Notes from the Classroom: Critical Thinking In our Schools

The Power of Why?

By Dr. Shayna Fox-Norwitz, Associate Director of Personalized Learning, RIMA

I visited one of our Summit personalized learning cohort schools the other day and came across a student sitting by herself in the hallway with her Chromebook and notebook in her lap. I sat down next to her and asked her what she was doing out in the hallway, all by herself. She replied that she had already taken the content assessment for her geography class a few times and didn’t pass. She thought that the change of scenery might help her to study her notes and try again.


I asked if I could see her notes, and she proceeded to open her notebook. Her notes were divided by topic objective, in a beautiful, bubbly handwriting. Notes that were related were grouped by a colored scalloped circle. These were not the notes of a student who failed assessments; these were the notes of your straight A student, the one that volunteered in class and brought you gifts before winter break.


She was clearly unaccustomed to failing, and I was momentarily confused at how she could have faltered, until I started asking questions. One note that she had put a star next to read “most humans live by water, the great civilizations and great empires were usually close to the ocean.” I pointed to the beautifully written line in her notebook and asked, “Why?”


She paused for a second to give me the “you’re insane” look (you know, the one that only middle school girls have perfected) and simply replied, “fish.” I lifted an eyebrow and scrunched my nose, feigning confusion. She bought it-hook, line, and sinker. “Well,” she sighed, “I guess it’s not so much the fish but the fact that the ocean is another source of food. People have to eat, so if you are by an ocean, you can have fisherman out on boats catching food.”


“That’s interesting,” I coyly stated, “Why would boats be important?”


“Well, boats are important to get places…” And that’s how it happened, three more “Why’s” in a row, and she eventually concluded, “Civilizations and nations were successful by providing their people with all the resources necessary to live. These resources weren’t always in the same area as the nation, but the nation’s access to the ocean allowed them to send ships to other parts of the world to purchase the needed resources. This trade allowed nations to make money from selling the resources it had naturally or made. The more trade they did, the more relationships that were developed with other nations, making it so that more people want to help you out when you go to war.”


She smiled at me, as though surprised by herself, “I wrote that stuff in my notes, I just didn’t really think about it like that before I guess.” I felt victorious too. I’d be willing to bet that with a little more studying, she’d pass her content assessment with flying colors! In the Summit model of personalized learning, the role of the teacher shifts to a mentor-teacher role, one in which the teacher is a facilitator of students becoming self-directed learners. After many years of experiencing a traditional teacher role, this student wasn’t accustomed to this type of exchange but came away with a better understanding of how to dig a little deeper into her critical thinking thought process.


Now, maybe it is in my nature that my brain is always questioning things, trying to find connections between different bits of information that I encounter. However, I don’t think that I’m unique in my curiosity nor in my incessant analysis and evaluation of my world. Look at very young children, who constantly ask “Why?” Sometimes they ask it so many times in a row that parents finally annoyed, answer, “because I said so.”


Imagine if all parents and educators, instead of being irked, posed the inquiry back on the child, “Why do you think?… How do you know that?” This initial redirection and simple follow-up could help to develop a well-cultivated critical thinker.


Many children outgrow this constant questioning of the world around them and begin to accept all information as fact; I never did. Because my parents didn’t know the answers to all of my questions and didn’t want us to rely solely on adults for the answers, they bought my sister and I three complete sets of Encyclopedias. Needless to say, having to figure out how to find the answers we were looking for was more difficult than it is today. I confess, when at home, I simply ask Siri or my virtual assistant, Alexa. Having Encyclopedias did not deter my sister and me from having questions, but it did encourage us to deeply consider the problem. While some may think that critical thinking is merely problem solving, it is much more than just finding a solution.


One reason that so many employers today are looking for “bright young talent” who are “problem solvers” and “critical thinkers” is because in order to actually find solutions for the complex problems of 21st Century private industry, you have to reason and make logical connections between a variety of issues that eventually will lead to the root cause and genuine problem. We can say that asking the right questions to find the underlying problem is now a critical skill for career success.


No CEO looks to hire someone who can consistently put out surface fires; CEO’s want an employee that proactively eliminates the spark from ever existing. Sakichi Toyoda (Founder of Toyota Industries Co.) and Taiichi Ohno (inventor of the Toyota Production System) developed the 5 Whys technique that allows one to explore the cause-effect relationship of a problem. The technique is simple in design, first the problem is stated and “Why?” is asked, the response becomes the basis for the next “Why?” question. The ultimate goal is to expose the underlying cause of the problem, which has been commonly noted to be discovered by the 5th interrogation. If we are to encourage students to be critical thinkers, we must unequivocally use logic, analysis and evaluation to make our own judgements. I know one day when I’m aging and my life is in the hands of my doctors, I would want them to be critical thinkers because “Shoddy thinking is costly…” (The Foundation for Critical Thinking)  More broadly, there is no greater evidence of this than the current lack of substantive civil discourse in our current political climate. It is telling that discussions of education have not gotten a seat at the table of national political debates that presumably exist to determine the future direction of our country. We might all reflect on this alarming state of affairs and find the courage to ask the simple, but powerful question, “Why?”