There is a lot of talk these days about helping students become 21st century learners. The internet abounds with information about how to help your students be prepared for life in the 21st century, as if it were vastly different from the 20th century. And maybe it is. Maybe the skills that students need today are fundamentally different than the ones that we needed when we graduated. But maybe they're not. Maybe, just maybe, the same skills that served people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg so well are the same ones that our students need. Creativity. Flexibility. Outside the box thinking. We talk about these skills like they are something new, something different, but the reality is that these are the hallmarks of all of the most successful people since the dawn of time. So, by all means, yes, let's get our students thinking this way! And if we need to call them "skills for the 21st century", then let's do it.
So, in the spirit of creating flexible, creative thinkers, I wanted to share with you a couple of really cool activities that I discovered in the process of co-teaching these skills to a group of Gr. 5 students. The teacher and I love working together and had spent the better part of the year teaching non-fiction reading skills together in the Lit Pit (her class is actually the group that spurred one of the biggest and most meaningful changes to the Lit Pit this year; read that post). Just before March Break, however, she let me know that she was feeling like she needed more time in the classroom, focusing on some other skills that we don't necessarily touch on in the Lit Pit. Needless to say, I was disappointed but I was not about to let her get away that easily! So we came up with a plan; I would join her class one day a week to work on some critical and creative thinking skills, as she had several students in her class who were less than flexible in their thinking.
We started off with some ideas we found on Pinterest from Mary over at Teaching With A Mountain View (click on the photo below to link to her blog post with the activities).
The kids really enjoyed all of the activities that we tried; we started with Creating a Pattern with Your Bodies and Categorize Yourselves, both of which proved to be more challenging than we expected! We chatted with them about their challenges afterwards and had them journal about ways they thought they could have done better in the activity. Biggest response? Listen to each other! They struggled because everyone had their own idea of the "best" way to create a pattern or category and they didn't take the time to listen to one another (talk about a 21st century skill!). Interestingly, we decided to go boys vs. girls on the last round and the boys had way more difficulty than the girls. I would really like to try this with a few more classes to see if that holds true or if it was just this class.
Unusual Uses, another of Mary's activities, certainly showed us who was an outside the box thinker. While many of the responses were very similar, some of the kids had some really interesting and creative ideas. For one example, we used an old coffee can from the staff room (we collect A LOT of those!). While many of the kids came up with uses that involved some version of holding something, several of the kids were able to see beyond that (fairly obvious) use and suggest some really cool, innovative uses (if I had written this post sooner after we had actually done the activity I might actually remember some of them! As it is, you'll just have to test it out with your class and see what they come up with!).
We also tried Inventions that Changed The World. The basic premise is that a student names an invention that "changed the world" and the rest of the class has to chime in with a cause and effect chain of how exactly it did that (an example could be a toaster, because without it you would have to eat bread for breakfast, which is terribly boring so you might stop eating breakfast...and so on and so forth). It is definitely important to keep the kids from going too far out in left field with this one; some of our chains had to be cut off as the kids were getting in to very tenuously linked ideas (we tried to let them play out but the boys just kept taking them down the "and then you would get killed" road). One thing we did mid-activity was to read them If You Give a Dog a Donut by Laura Numeroff. This really helped give them the idea of cause and effect and got at the idea of linking back around to the beginning which, although not necessarily part of the original activity, definitely adds an element of difficulty that the Gr. 5's needed.
If I were to do this activity again (and I think I would, especially if I were working on cause and effect in reading or writing), I would start by reading a few of Laura Numeroff's books to model what we were trying to do before beginning. I think it would help keep them on track and thinking about the next link in the chain rather than just saying something funny to get a reaction. You could also consider writing the chains down as they go and creating your own books out of them...I love using picture books to model writing technique and then creating class books! So much fun and such a cool product at the end!
After trying several suggestions from Teaching With A Mountain View we decided to try something a bit different. I found some really neat and challenging activities here, at MargD Teaching Posters (scroll down to Brain Strain activities). We did them aloud as she suggests, projecting the activities on the SmartBoard. These were really neat! Thinking Links in particular was really interesting as some of the answers you might use seemed obvious until you got to the next hint or two. We made a rule that you couldn't repeat an answer which added an extra element of challenge but I think it would have been too easy for Gr. 5 students without it. If You Think Of... and Trix With Pix also challenged their thinking in some really interesting ways and made it quite obvious that some of them just couldn't see beyond the obvious. We made sure to share answers every time and asked lots of questions about how the students were coming to the answers they were coming to. This ensured that those students who were struggling with thinking beyond the obvious were given some scaffolding to try out new and different ways of looking at the pictures. If I were to do these ones again, I think I would try arranging the kids in to small discussion groups after the first couple, as the whole class discussion became a bit tedious and time consuming after awhile but I do think it's important that the kids hear each other's thinking.
All in all, these were some great activities to challenge your students to think more creatively and flexibly. Perhaps not critical thinking in the sense of examining world problems or examining big ideas, but definitely a chance for students' to compare their thinking to the thinking of others and build an understanding of varied perspectives with no one right or wrong way of thinking. Definitely worth a shot, either as beginning of the year activities, an occasional block here and there or a dedicated time slot to help your students become flexible, creative 21st century learners. If you have any other activities that you use for this same purpose, I would love to hear about them!
I'm Bryn, teacher, mom, book lover, athlete. I am passionate about literacy, collaborative teaching and finding new and innovative ways to engage & motivate all kids. I hope you find something that speaks to you here on my blog and would love to hear from you too!