It should be clear by now that at QPS, we don’t just pay lip service to “critical thinking.” We actively teach a defined set of thinking skills that students need in order to be good problem solvers and decision makers.  Ultimately, people with a can-solve attitude. Defining and fostering thinking skills takes time and mental energy, not just words, but Queens Paideia proves that it’s possible by actually doing it.

As but one way of making this happen, in January we inserted a Week of Interdisciplinary Learning and Problem Solving between our first and second terms. The week was set aside to focus intensively, as a whole school, on topics and skills that promote larger, transferrable thinking skills. By that, we mean skills that are applicable to English Language arts, math, science, and social studies, and to social situations and to big and small problems that come up in daily life.

Immigration, Migration, and the Refugee Experience

ELA learning manager Tim Fredrick and Social Studies LM Sara Boyle joined forces to create a curriculum focused on immigration, migration, and the refugee experience. This large subject lends itself to imparting skills for understanding context and point of view when examining any event in history and in our lives, as well as to planting seeds of empathy.

All QPS students (K-8th grade) participated in activities that were adjusted for skill level and appropriateness of content. So, if you peeked into one of our rooms during that week, you would have seen 5-8 year olds listening to and discussing a picture book. Or, in a simulation of what belongings they’d take if they had to suddenly leave their homes. Third graders to 7th graders “encountered” some of the obstacles that refugees face (e.g., refugee camps, always needing to carry your official documents). They read refugee stories, mapped their journeys, and looked for similarities and differences in them. Younger students watched and discussed An American Tail. Older students watched and discussed Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow. The constant for all activities was assurances to students that they are safe from such political threats and tragedies, and very lucky to be so.

Talk Aloud Problem Solving

Another chunk of students’ days that week was spent on Talk Aloud Problem Solving* (TAPS), led by Mechner Foundation Research Associate Adam Hockman, Math LM Vic Fiallo, and Science LM Brandon Glasgow. With TAPS, students learn techniques for how to function as a problem solver (someone with a question to answer) and as an active listener (someone who guides a problem solver’s thinking). Both roles are done aloud–it’s social–and over time, and with practice, they become internalized habits. Having the capacity to be a problem solver and an active listener are extremely valuable for our students in middle school, high school, and beyond–as important as any other habit of mind.

TAPS is loud. When students work on a problem–either as the problem solver talking through their process or as an active listener responding with feedback–their voices fill the room. Yet, during that cacophony, our students were learning the component skills of focused problem-solving and active listening. All of them made great progress, and since then have been prompted to apply their new skills to academic work, including math word problems and when using processes that lead to discovery in science. 

You can see what it looked like in this short video we made during one of the sessions.

We’ve received many rave reviews from our parents about their children’s excitement and confidence around TAPS. Words of appreciation are always nice to hear, but the real payoff for us is seeing our students develop real tools to approach problems in their lives, so that solving them is not frightening but doable, and even fun.

*We are indebted to the insight and perseverance of TAPS creator Joanne Robbins, PhD, who developed Arthur Whimbey’s Think Aloud Pair Problem Solving (TAPPS) into a program that is suitable for children. Dr. Robbins is Principal and Associate Director at Morningside Academy, where she and talented researchers and practitioners work to address gaps in students’ basic skills and thinking skills. We are proud to collaborate with them whenever we can.

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