Critical Thinking – Barb

Thinking Is Critical  —  Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto
Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto
Course Director

Long, long ago, when I was working toward my first teaching license, I was introduced to Benjamin Bloom and began a love-hate relationship with his taxonomy of learning objectives.

I loved having a rubric that helped me include higher level thinking skills in my lessons. I hated that my lessons so rarely touched on the skills at the top of the pyramid. It’s easy enough to write lesson objectives that incorporate higher order skills:

Students will analyze the appeals used in popular television advertisements, evaluate which appeals were most effective, and create an original advertisement incorporating one appeal from each of the categories studied.

Sakamoto image 1


The challenge is to make sure that students remember the names of the persuasive appeals, understand how they are used in advertising, and can apply that knowledge in new contexts so that they can make the most of the more challenging tasks. It’s the time spent on building the lower level thinking skills that make the class project a meaningful activity.

If we’re doing this activity in a language class, we also need to make sure that students are comfortable with the language needed to discuss, negotiate, and produce a group project. The tasks at the top of the thinking pyramid reinforce the language and concepts that we’re trying to teach. But, without the foundation of remembering, understanding, and applying language, students will be unable to accomplish the tasks in English. On the other hand, teaching language without also teaching students to think when using it can produce students who answer questions with grammatically correct utterances that make no sense in context. Naomi Epstein addresses this problem, and introduces a simple approach that helps students become better at producing answers that are relevant to the type of questions being asked in her The “Reading Pictures” Strategy.

All levels of thinking are critical. And all have an important place in our classrooms.

I like the visual image of a pyramid because it helps me remember that my goal in teaching English is to make language a tool that has value in my students’ lives outside of class. For that to happen, I need to help them make connections between the language they’re learning and the creative ways in which the language can be used. One cannot happen without the other. In Moving beyond “Do you like? Randy Poehlman shares a clear step-by-step example of how he builds the language students need to discuss, share, and support opinions.

The taxonomy can be a useful tool for incorporating higher order thinking skills with even the youngest learners. For example, rather than telling your students why we say It’s a ball but It’s an apple, give them several examples and let them figure out the rule behind the pattern. Even if your students don’t have the language to explain to you that whether to use a and an depends on the initial sound of the word following the determiner, they can show you that they’ve analyzed the language by providing the appropriate determiner in front of new words.

Games like I Spy or Twenty Questions encourage problem solving as students learn to ask smarter questions without feeling like hard work. You can also challenge your students to solve a problem that you face in every class, coming up with activities that practice target language in an enjoyable way. Rather than choosing a project or creating a game that reinforces language objectives, let your students come up with their own solution. The process of creating a game, of coming up with and testing different rules for play, and then evaluating how well the game meets the language objective is an easy way to strengthen your students’ thinking skills while using language for a real purpose.

We do something similar in our English for Teachers course by asking teachers to focus on both language and teaching objectives in our lessons. For example, in EFT Lesson 2, teachers strengthen their language skills by focusing on collocations and logical connectors in listening, vocabulary, grammar, and reading sections. Not too different from any language course, except that the context for lesson is teaching – in the case of EFT 2, about how we can incorporate a variety of thinking skills in our lessons. (We made sure that the language focus was authentic and relevant by having discussions on the same topic with our iTDi Associates first, and pulling language for the lesson from those conversations.)Teachers connect the language they’re learning to their own experience by participating in discussions about teaching thinking skills with iTDi Mentors and other teachers working on the same lesson.

Thinking skills and language skills are not separate learning objectives. Including both in a lesson creates a more effective learning experience. The key, I think, is to find what motivates your students – games, projects, discussions, or something else – and use that to engage them in lessons that build both their language and thinking skills.

~ Barb

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Celebrate The Banal – John F. Fanselow

Celebrate The Banal 


— John F. Fanselow

What have I learned? What am I learning?

The first thought I had when asked me to write something in response to these questions was that anything that I wrote would be banal—obvious and boring. I was a bit relieved to find that the origin of banal was “common to all” which heartened me. I was heartened because one of the lessons I have learned is that if we explore what we are doing together and listen to points of view that are different from our own we can learn much more. I realize that listening to those with a different perspective seems to contradict the “common to all” idea. But I interpret “common to all” meaning all have something to contribute.

I have learned through the years that it is just as important to get students’ opinions as colleagues. In the beginning, students tend to say only what they think you want them to say. But when I tell them to write 2 things that they do not like and 2 things that they do like, with no names on the comments, they begin to write what they feel and believe. I have learned that a few words from a student who is weak is just as valuable as many words from a student who is strong. What do the words weak and strong mean anyway?  So I am continuing to learn ways that I can translate the words “common to all” into practice.

I studied literature in university. Though we read some literary criticism, many of my professors kept asking us to write what a poem or short story or book chapter meant to us. After we shared our interpretations we saw how we each quite different ideas of the meanings of what we read. The professors then shared their reflections and pointed out what various critics had written.

For my dissertation, I asked students to react to short stories that they read. Most of them simply retold the story. They made hardly any interpretations. They did not identify with the characters. They had no emotional responses. I was distressed by what they said. But when I looked at the textbooks they were using the majority of questions about what they read asked for recall! So it was clear that the authors of the textbooks had different ideas from my literature professors and my focus on “common to all”.

Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, a former colleague of mine at Teachers College, Columbia University is a historian. In 2000, she published a book which she subtitled “The Troubling History of Education Research”. She contrasts the ideas of two often-quoted professors from Teachers College: Thorndike and Dewey. Thorndike said that we can measure everything. Dewey was keen for teachers and students to explore, not prepare for tests or be tested all the time. She points out that though there is a quote from Dewey above the entry to Teachers College, there is no building named after him. There is one named after Thorndike.

Those who measure are very much in control these days. But from my days at university to my teaching since then I have learned how detrimental measurement can be. Eleanor Duckworth who has taught in the Department of Education at Harvard for many years edited a book called “Tell me more” in 2001. The subtitle is “Listening to learners explain.” Though she was not in any of my classes in college, she is advocating what my professors practiced: everyone has something to offer.

The first book I produced was a collection of lesson plans from fellow Peace Corps Volunteers who like me had taught in Nigeria for two years. One purpose of the book—Teaching English in Exhilarating Circumstances—was to provide suggestions that we would have found useful when we started our teaching. But another purpose was to remind the new teachers that if they shared plans with each other as well as with their students they could learn more than if they just read books produced by commercial publishers.

I just completed my first on line live iTDi course with 35 teachers from 8 countries. I was moved by the candor of most of the participants. And both they and I saw how teachers with different amounts of experience and levels of English and in very different settings could learn from each other.

States in the US are signing up to require all schools in their states to follow what is called the Common Core Standards. These so called standards represent to me the opposite of my idea that all have something to contribute. Tragically, what I continue to learn is that people are constantly assaulting the idea that everyone has something to offer and that we can all learn from each other. Nothing new here. Emerson, Thoreau, Freire, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Whitman, Dewey, Montessori, Gatto, Postman, Frank Smith, to name a few of my soul mates, all showed how Common Core Standards are detrimental to learning. Celebrate the banal!

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Rules I Follow – Steven Herder

Rules I Follow

– Steven Herder

After some brilliant blog posts on Breaking Rules recently, it is tantalizingly timely (and great fun) to now consider the “Rules We Keep”. I’m excited to spend time writing about this topic, but even more psyched to see what everyone else comes up with!

1. The Golden Rule – I simply try to follow the Golden Rule whenever I walk into the classroom: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Many years ago, I remember talking one day with my colleague, pumpkin bunny Chris Mori, about how we each had made a very clear but somewhat unconscious decision to treat our teacher’s room (office for 6-8 English teachers) as our own sanctuary from the outside world. Whatever difficulties we were facing in our daily lives, we left them outside. We were committed to keeping the classroom and our office free from all of the complications of our private lives. We knew that we had to spend 40 hours a week in that space and so we decided to keep it a kind and loving space. Of course it was difficult sometimes, but having the commitment to stay positive and keep things simple, completely affected our approach on a daily basis. As a bonus, I think students benefited a great deal because they knew what to expect from us, and our consistent, optimistic approach to their studies.


2. The Connections Rule – I continually try to connect with students because I believe it can have a positive influence on their learning:

  • They try harder when they feel a connection to the subject, the teacher or classmates.
  • The more I connect and get to know them, the better I can understand them and tailor my approach to their specific needs.
  • The more emotionally connected I feel to a class, the more satisfaction I get from teaching them.
  • When I open up and share parts of my daily challenges as a teacher, they gain trust and begin to share as well.

The power of emotional connections has clearly been documented in a great number of fields. Here, for example, is a great little graph showing the difference between satisfied shoppers and emotionally connected shoppers.


3. The Expectations Rule – I always try to be clear, realistic and positive about my expectations for any group of learners, while at the same time trying to develop individualized expectations for as many students as appear to need a special set of expectations.  For some students, targets well beyond the class goals are appropriately challenging, while for others, just getting to class on time and having their study tools ready (notebook, text and pencil case) is an excellent expectation to begin with.

Of course, the main point is for students to know that you expect them to improve, and that you will do your part to help them succeed; now – how that manifests itself can be in any number of different ways, but if learners feel pressure from the teacher to perform well, and the teacher helps the learners to reach some form of success, then it becomes a win-win situation. Both the learner and the teacher can leave the class feeling good about themselves at the end of the course


4. The Riffing Rule – I wrote a full post on the idea of SLOW Moments. Check out this excerpt and read more if you’re interested:

These “spontaneous learning opportunity windows (SLOW)” are moments that I have grown to love and cherish. I define them as those serendipitous moments when everyone is suddenly focused on exactly the same thing. It may be triggered by a student’s comment, a joke, a mistaken answer, something from the textbook, or something the teacher has just said. At that moment, everyone’s brain has stopped and a small window has opened. If the teacher is ready, it is very easy at that moment to slide something through the window and

Finally, a rule that I usually keep to myself is that,

If I continue to try my best, it’ll all work out in the end.

If a lesson or an idea doesn’t work, I now know that I can make it better next time.

If I define and maintain my own basic principles of teaching, I will succeed.

As for the daily challenges and curves that come my way, I will just work them out day by day.

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It’s Magic – Marco Brazil

It’s Magic: Creating Collaborative Games With Young Learners

– Marco Brazil

One of the best ways of getting kids collaborate is to have them create or reinvent a communicative game. Working together to design a game involves many skills including active decision-making and language practice in every skill area while giving them a sense of achievement and ownership.  Creating games is also an excellent craft activity that can involve a lot of language use. The children can make their own dice, create cards, and design game boards based on rules they have agreed upon. Game making almost always excites the children. The project culminates on a day when the game is played.

Recently the six 8 and 9 year old in my class reinvented the classic Fruit Basket Game. I was the weather, practicing questions and answers like:

How’s the weather today?

 It’s (sunny).

I handed out six white pieces of construction paper and asked each kid to draw a different picture of a type of weather. Deciding who would what became a big deal, so they decided to use rock-scissors-paper to work it out. Once they did that, it took them about 15 minutes to finish their drawings and write captions like:

It’s rainy. I don’t like a rainy weather.

Then I suggested we use the cards to play a game. Since there were only cards for six kinds of weather (sunny, rainy, cloudy, windy, snowy, and stormy), the kids figured out it would be impossible to play their all-time favorite Card Pairing Game. One of the kids suggested a variation on Fruit Basket Game but was unsure how to make it work. I asked them to discuss it and come to an agreement in five minutes time.

Here’s what they came up with:

1. There will be five chairs to form a big circle, spaced at a distance so that players can run easily.
2. The player who is it should stand at the middle of the circle. Shuffle the picture cards and place them face down on the floor with his/her eyes closed.
3. Players take a card but should not show it to other players.
4. The person who is it should ask a player; “How’s the weather, today?” If the player answers it’s rainy, it’s stormy, it’s windy, it’s cloudy, it’s snowy players should stay where they are and remain sitting. If the answer is It’s sunny everyone shouts Let’s go! then stands, runs, and quickly changes chairs.
5. The player left without a chair and still standing at the end should become the next person to be it.

There was heated discussion among the kids about which of the two weather conditions would be the signal to stand and change chairs: sunny or stormy. At first some members argued that it should be stormy weather, but other members of the class pointed out that you cannot play outside during stormy weather, and everyone agreed.

The class played the game with so much enthusiasm that they didn’t want to stop playing until their English time was up. They didn’t want to stop until I promised:  “I will let you play it again next time, next week!”

The magic behind this enthusiasm is that it had became their game. Of course we can call it collaboration, but kids don’t need big words like that.  All they need are opportunities to do it. Give your kids a chance to create a game of their own and you’ll be amazed at how far they take it.  ~ Marco

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A Magic Musical Path – Nina Septina

A magical, musical pathNinaSeptina

– Nina Septina

Music is the language of the universe. It links people all over the globe by breaking limits and going beyond boundaries. It’s all around us, it’s in the atmosphere. No one can avoid music communicating through their heart and mind, speaking to their souls. Life has given meanings to songs they sing. Many people can’t live without music; I am one of them.

Music has greatly influenced me throughout my English learning history. Listening to English songs a lot, trying to sing along with them, writing the lyrics myself, composing my own songs, and playing music in a band were some of the things I enjoyed doing while I was a teenager. Though now I have given up playing with the band, those musical experiences have contributed deep-seated changes to my English and shaped the way I teach my students. In class, music has always been good company for me and my students when doing activities. And finally this passion for music unexpectedly became my first ride on my professional development journey and brought me to a role I didn’t previously envisage.


It all began when I taught a group of university students back in 2009. Music bestowed its energy on bringing us closer together in our first meeting. The ice was melted as I played my guitar and asked them to sing along. Nonetheless, later on the next meeting I found out these students had a problem with their English pronunciation and fluency. Their unclear pronunciation made it difficult to grab the meanings of words they were saying. It was hard for them to even to say one single sentence smoothly. Pauses of hesitation were everywhere, making sure the intonation didn’t come out right.

I knew I had to do something. Knowing we had a common interest in music, I tried using its power as a way out of this problem. I reflected on my own musical journey and I believed that by engaging them with a “thing” that tickled their fancy they’d enjoy their learning more! Another consideration was the plausible theory that songs present opportunities to improve pronunciation and accelerate fluency, which are the main cognitive reasons for using chants in language classrooms.

Thus in almost every meeting we had a special session for around 20-30 minutes where we sang English songs together. I started it with an easy pop song and continued giving them more challenging songs with more vocalizations. By varying the drilling techniques, students didn’t get bored. On the contrary, they seemed enthusiastic. Furthermore, they would leave the class humming or singing the song we practiced. Some students also told me that they couldn’t help singing the songs outside the class as those melodies and lyrics got stuck in their heads. I said to myself, wow, they drilled the language themselves, effortlessly! They could remember the lyrics, the chunks, and the intonation patterns fast. The repetitive exercise gave them the chance to memorize both words and pronunciation well.

At the end of the term, I distributed questionnaires to see how students perceived this treatment. The results revealed that students were pleased to be able to sing in class. This, according to them, had revolutionized their usual classroom routines; they also stated that their English had improved, especially in terms of pronunciation and fluency. And furthermore, students demanded to continue this singing treatment in the next term. In addition to this, I also observed their progress reports and was startled when I saw they could really make an improvement in their pronunciation and fluency as shown in the average class scores.


My supervisor encouraged me to put this case into a research paper. This was quite a challenge to me, as I had never done anything like this before. Moreover, hitherto I found writing as the most challenging task for me compared to the other skills. However, I took up the challenge and I made myself believe that this would be as challenging and at the same time intriguing as writing a music piece, and I would enjoy this as much as I musically enjoyed writing verses for my very own song.

Eventually I finished my first research paper and it got accepted for a presentation at the TEFLIN International Conference. At this conference, I met some inspiring people who then escorted me to see the bigger world. A world of wonders in which I could meet many more great people online and offline and build my PLN. This was something I had never imagined before. My musical journey has brought me here, on a pathway where I’ll go, grow and glow with others in iTDi, becoming a better me, personally and professionally. – Nina Septina


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