Make introductory lessons opportunities for higher-level critical thinking.
One of my favorite administrative responsibilities is visiting classrooms and observing lessons. I view those visits and the follow-up conversations with teachers as opportunities to share ideas and expand our thinking about what good teaching entails.
Recent conversations with teachers got me thinking about introductory lessons—the lessons that introduce a new unit. These lessons sometimes lack opportunities for students to activate higher-level thinking—the rationale being that the students don’t know enough of the content yet to develop sophisticated thoughts about it.
On the surface, this seems to make sense. How can students talk about XYZ if they don’t know anything about XYZ? But when you approach planning with the belief that the students can’t make meaningful contributions to the learning process, the result can be a teacher-directed lesson with little student engagement.
On the other hand, when a teacher’s goal is to inspire deep thinking about a topic, the introductory lesson can become a portal into another way of seeing the world. The way you invite students into that experience should be as carefully crafted as the experience itself.
To encourage students to ascend to the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy and to fostering critical thinking in your introductory lessons, consider these suggestions.
Select strong essential questions.
Engaging lessons begin with the planning process. Using a backwards design, start with an essential question that gets to the heart of the topic at hand. Essential questions are designed to stimulate ongoing thinking and inquiry and raise further questions; they are arguable, with multiple plausible answers.
Units and lessons that are designed around thought-provoking questions present multiple opportunities to engage in critical thinking, even from the very first lesson. For example, the essential question How are stories from other places and times about me? encourages students to compare, examine, connect, judge, and decide as they begin reading a new text.
Activate prior knowledge.
Prior knowledge is a major determinant of the inferences students make about new information. Students may not have detailed content knowledge at the outset, but don’t assume they have nothing to bring to the table to help with their understanding of the content. Ask yourself, “How can I use what the students know and care about to bring them into the lesson?” Introduce students to new learning through language, themes, and emotions.
Use metaphors and analogies.
Metaphors and analogies can provide an entry point into new topics and concepts through connections to the familiar. Reframing the Declaration of Independence as a break-up letter, assigning real-life occupations to the parts of a cell, or comparing memory to a filing cabinet can facilitate the learning process.
Immerse students in the theme of the unit.
From their own lives, or even from their time spent in the cafeteria, students know about conflict and peace, disappointment and success, loyalty and betrayal, fairness and inequity. Through a carefully selected array of picture books, video clips, speeches, and stories that illustrate a theme, you can help students identify and relate to the common thread that runs throughout the content. Then, you build on the theme by supplying the vocabulary and the content-specific details.
Tap into the students’ emotions.
Middle school students are nothing if not emotional! Brain research shows that at this age, the limbic system, which regulates emotions, exerts a strong influence on the young adolescent’s thinking. Emotions drive attention, which drives learning, memory, problem solving, and just about anything else.
So if the students cannot access the content in a new unit just yet, engage them through an emotional connection. In the context of an emotionally safe learning environment, provide learning experiences that evoke the students’ feelings of empathy, compassion, curiosity, outrage, even carefully constructed confusion, and engage them in a way that fosters higher-level thinking.
For example, begin a unit on social injustice by displaying a gallery of provocative photographs, cartoons, slogans, or icons that suggest some form of inequality in order to spark a meaningful discussion that segues into the unit.
Have the students develop a rule.
Another way to introduce a new topic is to give students several examples of the focus of study, whether it is mystery novels, equivalent fractions, or Spanish adjectives. Working together, students can identify patterns, categorize, make generalizations, and develop a rule. This guided exploration will help them gain deeper understanding as they interact with the content and draw their own conclusions.
Incorporate problem solving.
Sometimes students arrive at the key ideas of a topic through problem solving. An introductory lesson in which the students are presented with a problem can lead them into and through a discussion of solutions. The teacher, acting as a facilitator, can teach students to apply heuristics—general problem-solving strategies—to help solve the problem. Commonly used heuristics include making an educated guess, working backwards, drawing a diagram, or making a list.
Present a paradox.
Presenting the students with a paradox that lies at the heart of a topic can draw them in as well. For example:
- It is the nature of all living things to adapt in order to survive. In the case of bacteria, we battle to destroy it, while it circumvents all our efforts and continues to attack us.
- Under the power of Eminent Domain, it is the right of a government to take private property for public use, but does the public good outweigh a citizen’s rights?
- When you divide a number, the result is usually a smaller number, unless you divided by a fraction, in which case the result is a larger number.
The paradox is not meant to be solved; rather, the discussion generated by the paradox can reveal some of the bigger concepts of the discipline, and the key points of the discussion can become a resource as you continue to study the topic.
Capitalizing on Engagement
Developing a lesson that holds some relevance for students through its familiar themes, the work they’ve done to uncover meaning, its emotional impact, or its paradoxical nature creates an opportunity for you to pose higher-level questions. You can capitalize on the students’ engagement by asking them to explain, compare, infer, modify, or justify in the context of the familiar situation.
These strategies are not meant to be stand-alone activities—all fluff and no substance. When the introductory activities are based on key ideas, these ideas will come up over and over again throughout the unit. You can revisit those early discussions as a resource and quote the students’ initial ideas, questions, and discoveries in subsequent lessons.
Of course, there are times when it is appropriate to have students engage in tasks that are less cognitively demanding, such as reviewing definitions, taking notes, or answering comprehension questions. These tasks represent foundational skills that are the building blocks of higher-level thinking.
However, it’s not good practice to generalize that a certain kind of lesson is automatically exempt from higher-level thinking. It is not fair to students to underestimate them or your lesson planning ability in this way. Rather than allowing the “introductory lesson exemption” to become your default, ask yourself these questions:
- Is there any prior knowledge the students might have, either curriculum-based or from their lives, that connects to this topic?
- Can this information be presented in the form of a problem to solve?
- Is there a big theme that the students can access?
- Is there a paradox at play?
When planning your introductory (and all) lessons, heed the advice of Norman Vincent Peale, who said, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”