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Connecting the Dots – Advancing Critical Thinking Skills
Ms. Vita Biddle

While working with a group of fifth-grade students on creating study strategies for an upcoming test about Mexico, one student posed an excellent question that became a lesson for everyone in the room. I was enumerating the various things these students could be and should be doing to understand the information on the study guides that were on their desks in front of them. Students were suggesting strategies that included things like “make an acronym to remember the list of minerals in Mexico,” “make a short-answer quiz to share with a friend,” and “draw a freehand map of Mexico and add its physical features and resources.” These responses were greeted with praise and interest by me and the members of the class. Now and then, a response would conjure up an exaggerated lip curl or eyeball roll from me, indicating to my impressionable youngsters that I was not “a fan” of that particular method.

“Look over my notes.” UGH! What does that even mean?

“Do a Quizlet.” Double UGH!

Then it happened. One brave young man dared to raise his hand.

“Ms. Biddle, exactly what do you have against Quizlet?” he questioned.

It was like the needle went across the record. The room became deafeningly quiet, all students intent (for once) on my response. Now, just for the record (and to keep myself free from any legal issues), let me assure you that I am not “against” Quizlet. For those of you who don’t know, Quizlet is one of many online tools allowing students to create virtual card decks of information for studying purposes. They are useful and valuable tools. It is the exclusive use of these tools for studying that I am “against.” 

Here’s where the lesson took place. I paused (maybe just a little too dramatically, but enough to keep them entranced).

“That’s a very good question,” I said.

I proceeded to ask them the types of questions related to Mexico that could be “done” through a Quizlet. 

  • What is the capital of Mexico?
  • What is the name of the mountain range south of the Mexican Plateau?
  • What is the name of the volcano near the capital?
  • What are three natural resources of Mexico?

The students proudly and rapidly answered each question. Then I said, “OK. Now, using your knowledge of latitude and longitude and your knowledge of the absolute location of Mexico City, tell me what other cities in other countries might share similar climates to Mexico.”

They were silent. I continued.

“Mexico is rich in oil production. What circumstances in its geography might make that possible?”

Silence.

“Why would it be difficult to travel from northwestern Mexico to the Gulf of Mexico?” 

Now they were starting to catch on. 

They knew those answers, of course. They maybe had to dig for them in their minds a bit, but they could answer them intelligently and sensibly. They could support their answers by referring to maps and facts from their notes.  More importantly, they could make connections to prior knowledge - latitude, longitude, elevation, how petroleum occurs naturally under certain conditions, etc. 

But now, they were thinking critically. They were making connections and supporting their thinking through proof. They were applying their knowledge. Wow! They immediately could tell what my disenchantment was about Quizlet.

Why don’t I like Quizlet as a standalone study tool? Because it can’t do what we need students to be able to do in our fast-paced, ever-changing world. It doesn’t foster a desire to think critically. It doesn’t allow students to make connections to the world around them. It limits their knowledge to brief, basic recall-type answers. Essentially, it is superficial knowledge. Students “think” they know a lot about the content area they are studying, but they are not challenged to use and apply that information. They are not challenged to wonder, connect, and reflect.

Is there a place for Quizlet and other types of web-based study applications? Absolutely. But I can still curl my lip when a student suggests using one to study!

Vita Biddle, Independence's LeApps™ Specialist, has taught at our school since 1992. She is a team member of the Center for Wellness, Innovation and Learning (CWIL™).

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