2.1. What’s in the box?
“Well” the student explained, “this is for people stranded in the desert. It gives them drink-ing water. All they must do is to urinate in this bottle at the top and in a few minutes out of the spout at the side water will flow. And it is clean fresh water.” Pablo, the teacher, has asked each student with an invention to show it to the class and explain it. But with this student the class laughed. One student said “People have been stranded in a desert many many times in history and if all they need is to urinate? And that would have saved their lives?. You can’t be serious. You are trying to trick us like companies that make breakfast cereal do/” And many of the students laughed again. Pablo, who knew what the student had in the box, asked him to explain it. He said “Well, you need to urinate in this yellow jar.” More laughter. But he went on “When the urine runs out of the bottle into the box it collects in a shallow metal tray like a small frying pan. without its handle.” More laughter. But then the boy says: “Well, then there are batteries to the side that are clicked on by the weight in the frying pan, and a heating unit heats up under the frying pan” Very little laughter now. “And as I learned in my chemistry class, when you boil a liquid that is a mixture of other liquids the one with the lowest boiling point boils off first.” All these students had taken the same science class. “And in urine that is water! So the water boils off and it rises as steam.” Now most of the students were listening. “And when it rises it encounters a metal plate that has dry ice on the top of it. Then the steam immediately liquefies and runs down a pipe as water to a little container next to the spout on the side. So when you turn the handle to the spout water comes out. And it is pure water”. The students were now com-pletely silent. And the boy’s chemistry teacher was off to the side smiling. Then one student started clapping. And all the rest followed — except one girl who said “OK, I understand, but I’m not drinking that water!” But while many students smiled too they kept clapping. And the boy who invented this smiled also and then bowed. Now that deserves another “Wow”. An ingenious creative synthesis designed to save lives!
2.2. But is Creative Thinking enough?
Here is my reconstruction of what happened in the classroom after the student with the box explained how it worked and based on notes from my discussion with Pablo Carrion, the teacher:
Then one student raised his hand and said: “Wait a minute. How do we know these things will really work. They sound good. But how do we know how much water a bottle like this would produce. Maybe there is very little water in urine. What percentage is water?” And the student who designed this apparatus stopped and said honestly — “I don’t know” and looked pretty depressed. But another student said “Wait a minute — let’s find out. We learned how to think about these things — maybe not exactly for the same reasons but trying to decide whether to make water this way is basically practicing skillful decision making. It is an option for doing things that we think will have good consequences — and we know how to do that. In fact” he says, “you just did that. But don’t we now have to make sure that the consequences we predict are really likely, and base that on skillful prediction.? And that involves Critical Thinking!” Then the same student says: “And also don’t we have to make sure that there are no serious disadvantages — bad consequences -as well that we have to balance together?”” And shouldn’t we be honest about these things, not like the people who sell things and tell us how good they are but not the bad consequences that they know about” One student objected — “But maybe these things really do work and we can sell them so we can build a football field for the school!!” The other students laughed but Pablo said — “Let’s divide up and find out! And let’s use good thinking” And they did. But this time it is critical thinking that they did.
2.3. Critical Thinking in Action
In learning how to think skillfully these students, like many others, were introduced to the technique of constructing a graphic organizer based on the key points of the strategy for the type of thinking they were learning so that they could record what they find as they do the thinking skillfully and have a record of their thinking, they could show others, go back to and reflect and perhaps refine, etc. This would then be an organized record of their thinking.
Here is the graphic organizer these students used for one of the options considered for saving injured mountain climbers — in fact the option I showed you at the fisrt part of this article (Teaching the Thinking that counts – part two). Note the option considered on the left, then projected consequences, but on the right a key col-umn on the graphic organizer that marks it for the practice of critical thinking — a column for the evidence they found, their rating about whether it counts for or against the likelihood of the consequence, and then to the left, abbreviations for likely, unlikely, or uncertain of the consequences when all the evidence is tallied. In this case this is in Spanish, and the P represents “Probable” — likely.
But to back up a bit I am going to put the strategies that these students have been using to guide them in their thinking — strategies that they developed with their teacher as they learned how to do skillful problem solving and then to fine-tune step four and represent the important role of critical thinking in step four of problem solving, the thinking strategy for assessing the likelihood of projected consequences, And here, just prior to these graphic organizers are what has been the starting points for these students in their thinking, points that are now natural starting points for each of the types of thinking Pablo’s challenge calls for. Looking at these you can see that now making use of this graphic organizer is a natural next step when they use the strategies for skillful problem solving and then for skillfully pre-dicting the consequences of possible problem solutions that they are considering.
With enough practice these strategies are nearly automatic for many students. But now these students need someplace to record the results of these questions. Then the students have a record of their thinking that they can share with others or later, on more reflection, modify in their groups. Here is one example.
And to move this even further many of the teachers at Lope de Vega have learned and use the techniques of Socratic Questioning in such discussions – structured to give some order to such natural critical thinking exchanges to bring out insights in such probing that might otherwise lie hidden in a heated discussion.
2.4. Using Critical Thinking for Creative Problem Solving That Works
These students were now no longer searching for some other creative solutions for difficult problems that we encounter in our lives. Rather they wanted to determine if they should express confidence that these solutions will really work — are good solutions. And critical thinking is exactly the right kind of thinking to use to answer this question. Critical thinking will tell them whether or not these solutions are ones they should all embrace and celebrate with their developers or hesitate to accept because there were quite legitimate doubts about whether they would work. And to do this they needed to search for additional infor-mation that supported these ideas or cast doubt on them — what they could offer as rea-sons or evidence for or against them/ And indeed the class had opened up into one collab-orative thinking group seeking information that they could trust and that showed that these ideas may really work — or that they needed some revisions. And they had also learned that to do this they needed to search for information beyond what they already had that was relevant to whether or not these ideas were realistic or not. And that is exactly what they were doing just as they had learned to do about any information they are given, but now did with the ease of a master-thinker. And they were still in the primary grades!
So what did they find? Well, to make this work the box with the apparatus in them would have to be at least three meters long and a meter high. And while it could be only half meter wide, the apparatus would weigh 20 kilograms. Alas. Good idea, but as presented it will not work! Too heavy and awkward to carry! And that important result is a product of careful and skillful critical thinking, by now a regular practice in these classrooms.
But the boy did not give up. Could the apparatus be fastened to a wagon — no, not on soft sand. Well, how about skis? Maybe he is still trying to find a way to do this. Good for him!
And the boy with the drone. That sounded like a good one, especially when one of the stu-dents discovered the drone used for rescue in the sea off San Diego, California.
But another student said: “Maybe this works on the high seas, but will it really sustain the mountain winds encountered on the slopes of the Matterhorn? Let’s find out how strong they are”. And on and on.
For me that was a most wonderous experience — this is now all students going back and forth with their teacher watching. And they are on a roll. Think about how this contrasts with students who are supposed to be learning required to take a standard multiple-choice test about things that they have learned from the teacher by memorizing a name, a date, a formula in chemistry. These students are motivated by challenge and they really want to find out. In fact one thing that drives them is their confidence that they can now find this out by investigation — at least that any prediction is likely, unlikely, or uncertain. And they feel absolutely proud of what they are now doing. Blending creative thinking and critical thinking like this to build on a strategy for good problem solving that they also had to learn has helped to develop a drive in these students to not leave any stone unturned. And they learned this in the early primary grades in their reading classes — what can we find in this story that helps us to understand why a particular character did what he or she did and what this character will do as the story unfolds. Will she change her mind as the story unfolds? The clues to this are in what the character does in what circumstances earlier in the story. And can we understand and learn what to expect our friends will do in the same way? And our neighbors? Are there good reasons for thinking that this character will change his mind — what are they? And in mathematics and social studies? That’s thinking-based learning!
Now when I think of that classroom I think of how a key thinking tactic that these students will need to use for the rest of their lives has become natural with these students — and when I recognize it as a tactic that has driven progress that the human race has achieved to take us from tying a rock to a stick to make an axe to use to get food for survival to a world linked together by the internet- And we will not stop here. Not unless we all think that these skills are only for the gifted ones and they are only side issues for other students in our classrooms.
I thought in reflecting about all of this: Is this the way that Leonardo da Vinci thought about thigs when he showed the world of the 15th century how inventions based on good thinking can change the world. And in fact think of how many have already. All I need mention to make this point is the Internet. And I thought of how making teaching and learning be based on good thinking had transformed these students. What if every school in the world were like Lope de Vega? Or like with Leonardo, are there forces out there also that don’t want this to happen? Well, if so, let us that have learned how to do skillful thinking see if we can rise above those forces and bring the model of Colegio Lope de Vega to the world.
To me what I observed that day was education as it should be!