Framing for Critical Thinking


“Glasses” by Thomas Hawk.



  • Setting up a frame for your class, perhaps through an essential question or two, is a good way to help students make connections and deeply learn material.
A key element of critical thinking is making connections. This ability is captured in Bloom’s Taxonomy as synthesis, but even if you have some issues with Bloom’s (like me), it’s hard to argue that seeing how things fit together is a component of thinking. This is especially true when those things don’t obviously relate to one another. Seeing relationships where none obviously exist is an important thing. It’s also a hard thing, especially for students new to a class or discipline.
While we want students to develop the ability to discern these relationships on their own, giving them some initial schema for doing so is a good idea. It helps them see that the relationships exist, at least in one particular way, and challenges them to understand how the material fits into the schema. It also asks them to develop their own sort of schema and, one hopes, challenge the existing schema in some way.
Kevin Brown’s article in the most recent issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter discusses the importance of “framing” a class. Framing a class provides students with some sort of structure by which to organize and interpret the class material. As Brown notes, we do this all the time in upper division classes; he uses the example of a course on the 19th century British novel called “We’re All Monsters”. The course title gives the students an initial lens to see the rest of the material. Presumably, most of the reading will deal with the monstrous nature within all of us. That theme will be explored throughout the course, used as an organizing principle for the material and the readings. It may even show up as part of (or all of) the final exam. I can see a final paper prompt being something like “Describe the developing view of the monstrous aspect of human nature within 19th Century British literature, using at least three of the novels we’ve read this semester”. That may not be the best prompt for the course’s final exam (it doesn’t ask for much analysis, I think) , but it works to tie together everything within the course, including the initial title. Brown also makes the point that we often frame our upper level classes this way, through creative titles and structures, but we often don’t do this with our introductory courses, which we often treat as a big information dump.
As a personal example, I had to take two science classes as part of my undergraduate degree. I vaguely remember a biology class my sophomore year, but I vividly remember the geology course I took my junior year — “Our Changing Planet”. I don’t remember all of the various facts about plate tectonics, strata formation, and such, but I do remember that the course had a distinct frame. The geology course worked very hard to show how climate and landforms influenced one another and how a change in one often brought about changes in the other. In other words, the class told a story of the dance between climate, oceans, and land and how that dance played out over the past few million years.
What sort of story are you trying to tell with your classes? How can we frame our course to show these critical connections exist between the elements of our discipline?
Image Credit: “Glasses” by Thomas Hawk. Used under Creative Commons license.
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