Often, one of the weakest areas in a teacher’s toolkit is their ability to form questions that prompt progress. Just the same, students’ abilities to form a range of deep questions (and then to answer these questions) is often flawed. It is difficult. It doesn’t flow naturally. Daily conversations do not tend to be probing. So, by taking an issue from your core curriculum (such as access to water resources, biological adaptation, the Norman Conquest, etc) and applying more critical questions (perhaps through prompts such as progressive question grids) this will encourage both teachers and students to think more deeply, therefore gaining more knowledge, and therefore being able to apply this knowledge and this questioning skill to another context. Without critical questioning, we can only gain surface knowledge.
History teachers have the upper hand (I don’t say this often!) when it comes to thinking critically about resources. But it is an essential skill, and one which is assessed also in geography, English, etc. So prompting students to consider bias, purpose, viewpoint, stakeholders, etc is a part of thinking critically across a range of subjects. We need to do all this whilst building core conceptual and contextual knowledge because “You can only think critically about what you know.” (Shaun Allison)
Higher tariff exam questions rely upon student ability to apply critical thinking. And, they need to have critical thinking skills under their belt ready to apply to any context – not just have a stock answer memorised or a structure template to follow, as the chances are this won’t be appropriate for the exam paper. Questions such as ‘to what extent’, ‘evaluate the effectiveness’, ‘consider the role’, ‘how successful’, etc. receive the highest marks in the exam, and are given this weighting for a reason – because these are hard! And knowledge alone won’t help here. It is essential to have good knowledge base obviously, otherwise you will have nothing to apply to the question, but ensuring students can think critically means they can approach any question with confidence. That they will not be thrown by the command words and the language of the paper, or by it not being about the topic they memorised. Interestingly, for one exam board in summer 2018 the average mark for a 9 mark question was a saddening Level 1, 2marks. Students were thrown by the language and couldn’t access it. And they couldn’t convert their knowledge to a new context. What a waste.
I also believe that enabling students to think critically from early years, even from primary right through secondary, will mean that we can reduce any reliance on scaffolds and structures that students can sometimes become overly reliant on. Whilst structures have a place, and can be beneficial to helping develop extended writing styles, if students are able to think critically as a natural part of their process then these scaffolds can be removed – which again also reduces any chance of students feeling overwhelmed or thrown by an exam paper. But more than that, being able to think critically, to question, to apply knowledge, means that students will be better prepared to be fully involved in the world outside the classroom, and beyond examinations. At the end of the day, the world is a complex place, and I’ve never come across a workplace that required you to just memorise fact – we’ve got Google for that ;-)