Objective: Decide how you create a “natural critical learning environment” in your online courses.

What is a “natural critical learning environment”?

According to Ken Bain, “natural” means answering questions and completing tasks that naturally matter most to learners interests. Learners make decisions, defend their choices, receive feedback, and try again when their answers are incomplete.

“Critical” means thinking critically. Students learn to reason from evidence, examine the quality of their reasoning, make improvements, and ask probing and insightful questions. There are five essential elements that make up a natural critical learning environment.

  1. A “natural critical learning environment begins with an intriguing question or problem. Often the most successful questions are highly provocative. Many teachers give students answers and never ask questions.
  2. Students are provided guidance to understand the significance of the question. Many teachers present intellectual problems but often focus only on the course subject and issues. In contrast, the best teachers tend to take the subjects and issues from the course and integrate them with broader concerns and issues, creating an interdisciplinary approach. They remind students how the current question relates to some larger issue that already interests them.
  3. Students are engaged in some higher-order intellectual activity where they are encouraged to compare, apply, evaluate, analyze, and synthesize. They do not listen and remember!
  4. Students answer the question. The best teachers raise important questions but challenged students to develop their own answers and defend them.
  5. Finally, a good learning environment leaves students wondering: “What’s the next question?” and “What can we ask now?”

Thinking is Driven by Questions

When  instructors  attempt to  “cover content” over “engaged thinking” they do not fully appreciate or understand the role of questions in teaching content. There is a deep misunderstanding  about the significance of questions in the learning (and thinking) process. In fact every textbook could be rewritten by translating statements into questions. Most instruction ignores questions by spoon feeding learners “answers.” When we teach by giving answers were are not teaching learners how to think critically. Critical thinking is not driven by answers but by questions.

Questions define tasks, express problems and describe issues. Answers on the other hand, often signal a full stop in thought. Only when an answer generates a further question does thought continue its life as such. This is why it is true that only students who have questions are really thinking and learning. Moreover, the quality of the questions students ask determines the quality of the thinking they are doing. It is possible to give students an examination on any subject by just asking them to list all of the questions that they have about a subject, including all questions generated by their first list of questions. That we do not test students by asking them to list questions and explain their significance is again evidence of the privileged status we give to answers isolated from questions. That is, we ask questions only to get thought-stopping answers, not to generate further questions.

Questioning Strategies
Effective questioning strategies guide discussions and promote critical interaction. Learners need to have time to process questions and develop responses that match the cognitive level of the questions asked. Higher level cognitive and affective questions encourage learners to interpret, analyze, evaluate, infer, explain and self regulate. According to Wilson (2002) there are four types of questions that encourage learners to use higher levels of cognitive, or affective, processes for critical thinking. They are convergent, divergent, and evaluative questions.

Convergent Questioning Strategies
Convergent questions normally ask learners to analyze issues, and their personal awareness of issues. Learners often become more conscious of the learning process when convergent questions are framed around relationships, between concepts, ideas, and information . Key words used in convergent questions are support, translate, judge, classify, select, match, explain, represent, and demonstrate. Convergent questions ask learners to analyze information by breaking down parts, recognizing patterns, forming assumptions and identifying relationships (Wilson, 2002). Convergent questions are used to check for understanding by asking learners to identify content information or interpret information in a new way. Convergent questions do not generate a great deal of interaction.

Divergent Questioning Strategies
Divergent questions explore different possibilities, variations, and alternative answers or scenarios, and require learners to analyze, synthesize or evaluate knowledge, and project, or predict different outcomes (Wilson, 2002). Divergent questions generally stimulate creativity, and are used to investigate cause and effect relationships. Wilson points out that answers to divergent questions often have a wide variety of acceptability since they are subjective and based on the answers possibility or probability. Divergent questions often challenge learners to synthesize information through creative and original thinking. Divergent questions are used provide opportunities to expose learners to alternative possibilities, and new solutions presented by different learners.

Evaluative Questioning Strategies
Evaluative questions require comparative analysis from different perspectives before learners can synthesize information and reach conclusions. Evaluative questions usually require higher levels of cognitive and emotional judgment (Wilson, 2002). Evaluative questions promote critical thinking providing reflective opportunities. Learners evaluate issues by assessing, appraising, and defending information according to a set of criteria, and justification of their beliefs, and then reflect and gather resources to support their opinion. Discussions can often become intense and emotional, and facilitation is critical to prevent argumentative interactions.

Socratic-Questioning Strategies
According to The Foundation for Critical Thinking (n.d), the best known teaching strategy for promoting critical thinking is Socratic-questioning since it highlights the need for using clarity and logical consistency. Socratic-questions encourage critical thinking when learners look deeply into assumptions, points of views, perspectives, and evidence to analyze assumptions, and examine reasons, concepts and consequences. They help learners to understand the implications of what they discuss online. Socratic-questions ask learners to identify cause and effect relationships, probe by asking “so what”, and look for relevant responses (Stepien, 1999). They ask learners to clarify, look for meaning, and provide justification and evidence. Socratic-questions ask learners to consider and evaluate different paths.

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