By Anni Stipek, SDE Educational Consultant

What does it mean to be a critical thinker and how can we help develop critical thinkers in the classroom? I might just have an idea or two for you. Join me for the first part of this series.

Let’s first start with the definition of Critical Thinking:

*“the process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion.”*

One thing is clear, students who have *critical thinking skills are ones that:*

- Make sense of the problem sum: *What am I asked to find?*

- Make use of given information: W*hat do I know?*

- Think of possible strategies: *Have I come across similar problems before?*

- Choose the correct strategy: Apply *what I know confidently!*

- Solve the problem: *Work out the steps…*

- Check the answer: I*s the solution logical and reasonable?*

So, how do we help students gain these skills? I want to share 5 Habits of Learning that will develop critical thinking skills in your students.

1) Visualization

2) Part-Whole Thinking

3) Generalization

4) Communication

5) Metacognition

In this post, Visualization will be the focus!

First, we need to recognize that visualization skills can be developed through socialization and communication. Students need time to talk about what they see and create.

Second, students need time to practice drawing and creating what they “see” in their minds eye.

An excellent example of helping children build math visualization skills are using Math Talks. Math Talks are simple pictures that students look at and create questions and stories based on what they see.

My end goal will be for the students to make up math stories with a question. To help develop these skills I may start with questions that focus on counting things in the picture.

For example, in this picture, we may start by asking the students what they see that they can count by 1’s, 2’s or 3’s. The students can take some time to count the things they see. We will spend some time counting all the things in the picture that they name.

Next, I might ask them some questions such as, “Do you see the deer in the meadow? If there are 7 deer in the forest, how many deer are hiding in the woods”? Or, “Do you see the lizards? How many are there in the picture? If there are 2 under the log, how many are not under the log?” “If there are 3 hiding in the woods, how many lizards are there in all?”

My questions will focus on what they don’t see but need to visualize in their minds eye to solve.

Try it! Why not write a few questions based on this picture that can help students focus on the ‘unseen’!

Last, I will ask the students to make up stories. They can pair up and take turns using manipulatives to solve as their partner tells them the story.

Another fun activity to help develop visualization skills is to play the game, Pirate Math. In this game, students need to deduct their part based on their partner’s part. The students need to see their part in their ‘mind’s eye’.

Here are the directions for Pirate Math:

- 3 players

- Players 1 and 2 draw cards and hold them to their foreheads or above their heads. They can see each other’s cards but not their own.

- Player 3 announces the answer.

- The first player to announce the correct answer on their own card wins that round.

- If player 3 makes a math mistake, then no one winds that round.

- Players switch roles after several rounds.

- State if you are adding, subtracting, multiplication or dividing. If dividing, disregard the remainder. If subtracting, you need to state who has the whole/minuend.

Try it! Do you ‘see’ how it helps develop visualization skills in students? Plus, it is fun.

Another way we as teachers can help develop visualization skills are by asking questions such as:

- “Do you ‘see’ what your neighbor is saying?

- “Turn to your neighbor and tell them what Jesse just explained to the class.”

- “Work with your partner to solve this problem at least two different ways, 51 ÷ 3 with no paper and pencil. Just talk about it.”

Visualization skills are so very important for students. One of our goals for our students it to solve problems without using a procedure. By helping students to ‘see’ things in their minds eye they will depend on their critical thinking skills vs following a set of rules that they have to follow.

Visual exploration in math helps children discover their own route to solving other kinds of problems.

Tune in for the next Habit of Learning; Part-Whole Thinking!