So what? Why does this matter? How does the evidence answer the question and support your thesis? How can you build connections so as to prove your point? These are the questions that my students are challenged with on a regular basis so as to demonstrate their thinking and understanding of topics. These are also the types of questions that I find students tend to struggle with the most. In their studies of history, my students can easily recall the facts, name the leaders, and spout random anecdote often which I have no reference for. But the skill of making connections so as to form analysis and dive deep into the thinking process is something that they have a more hard time with.
It is not that my students are not capable of thinking. In fact, I would argue that they actually overthink sometimes — but that is for another post. It seems that sometimes students struggle with critical thinking as it is simply easier to fall back on the facts of history rather than analyze them so as to create critical commentary. Facts are memorizable. They are tangible. Facts give off an aura of intelligence. Also, it is possible that through their educational experiences, students have been slated with “memorize, memorize, memorize” and not been asked to think critically and make connections. It is very possible that they have been part of classrooms where there teacher did the thinking for them and via direct instruction told them the answers.
By no means are students to blame if they have been part of a system where the answers are just told to them. However, it is important for us now to work to combat student desires to just know the facts and rely on teachers to tell them the deeper connections. I want students to feel empowered to take academic risks so that they can feel the struggle, joy, and success of figuring out a problem or making a historical connection. It is when these connections are made or problems are solved that students have that light bulb moment — that moment when the complexity of names, concepts, and events all come together to create a crystal clear understanding of all the moving elements involved in studying.
While the light bulb moment is the ultimate goal, it is the teacher’s job to help students get there. There are many articles and books that speak to working with students and helping them think about their thinking so as to reach a level of clarity in understanding. The ideas of meta cognition contained in these articles and books are excellent but I want to share and reflect on a more simple process that I recently used to help students make connections and think about the significance of what they are studying so to reach the light bulb moment.
Students are given a stack of blank hexagons and a central/guiding prompt or question that will drive their thinking. For instance, a prompt that I posed to my grade 12 class recently was, Explain the long end of the Cold War. With this prompt in mind students are asked to discuss with one another who/what are the key people, events, concepts, dates, laws, etc… that have to do with the central question/prompt. Once students have recalled the factual information that relates to the prompt, they begin the thinking process. Student are challenged to label the hexagons with the specific people, events, concepts, dates, laws, etc…and start to interconnect them to show relationships, establish historical significance, and analyze cause and effect. For example, for the prompt Explain the long end of the Cold War students generated ideas such as: Poland, Solidarity, SALT I, The Helsinki Conference, Prague Spring, and Willy Brandt, to name a few.
Since the hexagon has six sides I remind students that they should be thinking about how a single idea could have multiple connections stemming from it and use as many of the sides as possible to examine overt and subtle relationships within the content. For example, for the prompt Explain the long end of the Cold War students generated connected ideas such as the Prague Spring to Poland and the Solidarity movement. Yet, in between those two hexagons was the idea of Brezhnev’s goal to keep a stable regime. It is the connection of Brezhnev that is a critical connection and it is this connection that shows that thinking is happening. As students work through this process they are encouraged to think: to think about interconnections, to think about what elements are most appropriate to respond to the prompt, to think about more than the linear progression of history, and to think about their thinking process.
To encourage thinking during this process I assume the role of a challenger. I like to move among the groups working and ask questions and challenge the connections they are making. Often students try to make multiple connections off of a hexagon that just don’t add up. Rather than point out student errors, I challenge them to think and work through how they can better arrange their knowledge.
I try my best to not help my students make the connections. I want them to work together to build a collective understanding. If I were to aid them too much in their construction of taking facts and making meaning then I would only be doing them a disservice. I would be stealing their thinking from them thus defeating the purpose of the exercise.
I see the hexagon activity as a great way to encourage thinking rather than memorization. Overall there are four main reasons why I will continue to use hexagon thinking in the future.
It promotes critical thinking and pushes students to work to show the significance of facts.
- Hexagon thinking is visible thinking. The connections unfold in front of the students. They can see the connections and the interrelationships. By making these connections visible it takes their thinking and these ideas from abstract to concrete.
- This activity allows me to challenge students in a safe and constructive way. I can ask questions of them, I can question their understanding, and I can challenge their ideas. But because the hexagons are movable students can make changes to their thinking based off of the questions that I ask them.
- Hexagon thinking also promotes analysis. I find that students can struggle with the concept of analysis. By participating in this exercise students are creating analytical thinking. It is great to reflect back on that with students once the activity is complete so as to empower students to transfer those analytical skills to other tasks.
Hexagon thinking is just one tool that I have used to promote critical and analytical thinking skills. What strategies do you rely on to help develop critical thinking? What are some of your methods to help students move from memorization to analysis?