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Talk To Me About Critical Thinking

What is considered Critical Thinking vs. Literacy vs. Reading Comprehension…I've seen similar things in the guide but headed differently.- T. This was one of the best questions I’ve received this last week. I sat down to answer this via chat but, in realizing that the explanation needed pictures and illustrations to properly deliver the answer, I decided to collect it all into a blog post. Before I get started, I want to extend a big thank you to the wonderfully engaged homeschooler who asked this question.


Now, down the rabbit-hole we go!



Define Critical Thinking

AN ORIGIN STORY

TSW was originally planned (way back in 2018 and 2019) as a critical thinking and communication resource. The very first ideas about what would eventually become the full curriculum revolved around one major question. “How do we give our kids the tools to solve problems?” We wanted to help people become outside-the-box-thinkers and creative-solution-finders. And once kids arrived at those solutions, we wanted them to have the tools to explain, challenge, and convince other people to consider the ideas. 


But how do you do this day-to-day in your homeschool? The answer that we arrived at was surprisingly simple. You present kids with problems that don’t already have answers. Problems that might not even be possible to solve. By considering a problem that doesn’t offer you the luxury of a right or wrong answer, you’re forced to build mental strategies for breaking a challenge down into smaller parts, forming hypotheses, testing those hypotheses, and iterating on a solution. Ultimately, this is the foundation for design thinking. And today, you can find a gradual step up in intensity of this skill from level 1 through level 5, and eventually in the middle school levels.


Critical thinking activities from The Story Weavers

Critical thinking activities from Level 1, Book 5 and Level 5, Book 2




THE CHICKEN AND THE CRITICAL EGG

This whole idea of solving problems sounds great, in theory. But problem-solving and critical thinking come with one very big downside (bet you didn’t see that coming.) Time. Anytime you break free of a practiced route and step out into uncharted territory it takes time. Good creative solutions rarely come from a single conversation, or just one perfectly formed idea. They come from a meandering path filled with trial and error. And all that metaphorical wandering around takes a whole bunch of time. And as I’m sure you know…for homeschoolers, time is a precious resource. As soon as you crack open your curriculum for the day, a clock starts ticking. Our patience as educators is finite, our kids’ tolerance for sitting down is limited. Our interest in solving frustrating, unanswerable questions can only sustain us for so long. So while we are developing our creative problem-solving muscles, we also have to go about the rest of our lives. But the only way to get faster at finding good solutions is to practice finding good solutions. It’s a chicken/egg problem if you will.




PUT YOUR BRAIN WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but the problem I’ve been laying out here is a really good example of a critical thinking challenge. And the way we solved it relied on the exact same process we work on developing through the program…with design thinking! (That just means a lot of trial and error.)




Design Thinking Process The Story Weavers

In our never-ending quest to build the perfect curriculum, balance passions and home life with education, max out skills, give our kids the tools to deal with gaps and weaknesses, and raise humble, kind, grateful, resilient kids who are also all total geniuses and social savants that will save the world and usher in a new era for humanity (no big deal), we have arrived at the following arrangement for critical thinking activities. (I hope that made you laugh in the same way I did while I wrote it.)


Overlap.


We’ve talked about this a lot in the past, but at the very foundation of the TSW materials is the notion that separating the subject and focusing on one topic at a time is the least efficient way to learn. What I’m trying to say here is that you’ll find a little bit of Critical Thinking in a lot of activities, and a little bit of many other disciplines in every Critical Thinking activity.


That means that the original question was dead on. No, the separation of critical thinking versus reading comprehension, and literacy lessons is not clearly defined. We have intentionally woven together each of the subjects in our materials. In an ideal scenario, you and your child won’t really be able to pinpoint the moment you start working on literacy and stop working on critical thinking or science or history.


Now that you’ve got the whole backstory, let’s explore how this works and what qualifies an activity as one thing or the other.




LITERACY AND COMPREHENSION

Literacy and comprehension activities have one primary goal: to present learners with a source of information and give them the tools and practice opportunities required to become proficient at understanding the overall message and clarifying specific details.


Literacy Activity Breakdown The Story Weavers

Literacy Activity - Level 1, Book 7, Page 47.







This is a format for literacy activities that you’ll see a lot. Built around the YouTube video accessible by the QR code, the activity asks families to watch a video and answer some questions about what they just heard. 


Here we provide some crucial context for understanding how this topic fits into the overall theme of the month and use several keywords to trigger relationships to other topics you’ve already covered.




VOCABULARY

We use vocabulary that connects ideas to topics that have been covered in the past and offer hints about what to look for while listening/watching/reading the source material. Context helps to prime learners to give better answers.


Vocabulary The Story Weavers


After watching the video (in this case), families are asked to discuss some specific questions.


Discussion Questions TSW


Here is where the distinctions between activities really come into play.


The discussion questions presented in Literacy and Comprehension activities are intended to drive learners back to the source material and recall specific details. In this example, you can see in question one that we prompt the kids to label and describe specific features of a Viking ship, which come directly from the video. But the full question encompasses more than just direct text references.


We could have asked the question “Describe some features of the Viking longships,” but we chose, instead, to expand the question to do double-duty. By asking “What features of the Viking longships made them so effective for both exploration and warfare” we’ve introduced an element of personal evaluation into this discussion. Not only do learners have to recall a few specific features, but they also must assign those features a value and a purpose. This question crosses the link between simple literacy and critical thinking.


Question three, however, is a more traditional literacy question, where kids simply refer back to the video to find an answer.


Each question asked here requires a varying degree of analysis. 


While some questions do lean toward a critical thinking emphasis, this whole activity is primarily working out the skill of absorbing content and understanding the presented information, thus qualifying it as a literacy activity.





COMPREHENSION VS. LITERACY


In the early levels you’ll see some activities labeled as comprehension and some as literacy.


The difference between is governed by the specific set of skills we aim to target with the questions. 


reading comprehension and literacy  The story weavers

Reading Comprehension from Level 1, Book 1. Literacy from Level 1 Book 2.


In the earliest levels, comprehension activities are focused on pulling information from the story as a whole. Literacy activities are focused on pulling information and interpretation from specific details, events, pages, pictures, etc.


You’ll see many different iterations of this type of activity categorized under Literacy and Comprehension.





WHAT MAKES A CRITICAL THINKING ACTIVITY?

Here at TSW, we define critical thinking activities as any lesson that requires multiple systems to solve an open-ended problem. 


That means you might need to combine knowledge and experience from several different disciplines and ways of thinking to answer the question.



the story weavers, critical thinking activity sample

This example for level 5 is just one of many different types of critical thinking activities. But what you’ll find in common with them all is the fundamental absence of a single correct process or answer. In this activity, learners are asked to watch a video, just like in the literacy activities, but this time, it’s up to the child to determine which information is important and which isn’t. And it doesn’t stop there. The debate prompt pulls from writing and logical skills to encourage both parent and child to formulate an opinion, generate a logical argument, and defend their position with facts and evidence. Finally, the format of a debate forces both parties to draw on the social-emotional skills they have already worked on in earlier lessons to effectively argue and persuade. Tips, like you see highlighted by the  “Cross-subject skill connection,” remind learners of a specific skill that will further develop the experience.


Let’s break down a slightly more involved activity. This example comes from Book 4 of Level 3. The goal of this Critical Thinking Activity is to blend historical connection based on the history theme of this book, with logical analysis, and social-emotional learning topics. In our records that help us make sure that each book covers everything it’s supposed to, we have the purpose of this activity listed as “Logic - Critical Analysis.”



Critical Thinking Activity


Unlike the last activity, the background and context piece of this lesson has been broken up into two sections. This particular lesson is strongly connected to the history concepts in this book and the background article serves as the bridge between history and logic.


The context section on the next page draws from the history you’ve just read and makes a specific connection to the cipher activity you’re about to work on.


Critical Thinking Example


The remainder of the activity includes the features you’ve already seen. You’ll find specific instructions for the activity, reminders about the skills and techniques you’ve already learned in social-emotional lessons that will serve you during this lesson, and finally, the resources you’ll need to complete your own cipher.


The systems required for this activity include…

  • Literacy

  • Logic

  • Fine motor skills

  • Decision making

  • Anticipating problems & thinking ahead

  • Sequential thinking


And obviously, this is also a super fun activity that our kids weaponized against us for like three days last time it came up.





WRAP IT UP PLEASE

This has been a long-winded explanation, but we have spent years developing the unique set of skills covered in our critical thinking program. So there is a LOT more I could have included here. 


If you’re interested in the individual skills covered in each book under the category of Critical Thinking, we’ve listed the main categories in the Monthly Overviews that belong to each book. You can check them out by downloading the skills maps here. If you’ve already got your hands on the materials, you can find the monthly overviews at the start of each book.


Got more questions? Click the chat button at the bottom of the screen to chat with us live. We love to hear from families using the program and those thinking about it.



So, after all that, what’s the difference between critical thinking, literacy, and comprehension activities?



  1. Critical thinking activities seek to answer questions that have no right or wrong processes.

  2. Literacy and comprehension focus more on understanding and interpreting ideas from a text. (Overall text/ details)

  3. We use a connected approach that interwinds all of these - for the sake of time.




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