Reasoning and Problem Solving-a Framework for Thinking
There is currently in schools a great movement that places major emphasis on higher order skills; these being those skills that encourage the ability to reason. This group or hierarchy of skills involves recalling information, basic concept formation, critical thinking, and creative idea formation. Formerly viewed as the tools of mathematics, these skills are now recognized as crucial to competence across the curriculum.
Higher order thinking skills are now recognized as important for those who will enter the twenty-first century work force, where the information age will require individuals who are flexible, dynamic, and resilient. Preparing young learners for their future requires that teachers employ a great deal of inventiveness and creativity in designing lessons that meet the dual challenge of providing the basics (as in reading, language arts, and mathematics), and developing the ability to reason.
This unit uses detective fiction to address both of these challenges, and the activities that lie herein are designed to draw the learner along a path that moves him from the simple skills, such as recalling information, to the more difficult area of creative thinking. Activities may be modified, simplified, lengthened, or deleted to meet the needs of the intellectual diversity found in most classrooms.
For this unit I have chosen three separate series of children’s detective fiction. The easiest to read are the Private Eyes club mysteries, written and illustrated by Crosby Bonsall. This series centers around the activities of four neighborhood boys who along with their cat Mildred keep the area they live in free of crime. Each title is centered around one issue and the list of titles is expanding. The reading levels range from about 1.6 to 2.0 and the print is large and well organized on the page. Snitch, Wizard, Skinny, and Tubby are funny and engaging, and are represented in lively color illustrations. The only issue that could be a problem is that the private eyes are all boys. However, girls are well represented among the peripheral peer group.
Next in order of reading difficulty is the Nate the Great series, written by veteran children’s author Marjorie Weinman Sharmat. Nate the Great is a Sherlock Holmes type character who wears a raincoat and a hat and speaks of himself in the third person. Nate loves pancakes and works with his dog, Sludge. These books are illustrated on every page, about half of them in color.
Written by David Adler and illustrated by Susanna Natti is the Cam Jansen series. Cam Jansen is a fourth grader with a photographic memory and an insatiable curiosity. She and her friend Eric Shelton work together to solve crime using detailed tracking and Cam’s photographic memory as their tools. One difference between these titles and the other two series is that Cam and Eric solve real crimes committed by adults. Cam and Eric often work with the police and deal with a very real sense of danger. This is the most challenging of the three series chosen, with reading levels that range from 2.6 to 3.0.
Along with the aforementioned thinking skills there are other more social kinds of knowledge characteristics that will be important to those entering adulthood in the years beyond 2000. These characteristics include being sensitive to changes in the environment, seeking out ways to elicit change, being intuitively sensitive to issues of moral responsibility, and being a flexible and caring individual, someone who is capable of developing positive interactions with those around her. The moral dilemmas found in the chosen selections become a springboard, encouraging children to develop in these social skill areas.
It is worth spending a moment to review the specific abilities that lead to reasoning. Thinking is a complex process, and its specific deviations, or parts, are not distinct. Each increasing level of the hierarchy of thinking makes use of the skills contained in lower levels, and the art of thinking requires interaction among all the levels.
Recalling information is a skill that is almost automatic in nature. For each learner, the recall block is different. As children continue to make associations in early life the recall block expands to accommodate this increase in information. For some primary students the recall block might include basic addition facts or the understanding of letter sound relationships. Yet there can be same age children who have not committed these facts to their recall memory block, and therefore cannot call up this information as needed.
Basic thinking includes the understanding of simple mathematical concepts (such as addition and subtraction) and decoding print. Basic thinking also includes tasks such as looking up vocabulary in a glossary or simple, single criterion classification. Applying these skills in everyday situations in and outside of school is also a basic thinking function.
Critical thinking examines, relates, and evaluates all aspects of a problem or situation. This category of thinking includes those skills that engage the learner more actively. Using critical thinking, the student focuses on problems that may require two or more steps. It is here that information is gathered and organized, tested (validated) and analyzed. A student engaged in critical thinking makes use of prior knowledge and makes associations that connect the problems with previously learned information. When children engage in a comprehensive understanding of literature, when they distinguish between valuable and extraneous data, and when they develop a full understanding of what a problem is asking of them, they are demonstrating critical thinking. Critical thinkers look at solutions and ask if they are reasonable; do they make sense in light of the data presented? The inherent nature of critical thinking across the curriculum is reflective and analytical.
That thinking which is stunningly original, starkly effective, and productively complex is creative thinking. Children functioning at this level are inventive, intuitive, and imaginative. It is here that children synthesize, generate, and apply their ideas. Learners working at this level find different and unusual ways to combine information and they formulate new and alternative combinations from old ideas; going outside the nice dots to find solutions. When creative thinkers apply their ideas, they are determining the effectiveness of their thoughts.
It is possible to hone judgement and intuition in children using curriculum that is engaging and meaningful. Young learners do not arrive at our classroom doors with the ability to focus clearly on the exact nature of solution finding. But they are receptive to their own thoughts and ideas as well as those of their peers. When given the chance to focus and when presented with a framework for displaying their ideas, children will become excited about problem solving. The value of the tasks involved becomes the prime motivation.
The advantage of a multidisciplinary unit is that it engages learners across the curriculum allowing them to immediately demonstrate what they are learning in new contexts. The sustained narrative of chapter books is only a part of what makes them more challenging to primary students. Using these chosen selections the lengthy plot development combines with the ever present question of criminality to provide a meaningful basis for prolonged engagement by the learner. Using the whole group and small group strategies that follow will make these selections more accessible to all readers, while at the same time encouraging students to work harder and increase their involvement.
Young learners often begin school with a limited set of ideas. Even though there is a great drive to share with the teacher much of their lives, many young children (when given opportunities to speak and write) choose to emulate their peers (or close down!). These children need a common platform of interest so that they can see idea-making thought processes modeled for them. Using detective fiction provides that common interest, while at the same time providing for a broad base of curriculum ideas.
The areas of language development important to primary children are speaking, listening, writing, and thinking. Because these learners are at the emergent stage of the writing process, activities need to concentrate on those skills that precede and help develop writing. It is therefore vital that this unit provide a variety of activities that make use of spoken language and thinking skills. When children work together on strategy, they become sensitive and unlock more of their thoughts, as the atmosphere for sharing is now less threatening. Thinking and idea sharing together heightens awareness of the characters, feelings, problems, and solutions of the literature. Children will begin to look at common things in uncommon ways. As their involvement in the genre increases, the students will develop an interest in other books of this type and will seek out other books within the same series. Children will begin to derive pleasure from manipulating words and ideas, and will become excited by this power as they form and change new ideas together.
Sustained Commitment to Learning
Another reason for developing and teaching this unit is to foster in young learners the ability to commit to and stay with a project. Each year the children who enter school seem to be less able to deal emotionally and socially with the school climate. Attention spans seem shorter and the block of prior knowledge is shrinking. There is often in these learners an inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy, due to extensive television viewing. Rather than coming to school with a variety of experiences, children are socially and emotionally bound by the limited scope and sequence of a few popular network television programs and a handful of movies. They are already conditioned to sit still only as long as they are being entertained, and have not developed the capacity for sustained thought. Many children have developed a habit of watching life, rather than creating and participating in life’s activities.
But most of all, children today enter school without the ability to spend time by themselves. Any primary teacher will relate the scenario of not being able to turn her back on the class, or of not being able to create cooperative groupings because the students do not have the capacity for independent thought. It is my main objective that the strategies in this unit will help students to become more independent thinkers and workers. The literature I suggest is a higher reading level than that which many early elementary children can decode. But used cooperatively and with the whole group, along with creative teaching strategies, the selections will encourage sustained commitment from all learners.