British Council: ‘Connecting Classrooms through Global Learning: Critical thinking and problem solving’ (Day 2)


Well, it was back to the Gloucestershire Heritage Hub ( again today to deliver Day 2 of the British Council’s ‘Connecting Classrooms through Global Learning: Critical thinking and problem solving’ course.  We were based in the new Dunrossil Centre and being a small group were able to spread out and make ourselves very comfortable, as well as having access to a plentiful supply of tea, coffee, hot chocolate, fruit juice, biscuits and chocolates to keep us going throughout the day.

After outlining the structure of the day, I asked participants to take a postcard and record some brief details about their project on it, some of which are evident below  This was to support the initial sharing of their work during Session 1.

To kick start the session, we played a game of ‘alphabetagories’.  Working in groups of three, they had to think of as many words linked to critical thinking that began with the letter ‘c’ as they could within one minute.  This was then repeated for the letters ‘e’, ‘r’ and ‘t’.  Groups gained a point for each suitable answer and a bonus mark if they had a word that no one else had.  The winning team managed to secure 54 points!  This activity certainly encouraged individuals to reflect upon what they had learnt so far.

Next, I referred to the model for critical thinking and emphasised that Day 2 would concentrate on the 2nd and 3rd circles (‘making better sense of information’ and ‘becoming a more open thinker’).

We then had a change of state to facilitate some ‘speed dating’.  Two rows of chairs were placed opposite each other.  Individuals took their seats and pairs were given one minute to discuss their project.  Once a minute had elapsed, then it was time for one row to move to their left and quiz the teacher they were now facing.  After all possible combinations had been achieved, it was time to return to their original places around the tables towards the front of the room.  Such an activity provides an effective way of ‘eyeing up the talent’; which individuals would they like to have more in-depth discussions with later on.

Session 2 focused on ‘becoming a better thinker’ and explored the teaching of controversial issues.  Such issues are all around us.  They are important to help us understand and engage with the world.  However, they are often complex and this is where critical thinking can help, e.g. in developing pupils’ views, values and resilience.  It can be tricky to get it right and teaching can be improved through professional development and debate.  Permissable and non-permissable signs were placed on opposing walls to form a continuum line across the room.  Participants were asked to stand at an appropriate point as each of the following statements were read out in turn:

  • Investigating air pollution at school and its impact on health.
  • Convincing pupils there are serious environmental concerns – connected with (un)sustainable development.
  • Getting pupils involved in caring for the environment at school or at home.
  • Hosting a talk by those from Greenpeace; CND on an issue, such as nuclear power or fracking, etc.
  • Letting pupils know how to take environmental action.
  • Advocating pupils take environmental action, e.g. attend a demonstration against … .

I challenged individuals to explain why they had chosen a particular position and if they could think of any non-permissable examples.  We also discussed how critical thinking could assist in the investigatation of environmental issues.

Delegates returned to their tables for an activity in small groups.  I requested that they made a copy of the triangle that was projected on the big screen on the large piece of flip chart paper that they had been given.  They then had to look at a list of controversial issues and decide which were controversial, why they were controversial and what makes a controversial issue generally.  They were asked to reflect upon their teaching at this point too; which controverisal issues do they teach about and how might they do this better.  This led to a lively discussion.  I highlighted the three common types of approach to the teaching of controversial issues, namely:

  • Balanced: pupils given information about alternative viewpoints.
  • Neutral: e.g. by chairing discussion; focused questioning.
  • Committed: letting pupils know your viewpoint; advocating certain values.

We discussed the pros and cons of each position and thought of examples where these stances might be deemed appropriate or inappropriate too.  Together we identified how critical thinking might help.  We also considered an additional way of teaching controversial issues that develops critical thinking: ‘windows, mirrors and doors’.  The ‘window’ is where we look out, e.g. what can we actually see in the issue?  The ‘mirror’ is where we look in, think about what we have seen/heard/read and how it makes us feel or our thoughts about it.  The ‘door’ is where we look forwards or outwards, e.g. what we have seen in the issue, how we feel and how we might act now.

The final activity of Session 2 was ‘silent debate’.  Firstly, participants had to look at a number of statements on the worksheet that they had been given and decide whether they agreed with each or not (a tick or cross was used to indicate their thoughts).  The same statements were added to large pieces of paper and placed around the room.  Individuals were allocated ten minutes to circulate around the room in silence, writing their views or putting a tick next to other statements that they agreed with.  And, they managed to complete it in silence!  I then took down the sheets and distributed a few to each group to summarise and feedback.  I prompted teachers to return to the original worksheet and see whether they had changed their mind about any of the statements in light of the extra reflection time they had been allotted and additonal responses that they had read.  Some agreed that they had now changed their mind about a couple of statements after reading other people’s comments.  We talked about strategies for listening to others’ views, including making allowance for non-standard answers, as well as how this might be used as a plan for extended writing.  Silent debate is a great means of debating how an issue affects people and communities; what impact a strategy is having or the best solution to a problem.

All of the activities that we had completed so far clearly:

  • encourage pupils to participate actively in the lesson.
  • teach a ‘culture of argument’, where different views are listened to and, where appropriate, countered.
  • encourage a tone of ‘confident uncertainty’, where pupils are confident, but understand that there is invariably more to know.
  • provide opportunities to practice making informed decisions and expressing viewpoints.

After a break for refreshments and an informal chat, we returned to our seats for Session 3.  Time had been set aside from now until lunch for delegates to share their projects in more depth and use either the paper or electronic template to produce a detailed case study of their work.  Copies have to be sent to myself, Sam Colley at Pearson and Julie Beattie at the Geographical Association (GA) by half-term (Friday 14th Febraury 2020) and some of these will then be selected and shared more widely, e.g. via their website; in a practice guide; within Twitter feeds and Facebook groups.

Our final session of the day honed in on ‘structuring thinking in the curriculum’, exploring practical strategies to support critical thinking.  Critical thinking is organised.  Therefore, we need to provide strategies on which pupils can ‘hang’ their thinking.  The ultimate aim is to hardwire and embed these ways of thinking and so we also have to gradually take these strategies away.  I provided examples of an array of structures that are commonly used , e.g. odd one out; development compass rose; PMI; noughts and crosses; 7Ws + a H; so what? chains and layers of inference.  Some of these I simply talked through, whilst others were trialled together.  I referenced instances when each might be employed, but more detailed case studies can be found in the distributed ‘Critical Thinking in Practice’ guide.

We looked at building resilience too, focusing on ‘the learning pit’.  It is usual for people not to know what to do when faced with a problem, as is clearly portrayed in the image below:

I projected two ‘getting better at critical thinking’ posters that might be used in the classroom to remind children of the process or ingredients of critical thinking and quizzed delegates as to which one they preferred and why.  Or, would they wish to produce their own instead and, if so, what would it look like?  Most suggested that they would create their own version using elements from poster 2 and inserting icons/images/colour to make it more eye-catching or appealing to youngsters in their classroom.

We concluded with a brief discussion based on the following questions:

  • Which aspects of critical thinking do you want to incorporate in your teaching?
  • How are you going to do this?

Participants stated that they had gained a wealth of ideas from today’s training session and identified themes or lessons when they wished to introduce such activities; these incorporated various year groups and subjects demonstrating how critical thinking can be immersed into teaching and learning at all Key Stages and across the curriculum.

Once the final evaluation form had been completed, then attendees were free to leave.  An inspiring and enjoyable event for all, it appears:

Many thanks for being such an enthusiastic and interactive bunch of teachers to train too!

I look forward to hearing about, and witnessing, more of your endeavours in the near future.

Hopefully, British Council Connecting Classrooms will fund a similar course in Gloucester again shortly as I know several local teachers who are keen to participate.



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