One of my favorite lines in The Princess Bride comes when, after hearing Vizzini use the word inconceivable multiple times, Inigo Montoya says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” For you see, despite Vizzini’s words, the inconceivable continually happens and becomes conceivable. This scene came to mind recently after I had a discussion with a colleague about critical thinking. We were discussing how many times even the best teachers think they are getting at critical thinking in their lessons and assessments when they just…aren’t. Montoya might as well say to us, “You keep using that phrase – critical thinking. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
A few years ago I bought one of those Bloom’s taxonomy flip charts, thinking that it would help me devise more higher-order thinking questions. The flip chart came with question stems and key words for the different levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Use more of the question stems and key words from the upper levels and you’re bound to be requiring your students to think critically, right? Well, maybe, but then again, maybe not.
Here’s one relatively obvious example. Level V (the second-highest level, mind you) of the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy is evaluating, and on my flip chart, one of the key words for this level is explain. Using the word explain in an assessment could very well require students to think critically, but depending on what you’ve actually taught them, explain could also require nothing more from students than regurgitating memorized information. For example, if, in his anatomy class, Teacher A explained how the heart works like a pump to his students, giving them the step by step process, then asking them to explain how the heart works on an assessment doesn’t require much thinking on the part of the students. They simply have to remember the steps you told them in the order you told them. On the other hand, take Teacher B. Teacher B did not explain how the heart works as a pump to her students, but instead provided those students with simulations and other resources that they were to examine on their own with some limited guidance from the teacher. They were tasked with figuring out based on what they were observing in the simulations how the heart works as a pump and then asked to explain the process just like the students of Teacher A. The students of Teacher B are engaged in critical thinking, while those in Teacher A’s class are not, and yet the task as written remained the same with the same Level V word from Bloom’s taxonomy: Explain how the heart works like a pump.
I realize that this seems really obvious, but I do believe many teachers, including myself, fall into the trap of thinking they are getting at critical thinking when they are not. This led me to think about how I could guard against this. That’s when another line popped into my head. In London, when riding the Underground, you hear repeatedly over and over as you enter and exit the train cars, “mind the gap.” It’s meant to remind you that there is a space between platform and car that one can fall into if not careful. While the gap on the Underground is not a place one wants to end up, in the case of teaching it’s exactly where we want to be. We want to be in the gap. We want to create a gap between what we have taught and where we want our students to go with that information. It’s in the gap that the critical thinking takes place regardless of the words we use, whether they fall at Level III or Level V of Bloom’s. Above, there are no gaps in Teacher A’s teaching and assessing, but in the case of Teacher B, the students are smack in the middle of the gap while being provided with the necessary tools to help them successfully bridge it.
So, as they say in London, mind the gap. It’s become my new teaching mantra. Each time I make any kind of activity or assessment, I am reminding myself to leave some gaps for students to wallow in and think in for a while. And if they get lost or stuck, I’ll be there to throw a rope their way.