Changing My Mind on How To Teach Thinking Skills

In the fifth year of my teaching at Cleveland’s Glenville high school–it was the early 1960s–I had already introduced materials to my classes on what was then called “Negro history” (see here and here). I then began experimenting with the direct teaching of critical thinking skills. I believed that such skills were crucial in negotiating one’s way through life and understanding history. I wanted my students to acquire and use these skills every day. So I began teaching my U.S. history courses with a two-week unit on thinking skills. My theory was that the students learning these skills at the very beginning of the semester would then apply them when I began teaching units on the American Revolution, Immigration, Sectionalism and the Civil War, and the Industrial Revolution.

In the two-week unit, I selected skills I believed were important for understanding the past such as: judging how reliable a source of information is, figuring out the difference between a fact and opinion, making hunches about what happened and sorting evidence that would support or contradict each one, and distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information in reaching a conclusion

For each of these skills, I chose a contemporary event–a criminal case in the local newspaper, a national scandal that was on television, and occurrences in the school–and wrote out a one-page story that would require each student to apply the particular skill we were discussing such as making an informed guess, collecting evidence to support their hunch, and reaching a judgment. I also gave the class additional sources they could use (or could not because of biases) to select information to support their conclusion.

Each 45-minute period–I was teaching five classes a day at the time–was filled with engaged students participating in flurries of discussion, debates over evidence, student questioning of each others’ conclusions, and similar excitement. I was elated by the apparent success of my critical thinking skills unit.

After the two weeks of direct instruction in skills, I plunged into the Coming of the American Revolution and subsequent history material. From time to time, over the course of the semester, I would ask questions that I felt would prompt use of those thinking skills we had worked on earlier in the year. Blank stares greeted me with occasional “Oh yeah” from a few students. I designed homework that explicitly called for use of these thinking skills; few students applied what they had presumably learned. I was thoroughly puzzled.

Which brings me to the concept of transfer. My theory was that teaching these thinking skills directly at the very beginning of the semester would lead to students applying them when I began teaching subsequent history units. Yet the transfer was not happening. How come?


Transfer of learning appears to be a simple concept. What you learn in the family or learn in school  can be applied in different situations outside of the family and the classroom. Learning to get along with an older brother or sister helps in learning how to get along with others later in life. Learning math in middle school helps one in high school physics. It doesn’t always work that way, however.

That two-week unit on specific critical thinking skills useful to understand history and use in daily life did not transfer to the rest of the units in history. The skills I believed that I had taught my students weeks earlier were missing in action later for the American Revolution, Civil War, and Imperialism . Root canal work was easier than getting students to distinguish between a biased source and one less so or explain why certain statements were opinions, not facts. Where had I erred?

In time, I discovered from reading psychologists about the ins-and-outs of transfer of learning (see, for example, here). Teaching specific critical thinking skills and expecting students to apply what they learned to different situations depended upon many conditions that were, I learned later, missing in my lessons. Even the concept of teaching these skills isolated from the historical content–as I did–undermined the very goal I wanted to achieve (see CritThink).

Nonetheless, puzzled as I was by most students failing to apply what they had learned in the later history units, I still taught for the next few years that two week unit on critical thinking at the beginning of the semester, marching through the lessons, one skill after another. I repeated again and again this unit because the students were engaged, loved to apply what they learned to their daily lives, and I felt good at the end of the school day. An uncommon experience for a veteran teacher.

Even had a colleague I trusted grabbed me by the shoulders then and told me how I was foolish in thinking that my students would transfer the skills they learned in the two-week unit to subsequent history units, I would not have believed that colleague.  I would have continued with what I considered a “best practice” that, in reality, had become a “bad” habit.

And this is where the Kennedy Assassination unit that was taught to 15 classes in Cardozo high school in 1966 enters the picture. I and my co-teachers soon came to realize that the transfer of thinking skills were not in much evidence in the U.S. history units that we subsequently taught to our classes. Yes, it took me a few years—using introductory skill-based units at Glenville and Cardozo high schools– for that realization to sink in that thinking skills had to be taught within the historical content students were studying for them to apply those skills. I could not magically count on transfer of learning.

But it was in the crucible of my classroom (and others at Cardozo) that proved to me finally, that–separate units for thinking skills—-simply did not work. I had to change what I was doing. And I did.



Filed under how teachers teach

16 responses to “Changing My Mind on How To Teach Thinking Skills

  1. Pingback: Changing My Mind on How To Teach Thinking Skill...

  2. Jeff Bowen

    I wonder if Common Core advocates for close reading will be able to grasp the implications of your early teaching of history. I am afraid their poor understanding of the importance of historical context for effective transfer will get in the way. I hope David Coleman and his colleages will read and heed your blog.

  3. Pingback: Changing My Mind on How To Teach Thinking Skill...

  4. I am sharing this post with the Cleveland Academic Superintendents.

  5. Steven Davis

    Students are expected to be able to pick up any rigorous non-fiction or fiction text and analyze arguments, and explicate themes, regardless of their background knowledge about the subject or its vocabulary. This is nonsense, and educational malpractice.

    The lack of a standard curriculum, coupled with high-stakes testing has created a “skills-based” approach to education that simply doesn’t work. As Larry Cuban’s anecdotes and linked evidence suggests, it is very difficult to help student’s transfer critical thinking skills from one context to another, even within a single domain. Yet, secondary public school teachers are being told to teach skills, and concepts, not content.

    I have taught my sophomores to analyze themes in canonical texts such as “Pilgrim’s Progress,” and “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” but they may not be able to demonstrate their mastery of this skill on whatever text a standardized or “common” assessment throws at them. I can’t teach them the text that they will be tested on. I can only teach them the skill, which we know, may not transfer to the new context.

    As Jeff Bowen pointed out, the Common Core will only intensify the emphasis on this flawed methodology (

  6. Your argument is supported by many examples from other subject areas. Science teachers used to complain to me about how badly their student reports or essays were, not understanding that the skill that students learned in writing an English essay didn’t always transfer to another context unless the teacher made the connection for them. It is one of the arguments for a cross -curricular approach to literacy.
    My favourite is the teaching of grammar, which I would characterize as part skill, part content. There is no need to teach formal grammar except as an intervention i.e. showing someone how to improve what they have written. What does it matter if you don’t know the parts of a sentence if you write correct sentences. If you spend time in school doing grammar exercises, you will quickly notice that students do not transfer what they have learned to their own writing because they have already internalized their own style. It’s a difficult process getting someone to change a bad writing habit. But many teachers cling to the teaching of grammar as do school administrators because it is something that was always taught and must be the key to good writing.

  7. Debbie Geisler

    As a seasoned teacher I can relate to the routine of teaching a lesson as you discussed in this blog, Changing My Mind on How to Teach Thinking Skills in response to Transfer of Learning, even after years of doing the same thing we teachers ‘fail’ to see the outcome of our teaching. The response is there from the students, as was the excitement about television, film and radio for teachers, as you shared in your book, Teachers and Machines, we like the ideas but ‘fail’ to see the outcome. Teachers learn how to use this technology much as a student learns the process of doing research, math or writing a paper. The transfer of learning how to incorporate this new technology into the classroom for the seasoned teacher can be as difficult for the student to transfer learning skills from guided practice to working alone with math or doing research. Promoters of television, film and radio saw the use of new technology in the classroom as useful to the teachers’ lessons plans; teachers just did not know how to incorporate into their plans. As teachers in the classroom today we need to rethink our lesson plans to adapt to the students’ pre-existing knowledge of technology being used in the classroom today. The idea of using films in the classrooms of the 1950’s questioned the use of visual verses textbooks and how the teacher would work the two together. I agree with your thoughts that in order for students of today to succeed, teachers need to take their “bad habits” of using, ‘this always worked before’ and rethink the learning styles of students today and apply some new critical thinking of their own. Transfer of learning to the teacher is staying up all night to write a test and have a student text back all the right answers in a few minutes. Debbie Geisler

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s