Considering critical literacy

Recently, questions about critical literacy  and critical thinking have come up with some of the teachers who I work with. The teachers are implementing student inquiry and as they work on questioning with their students they are realizing that just because students ask questions, even questions that are evaluative and analytic in nature, does not mean that the students are intellectually engaged.

What does intellectually demanding or engaging learning look like? And how do we get there?

We know that simply creating the environment to foster questioning is not enough. Sure, it is early days, and we’ve  just begun this work on inquiry. None-the-less, the learning opportunities put in place in one classroom include a knowledge building circle, a book study, a variety of mentor texts from print, video, and Internet sources, oral presentations by local experts, and field trips. Lots of chance for student choice and voice. The content is meaningful and relevant because it comes from the students’ own history.  And yet, there is little evidence of growth in student thinking.

So, what gives? Well, to paraphrase Steven Katz, a student learning need is a proxy for a teacher learning need, and our learning need is to dive more deeply into what thinking is, and to understand more about critical thinking and its partner critical literacy.

These are the  definitions of critical thinking and critical literacy that we are working with. They are  from the Ontario Language Curriculum:

Critical thinking.
The process of thinking about ideas or situations in order to understand them fully, identify their implications, and/or make a judgement about what is sensible or reasonable to believe or do.

What does this look like?
In reading this  includes: examining opinions, questioning ideas, interpreting information, identifying values and issues, detecting bias, detecting implied as well as explicit meanings.

In writing this includes: questioning, hypothesizing, interpreting, inferring, analysing, comparing, contrasting, evaluating, predicting, reasoning, distinguishing between alternatives, making and supporting judgements, synthesizing, elaborating on ideas, identifying values and issues, detecting bias, detecting implied as well as explicit meanings.

Clearly, there’s a lot of work in thinking critically–look at all of those verbs–but it is also invisible work. How do we make that process visible? How to help students learn how to question ideas, make judgements based on evidence, or problem solve?  Some methods include:

And then, we need to learn to step back and let the students get to it. We need to get out of our students’ way, so that they can engage in the process of thinking. Is it hard to watch the kids struggle? Yes.  And that’s ok.

Another piece that is important in critical thinking is making deep, rich, meaningful, relevant connections. This habit of mind only comes over time with lived experiences and by reading widely and deeply. We need to know something of the world in order to make connections, to theorize, and to think critically.

What else? Let’s listen to Dr. Allan Luke speak briefly on critical thinking . He will make reference to the Four Roles of the Literate Learner and he will talk about critical literacy and metacognitive practices.

Here’s the definition for critical literacy:
The capacity for a particular type of critical thinking that involves looking beyond the literal meaning of texts to observe what is present and what is missing, in order to analyse and evaluate the text’s complete meaning and the author’s intent. Critical literacy goes beyond conventional critical thinking in focusing on issues related to fairness, equity, and social justice. Critically literate students adopt a critical stance, asking what view of the world the text advances and
whether they find this view acceptable.

In both critical thinking and critical literacy, it is imperative that students use the metacognitive process because it is only when we become aware of what we know and understand the process that we used to get there that we can reproduce the process consciously in another context.

So to the above list, I want to add

  • metacognitive routines

And there is no magic about this work. Luke is speaking of the primary grades, but his comments about what good teaching is are applicable to all grades. We need to look around our world and use those resources to teach students to be skeptical. We need to have students look around their world and use those resources to question. This is an empowering process that goes a long way to answering, “What’s the point?”

Deep connections, that’s what we are looking for.

I believe Luke is right when he says no package is going to do this for us or our students. Rather, when we heighten the intellectual demand of our students and create opportunities in the classroom that connect them to the world, we will be engaging our students in both critical thinking and critical literacy. This is not a stand alone lesson or a unit of study, but a stance, a lens through which teachers and students must view all the content.


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