilitator. Show students that their ideas are important, and that you value them.

Q: Why is critical thinking important?

Dr. Love: The earlier we can develop critical thinking skills within students, the better. Critical thinking skills help kids grow as learners, expand their knowledge and make connections both in school and at home.

Critical thinking is a skill that students will use forever. Most of us recognize that critical thinking helps prepare us for college, but there’s also a lot of research that shows employers find critical thinking and problem-solving skills to be main traits they value in employees.

As teachers, we recognize that critical thinking is embedded in our standards, so when we transfer those into learning experiences for students to be successful as they work towards mastery, it’s extremely important.

Q: You’ve earned a lot of accolades for your work at Tool Elementary; what’s been key to your success?

Principal Calhoun: I could spend so much time talking about all of the wonderful people in my life. What makes teaching so rewarding is the people who are constantly challenging you to be better – whether that’s staff members, administrators or the students themselves.

My school and district communities support and foster an effective learning environment for students and myself, and they allow me to learn and to try new things.

Over the years we’ve built an amazing team at Tool Elementary that is full of lifelong learners – I can only be as great as someone next to me who wants me to be greater. When I’m uncomfortable, they spur me along. When my superintendent pushes me to try something I may not be on board with – that’s good. I’ve learned to encourage staff and students in that same way.

Get the full story about how critical thinking empowers students and staff at Tool Elementary. 

Q: How have you created a thinking culture within your team of educators?

Principal Calhoun: I remember everybody feeling an urgency when the Texas Department of Education announced a statewide shift from an accountability test to the current STAAR test. I remember feeling nervous, but knew I needed to do everything possible to set staff and students up for success.
The key was to move our classrooms from teachers standing at the front of room doing “set and get” lecturing, to having each classroom be powered by creativity, with teachers taking risks and trying new strategies to engage students.

We started simple. I introduced cooperative learning strategies to our teachers, I talked about the benefits and what I enjoy about them. I had teachers implement those strategies in their rooms – and I held them accountable.

Sometimes, teachers may develop a misconception based on experience – that they are done learning, since they’ve been teaching for so long. New strategies show them that they aren’t done, that there’s always something more to learn and try.

Q: What does critical thinking look like?

Principal Calhoun: A critical thinking classroom may look chaotic to someone from the outside –I encourage this chaos. If I’m not seeing chaos, that means something is wrong. We are actively engaging students to help them learn skills to be successful academically and personally.

As educators, we must consider how to move questions beyond the simple “yes” or “no”.  To support teachers in achieving this, I’ve researched different resources, like Mentoring Minds, which provides the rigor that we want for our students.

A majority of our student population is economically disadvantaged. If we want our kids to be successful, we need to meet their needs first – socially and emotionally. Our school offers community resources, including clothing and a food pantry for families in need. We also allow students who have bonded with a specific teacher to go to that teacher for help.

If our kids can show up at school with the challenges they have every day, then we can do our part to meet their needs and to help them learn – part of that is loving them.

As a principal, it’s crucial to love, nurture and support staff so that they can support students.

Curious how social and emotional learning supports a culture of critical thinking? Read our blog post that simplifies SEL strategies. 

Q: How will teaching critical thinking look different as we had back to school amidst COVID-19?

Dr. Love: Guiding principles for critical thinking are the same online as they are in-person.
Educators must demonstrate and model skills for students; they can’t use a critical thinking skill if they don’t know how. Whether it’s embedding it in a video or modeling it during synchronous learning on a Zoom call, be proactive in equipping students with these crucial skills.

I also suggest thinking out loud, so that students can see how your own thought processes work. A little modeling goes a long way.

We must also give students opportunities to practice critical thinking. Design experiences for students, and encourage them to ask questions. If students have challenges asking questions, start with prompts to help them. Be present and offer support.

This year, we should strive to remember the value of leveraging digital tools. Technology can enhance learning and teaching, but we must also work to teach students how to use those tools.

Principal Calhoun: Acknowledge the movement and progress of teachers. When we implemented the cooperative learning strategies, it took us a year. Progress and change takes time. Remain patient and offer support where it’s needed. It’s important to remember that with instruction, quality is more important than quantity.

Q: How do you encourage lifelong learning?

Principal Calhoun: As a principal, there are plenty of mistakes that I’ve made, and will continue to make. Mistakes happen. When I was early in my career, I remember feeling like if I messed up or missed something, I was failing my staff. Instead of reacting negatively, I took a moment to relax and would say, “wow – I can’t believe I missed that!”. We are role models – as lifelong learners, we are going to make mistakes – but its crucial that we show each other and our students that this is okay, and is all part of the process.