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Training Critical Thinkers and Problem Solvers

As a teacher I am always trying to find ways to encourage and interest my students in my class. I try to come up with innovative lesson plans that go according to what they like. I believe I must engage the students' interests so that the material I am teaching stays in their minds for the future.

Lately, though, it seems that everything revolves around the question: Am I teaching and engaging my students to become critical thinkers and problem solvers? I live in a society where parents think that teachers are here mainly to serve students and insert information into their brains, holding the teacher solely responsible if that does not happen and not expecting any effort or work from the student. This applies to all subject areas, but in computer science it is really critical that we correct this misconception.

Students now, are encouraged to be human filing cabinets, where a bunch of information is stored but really have no idea how to use it in the real world. As teachers, we are always faced with the question, why do we need to learn this? How and when will I use this information in real life? These questions were commonly found in math classes but now it has transferred to the computer sciences area. There are lessons that our students must learn about computer sciences that do not require the use of a computer or other technologic device. This, in our students' minds is inconceivable because they think that computer sciences without a computer are nothing.

Part of my curriculum focuses on teaching my students how to use their common sense and their logic skills the best they can so that they can solve the "world's greatest problems", and most of the time I have been searching for lessons that include using a computer or similar device. However, this school year I changed that, and the response has been outstanding. Therefore I want to share my experience.

I started using lessons from the program Exploring Computer Science. This program was created to encourage inquiry based instruction among other wonderful things. I especially love their unit on Critical Thinking and Problem Solving. I had the amazing opportunity to go to a workshop during the 2012 Summer CSIT conference called Exploring Computer Science:Teaching with Inquiry presented by Gail Chapman and Joanna Goode. This workshop was so amazing and provided so many wonderful ways to encourage our students to be thinkers and inquire about what they are learning. It was a hands-on workshop and I decided to apply several of the exercises with my students this school year. I learned two things from this: one, that this is a way to get to know the learning personality of each of my students and two, that I have been "spoiling" my students by blurring the line between helping them and actually initiating the work for them. I was not creating independent students but was being careful of completing my curriculum and having the output of good grades from my students.

Needless to say, I am fixing that. It is an everyday job though. I have to take my students out of the bubble in which a story starter has to be given to them or a word wall is the beginning of creating an original piece of work. I was limiting their creativity and innovation; I was guiding their problem solving skills by providing them with the right answer. Now I can see my students blooming and creating amazing work. On the downside, I now struggle with some parents who believe I am pushing my students too hard. I have to break down the walls that students build instantly even before the topic is explained. I also have to teach my students that sometimes failing a task is part of the learning process. When success is not achieved the first time, it only means that they have to take a different approach to the situation, plan a strategy and try again. Whether this applies to programming, design, video games, robotics or simply living and performing their daily tasks, it is part of the learning process and this is a skill that will stick with them for the rest of their lives.

I encourage other teachers to take a look at the Exploring Computer Science program since it has an easy to follow approach to teaching computer sciences, with units that are well thought and applicable to any level of students, plus it is also aligned to the CSTA standards. It is truly satisfying to see students embrace a new approach to the same material or skills. See it as a chance to practice what we seek to teach -- critical thinking and problem solving.

Michelle Lagos
International Representative
CSTA- board of directors

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