Saturday, April 6, 2013

Teaching critical thinking skills through project based learning

Posted by Tara Della Rocca

Mergendoller, J. (2012). Teaching critical thinking skills through project based learning. Retrieved from

The author describes how PBL can be a method for teaching critical thinking, if carried out properly. His theory is that the projects must include "Non-Googleable Driving Questions, deliberative cognitive tasks, support and scaffolding" combined "to create projects that help students become critical thinkers". PBL can fall flat in terms of developing critical thinkers, if not gone about with careful thought and planning.

"PBL is a powerful pedagogy that helps students to learn how to be critical thinkers - to make thoughtful decisions and exercise reasoned judgments. For this to occur, projects have to be planned around topics that lend themselves to thoughtful consideration, and students have to be provided with the tasks, supports and scaffolds needed to develop critical thinking tools and strategies."

The author differentiates between projects designed around Googleable questions (for which mere research is required to answer) and non-Googleable Driving Questions for which students must "define terms, consider whether information and concepts vary according to context, weigh multiple explanations, evaluate evidence, and compare alternative actions based on their probability of success. This is critical thinking - careful thinking, done reflectively, with attention to criteria." 

The author makes clear that Driving Questions are not enough. Project tasks must compel students to learn something by doing something. The cognitive tasks of projects must require students to make judgments, figure out the best ways to create something, weigh evidence, reconsider ideas, and create plans for problem-solving.

"Critical thinking projects not only require students to think carefully and deliberately, they provide models and scaffolding to show how such cognitive tasks are carried out."

Finally, Mergendoller quotes John Dewey from Experience and Education to defend his idea that "PBL is not synonymous with Critical Thinking":
"The believe that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative." - Dewey

"For critical thinking to occur, projects have to be structured to demand deliberate, reflective thought, and students have to be shown examples of what critical thinking looks like, in addition to being supported, assessed, encouraged, and given feedback as they try such thinking out with their peers and on their own."

1 comment:

Stacey said...

Tara, I want to read this!

I really like the distinction between Googleable questions and non-Googleable questions. It reminds me of Tony Wagner's talk at DL2013 about how it's less important that people know content because it is all readily available online. More important to develop the skills for critically thinking, analyzing and solving complex problems.

The Dewey quote at the end is one of my favorites. Dewey makes a clear distinction between experiences and "educative experiences" - the latter being rooted in reflection that drives future learning and questioning. For Dewey, an experience is only truly educative if it leads to more learning. He writes about this beautifully in Art and Experience (one of my favorite Dewey books). I think this concept of "educative experience" would be great for you to dig into more!

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