Mastery of Knowledge and Skills: Claim 3

McAuliffe scholars demonstrate and develop critical thinking skills during discussions with peers. 

“For my introverted, homeschooled daughter, I believed McAuliffe would be a great place to challenge Molly... She's a bright kid and always had a head full of information, but had not been able to explain or defend her thoughts easily. It was great to see such growth in that area.” - Nicole Jones, mother of Molly, Class of 2015

Critical thinking, particularly the ability to integrate new ideas into one’s own, is a skill that we value at McAuliffe. Although we push scholars to think critically in many formats, over the past few years, as more and more teachers have employed discussion protocols in their classes, we have found that scholars have become adept at synthesizing ideas and information through active dialogue.

Throughout their McAuliffe career, scholars develop their ability to be active participants in casual exchanges of ideas and more formal discussions and debates. Teacher guide scholars to develop confidence and competence at engaging in formal and informal discussions by pointedly teaching the following: taking turns, listening actively, asking questions (clarifying and probing), building on others’ ideas, using evidence / referring to the text, and exploring counter-arguments. Scholars practice these skills during partnered conversations, small group dialogue, and whole-class discussion or debate. The images to the right show examples of scholars engaging in paired dialogue, preparation for a small group dialogue, and a whole group discussion where the group is circled up so that all scholars can see one another and show active listening while any member of the group is sharing.

While preparing for discussions and participating in them, scholars develop critical thinking skills necessary for a democracy: they develop their own point of view, learn new information, and respond to new information in ways that show understanding, inquiry, connection, and extension. Over time, scholars improve in their collective ability to engage in a sustained discussion about a topic, exploring multiple perspectives, texts, pieces of evidence, and ultimately building a more complex understanding of a topic through discourse. Below are three examples that illustrate evidence of our claim.

Idea Shopping the Sudan Refugee Crisis - 6th Grade

While learning about the Sudan refugee crises in spring 2017, sixth grade scholars participate in the Idea Shop protocol as one way to grapple with questions related to the experience of people fleeing northern Africa and resettling in Europe. Through this protocol, scholars “shop” around for good ideas to help them answer questions about a complex text. Scholars were instructed to use the following criteria as they “bought” new ideas: relevant, accurate, meaningful, specific and detailed, “makes sense,” or offers a new point of view. Scholars prepared for the Idea Shopping by preparing their own thoughts and questions so that they were ready to contribute to the discussion and build on their own ideas by listening to their peers.

In this video, you can see scholars sharing their notes with one another, discussing them, and reflecting on the “Idea Shop” process. During the debrief, Abby reflects on how the protocol helped her build a greater understanding of the text: “When I looked through the article, I found something and I stopped there, but people kept going, and I liked how people pretty much had different ideas.” She indicates that when she read the article, she stopped reading once she found an interesting idea but her peers had read on and found new information that helped her build a more comprehensive understanding of the text and refugee crises. Near the end of this video, Aadya shares that her group decided to “buy” information that represented a new perspective, illustrating that the protocol encouraged scholars to incorporate new ideas into their pre-existing understanding.

6th Grade Idea Shop


Below are two examples of scholars’ notes before and after engaging in the Idea Shop protocol, showing the development of ideas as they listened to, and built off of, each other’s work. Maayan, for example, adjusted her initial answer to the question, “What happens to migrants and refugees once they arrive in Europe?”  from “They apply for asylum,” to “They’re taken to reception where European officials decide their fate.” She further notes, after Idea Shop, that the pie graph shows how many refugees get asylum and how many are “shoved out.”  Though the core of Maayan’s answer did not change, her notecatchers illustrates that her conversations with her peers deepened her understanding of the text and the experience of refugees to Europe.

Similarly, when Sammy first responded to the question, “What happens to migrants and refugees when they arrive in Europe?” she responded, “Once the migrants arrived in Europe, they had a better life and the journey was worth it.” After shopping for ideas with her peers, she had a more nuanced perspective: “Once they get to Europe they are taken to reception centers for food, also they don’t know what to do next.”  Through conversations with peers, Sammy gained a clearer and more subtle understanding of the refugee intake experience.


Idea Shop Notecatchers

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The 6th grade team adopted this protocol after reading about it in a 6th grade geographer skills module on the EngageNY site, and facilitated it multiple times throughout the school year so scholars could become adept at using it. 6th Grade Teacher Amy Beckhusen reflected, “I like how this protocol sets kids up to hear multiple answers, then synthesize information to formulate their final answer, or rank the ideas they heard, then choose the ones that make the most sense to them. It also allows them an opportunity to defend their ideas to other classmates, and rehearse their thoughts before they write them down. The structure of a multi-step protocol provides them with more guidance and purpose, and they end up having more substantive exchanges with each other.”

Teammates Consult : Thermal Energy Grapple - 7th Grade

Teammates Consult is a protocol that asks scholars to first THINK individually about the question at hand, then DISCUSS it, then WRITE ABOUT IT. Each step is announced with “Teammates Write” or “Teammates Consult” called out to the class. In this exampleof Teammates Consult, scholars in seventh grade science think deeply about energy transfer and the real world problem of pets being left in cars on hot days. Teammates Consult protocol guides scholars to manage their conversations more independently than they did during the “Idea Shop”. Teammates consult requires an increase in skill and responsibility while continuing to guide scholars to share their own ideas and build on ideas in order to develop a more complex understanding of a problem. Click here for the Teammates Consult Thermal Energy Grapple notecatcher.

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In the video to the left scholars used the Teammates Consult protocol to make sense of how the inside of a car can be dangerously overheated. Scholars engage in critical thinking by apply content-specific knowledge to a real world problem. For example, they explain what constitutes insulators and conductors in this scenario and consider the role of insulators and conductors in the extreme heating of a vehicle. Also notice scholars use of scientific vocabulary in both the video and the samples of note-catchers to the right: insulator, conductor, radiation, transfers the heat, and convection.

As one scholar notes, during Teammates Consult, “Everyone’s ideas are heard, and then you can build off of each other's’ ideas.” In this protocol, scholars are able to think through their ideas verbally, with peers, and expand their understanding before capturing ideas in writing. The protocol also adds great value to an inclusion classroom such that scholars who read the article but didn’t fully understand it have the opportunity to gain clarity from their peers through a consult with their teammates. Inherent in the protocol is scholars evaluating what they understand on their own and what they do not; as they add to their understanding, they’re solidifying and expressing a more coherent picture of the problem in this case including cause and effect and application of physics concepts.

Teammates consult is regularly used in all grades with varying degrees of scaffolding and question complexity. We introduce the protocol in sixth grade; scholars grow familiar with the protocol very quickly as they use it across subjects and in each grade. Here is an example of a sixth grade teammates consult (page 2) with two questions that require critical thinking related to their study of organelles and cells. Here is another example of a notecatcher for science that asks scholars to jot down two notes about what was discussed and then a final answer to the discussion question. Here is an example of an 8th grade humanities Teammates Consult that scholars engaged in prior to completing a written response. Engaging in dialogue with peers gives scholars the opportunity to build on their ideas and deepen understanding by consulting with peers prior to writing independently. A final example from 8th grade humanities illustrates the use of Teammates Consult to engage scholars in analysis of quotes from a text they were reading. Scholars consult with one another to interpret the quote and consider the theme or themes represented in the quote. This prepares scholars for using some of these quotes in their analytical essay and in the essay provide a thorough analysis of the quotation as it relates to their argument. The benefit of using a similar protocol through their experience at McAuliffe is that scholars can focus on the content of the discussion and contribute to small group dialogue with increased confidence over time. Teammates consult is also a popular “total participation technique” which ensures that every scholar is participating in the critical thinking about the subject at hand and deepening understanding collaboratively.

Raise the Age” Socratic Seminar - 8th Grade

In this next example, scholars consider the important question, “Should Massachusetts raise the age of juvenile offenders from 18 to 21?” This question is at the heart of their spring expedition. The Socratic Seminar was held near the end of the expedition and culminating event, which allowed scholars to bring a depth of knowledge to the debate. Scholars spent time prior to the discussion organizing their thoughts, synthesizing ideas and identifying evidence from texts.

The sample student work linked to the right shows a scholar’s research notes and preparation for the socratic seminar. The notecatcher provides direction for scholars as they read and extra information from two texts: 1) The Mysterious Workings of the Adolescent Brain and 2) Juvenile Justice System Pros and Cons. The note-catcher prompts guide scholars to identify relevant information, wonderings, a summary of the main idea, and the scholar’s take away from the article. There are also two more open-ended spaces for scholars to synthesize their learning and ask lingering questions.

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In addition to articulating a clear opinion about whether Massachusetts should raise the age of offenders sent to juvenile court, Stephen illustrates critical thinking by sharing his wonderings: “I am still wondering what other states think about this or even other countries. Also how does MA compare to other state or countries in terms of juvenile crime?” He gives a suggestion “to find more anti [Raise the Age] sources before the research starts and have one at the beginning so that people don’t make a one-sided opinion too quickly.” Unprompted, Stephen wonders about how Massachusetts compares with other states and countries in terms of juvenile justice; he acknowledges that opinions of himself and peers may have formed quickly because of a lack of balanced texts illustrating both sides of the debate. Stephen is primed to explore contradictory views in order to build a nuanced understanding and have a full picture before deciding on his own opinion. This is exactly the sort of thinking we want our scholars to do and indicates preparation for high school and beyond.

The Socratic Seminar task card outlines the learning targets, anchors scholars in the guiding question “Should Massachusetts raise the age of offenders sent to juvenile court from 18 to 21?”, and guides scholars to make sense of what strong participation in a Socratic Seminar looks like. The learning targets for this portion of the expedition illustrate the critical thinking scholars were guided to engage in during the spring of their eighth grade year. Notice the higher order thinking verbs in the learning targets: evaluate, synthesize, articulate. In addition, the HOWLs target taught scholars to engage in the cycle of inquiry during this expedition. Teachers and scholars found that the focus on inquiry pushed scholars to examine their own ideas, the ideas of others, and their synthesis of texts through question-asking and perspective-taking. Asking questions opened up the dialogue by inviting others to respond with thoughts and ideas rather than scholars focusing solely on getting their own ideas on the table.

The video to the right shows diverse scholars contributing during the Raise the Age Socratic Seminar. Scholars include those with individualized education programs and who are English language learners. Notice that the seminar was facilitated by scholars without teacher direction. This compares with more structured discussion protocols employed in sixth and seventh grades. At the start of the video there is a checklist for “effective socratic seminar participants” and the “looks like” and “sounds like” chart the class generated prior to the discussion. The scholars speaking during the video showcase most of the criteria named for effective participants. Namely, scholars were well-prepared - many had notes in hand, made contributions that showed understanding from resources, shared comments that connected with what other participants were saying, used claims and evidence from resources, used good eye contact and voice level, listened actively, and asked questions.

Where does critical thinking emerge during the socratic seminar? Each scholar’s contributions indicate critical thinking occurring because each scholar is either making a connection, extending an idea, referencing a text, or asking a question, all elements of critical thinking. Meanwhile, all other scholars are listening to the contribution from that scholar; listening helps them consider different perspectives, facts, and questions. The video highlights the following contributions:

  • Kate asks the group to consider the impact of being tried as an adult for those that engaged in smaller crimes (e.g. theft) versus larger crimes (e.g. murder or sexual assault) and Isabella responds by sharing her opinion that no matter the size of the crime “they should know right from wrong”;
  • Max wonders about how many times “raise the age” will come up again since brains aren’t fully developed until one’s mid-20s. In other words, why just raise the age to 21 if brains aren’t fully developed until the mid-20s?
  • Carlos reflects on the impulsive nature of adolescent-age humans by sharing “they’re stuck in the moment and don’t recognize what they’re doing at first...they want to be part of the group [by participating in the example of theft]”;
  • Another scholar notes the benefit of a juvenile’s name not being release so that “they still have a little bit of hope of being able to do something else [other than be a criminal]”;
  • Lily wonders whether the difference between the 12 year old girl’s sentence versus the 14 year old boy’s sentence is related to sexism, and Kate clarifies that the 14 year old boy’s sentence was probably much greater because at that time, 14 year olds were tried as adults.

In the video, scholars share different details from their readings, perspectives, and questions that help with sense-making. As the teacher notes on page two of the task card: “You and your classmates have pondered this [Raise the Age] question together. While you almost certainly will not all answer this question the same way, you also—almost certainly—have grown in your thinking about the nature of the issue.” The teacher makes it clear that the purpose of the discussion wasn’t to gain consensus or engage in decision-making, but instead to develop a more nuanced and complex understanding of the topic at hand. Her intention was to engage scholars in critical thinking during all parts of the Socratic seminar.

From here, scholars took their expanded understanding and engage in independent writing. After that they collaboratively crafted a script for a podcast about the Raise the Age debate. Please see Character Claim 3 about contributing to a better world to learn more about the Raise the Age podcast product and to listen to two sample podcasts created by our eighth graders.

Developing Critical Thinking Skills through Speaking and Listening

Circling back to the big picture: our aim is for scholars to develop critical thinking skills and to practice and build them by engaging in formal and informal, small and large group discussions with peers. In sixth grade, preparation for the discussion and the discussion itself is much more guided. In later grades, we aim to increase scholars’ independence by offering more open-ended discussion prompts and protocols such as the Socratic seminar. This isn’t to say that we restrict sixth grade teachers from using fish-bowl or Socratic seminar protocols; teachers do use these, but when they’re used in sixth grade, there is a more guided process. Scholars are less likely to flow in and out of the conversation as they did in the eighth grade seminar and more likely to be in the inside circle grappling for a shorter period of time while others are in the outside circle observing and then the groups switch. Similarly, in sixth and seventh grade we aim to engage scholars in grappling with big and complex topics, but there is typically more scaffolding so that the learning is accessible to all scholars. Finally, protocols are used repeatedly so that scholars grow used to them and increase comfort with the protocol. Over time we see scholars owning the discussion protocols much more and thus able to focus on the content of their discussion rather than the conversation process.