Critical Thinking in the Classroom Watch: What Miguel Aguilar Does

In the Los Angeles Times this weekend is an article about an unusually successful 5th grade teacher in LA Unified, Miguel Aguilar, and I notice that he very specifically teaches critical thinking to his students.

Here, for example, is how the Times describes one of his reading lessons. First, Aguilar has the kids read something and identify the central question at hand. In this instance, it was a character’s emotional state:

Most circled the words, “Why was Robert afraid.”

Keeping his student on their toes—that is, getting them to think and assert themselves before others openly—he then did the following:

Aguilar called, unsolicited, on different students, checking their comprehension before asking the others whether they agreed.

I presume he was looking not just for herd-agreement here, but thoughtful agreement, and an opportunity for the expression of dissent (which, presumably, he also would have welcomed into the conversation):

He then asked the class what the question was asking for, a prediction or an inference.

This is great: Francis Bacon in a reading lesson. And then, of course, comes the support for any proposed answer a student might offer, an appeal to evidence:

Once the class had settled on inference, the students went back to the story to find evidence to support their answer.

And here’s the next kicker. His critical thinking-based method for teaching reading got shared around, initiating Socratic dialogue and collaboration among his colleagues:

When she [Principal Stannis Steinbeck] learned later that Aguilar had devised his own method for teaching reading and comprehension, she asked for a demonstration. Steinbeck was impressed: Aguilar forced students to slow down and think before answering questions. . . .

Steinbeck asked Aguilar if he’d be willing to lead a school-wide training session. Aguilar said her request “blew my mind.”

The demonstration to a classroom full of teachers in February was well received. So he went grade by grade giving sample lessons as the teachers looked on. Within six weeks, third-grade proficiency in reading and comprehension rose from 20% to 30%, Steinbeck said.

“Miguel is part of creating the new culture at this school,” Steinbeck said. “I think every principal should know that within their ranks there are teachers who can take the lead like this.”

Here’s what I take from this. The best teachers:

  • self-consciously teach critical thinking;
  • dialogue with their colleagues about what actually works in the classroom;
  • seek out evidence (in the form of test scores, etc) to help them determine their direction forward; and
  • expose themselves to scrutiny before their fellow teachers (that is, take on leadership roles; put themselves “out there”).

So there it is. If you’re a teacher, are you doing at least some of these things? (I, personally, am not doing nearly enough of the second bullet above.)

And what might you add to a list of things that the best teachers do?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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