This is the first article of a four-part series on teaching the four C's effectively to English learners: Critical thinking | Communication | Collaboration | Creativity

We are preparing students for an unknown future. Consider how much has changed even in the past half-century. The proliferation of technology in our everyday lives has drastically changed how we function in society.

While all educators want to help students be successful in the future, the world is shrinking quickly, and our society is becoming more global in nature. Reading, writing, mathematics and knowledge of the other core subject areas will remain an important component of each person's education.

What have been termed "the four C's" — critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity are increasingly important skills for all students. Teaching these skills effectively in the classroom has been a topic of discussion among educators for years.

More recently, the discussion has included teaching these skills effectively to English learners, who, while learning the content being presented along with these important skills, also have the challenge of learning English. In this series, we will explore teaching the four C's to English learners, examining areas of difficulty as well as instructional techniques to help incorporate these skills into instruction and learning.

Critical thinking and problem solving

The skills of critical thinking and problem solving include using knowledge, facts and data to solve problems. When applying critical thinking and problem solving, students must be able to make appropriate decisions and judgments using what they have learned or read, use inductive and deductive reasoning as appropriate to the situation, and analyze complex systems and determine how parts of a whole interact with each other.

The ability to think critically is not dictated by an ability to speak any given language. While this statement is obvious, teaching students to think critically and articulate their thoughts in a language they do not speak well is a challenge.

Most educators understand the importance of incorporating higher-order thinking skills, or HOTS, into their instruction. Yet an analysis of lesson observations often show that HOTS are not incorporated into instruction often.

Watson & Young, in a seminal research study in 1986, found that teachers ask approximately 50,000 questions over the course of a school year. John Hattie, in 2006, found that teachers may ask as many as 300-400 questions per day. In each study, however, few of these questions included higher-level thinking.

Watson and Young found that approximately 80 percent of the questions teachers asked were the knowledge or comprehension level. John Hattie's research showed that approximately 60 percent of questions were recall questions, and another 20 percent were procedural in nature. These statistics show that over the course of 20 years, the incorporation of higher-level thinking questions and activities changed little.

When we consider the diversity in schools, the challenge for educators is even more daunting. Higher-order thinking questions and activities take preplanning to incorporate into instruction. This preparation must take into account the linguistic demand of the activity, and consider how students are going to communicate the information.

Besides developing higher-order thinking and problem-solving questions and activities, teachers must consider the language that will need to be explicitly taught and shared so that English learners can be successful on the task.

It is clear that comprehension questions are important, as we need to check for understanding while teaching. These questions are easily thought up and asked during the course of instruction, and many teachers plan interesting and engaging questions as part of their checks for understanding.

Many teachers are aware that some adjustments to questions may need to be made based on the proficiency levels of the students they are working with. In order to incorporate higher-order thinking questions and activities, preplanning is essential.

Think back to one week's worth of lessons you have recently taught or observed. How often were critical thinking and problem-solving skills incorporated into the lessons? What were the linguistic demands of the questions or activities? What scaffolds were needed in order for your English learners to be successful?

Higher-order thinking skills and lesson objectives

Building lesson objectives into instruction has become increasingly common over the past several years. In addition to sharing learning objectives related to the content, teachers working with English learners also incorporate communication or language objectives.

Communication objectives include how the students will be practicing and developing academic language skills. These objectives may include developing students' recognition and use of general academic and domain-specific vocabulary, specific reading and writing skills, clarifying complex grammatical structures, and more. When planning to increase critical thinking and problem solving, these skills can and should be built into the lesson objectives to make students aware of the purpose of the lesson.

Two simple sentence frames can be used or adjusted to write objectives that incorporate critical-thinking skills.

Learning Objective template: We will [verb with higher-order thinking skill] [performance objective/standard] by [meaningful activity].

For example: We will compare and contrast the effectiveness of two pieces of evidence an author uses to justify an argument by filling in a graphic organizer.

Communication Objective template: Students will be able to [language function] by using [language form].

For example: Students will be able to compare and contrast the effects of the evidence cited by using the following sentence starters and frames:

  • Whereas _____________, __________________.
  • Even though _________________, ___________________.
  • While ______________ provides _______________, ______________ ________________.

When students are clear on the objectives of the lesson and the expectation that they will be practicing critical thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as the vocabulary and language structures they will need to be successful during the task, they are more likely to be successful with the task.

Asking higher-order thinking questions

Jane Hill and Kathleen Flynn, in their article "Asking the Right Questions," describe a process to ask a variety of question types, including higher-order thinking questions, to students at all language proficiency levels.

By scaffolding questions and beginning with prompts that include point to, sketch, locate and trace, even students with limited language skills can demonstrate critical thinking skills. Teachers can then incorporate yes/no, either/or and open-ended questions that encourage critical thinking.

When asking higher-order questions, also consider allowing students to discuss the question and topic in their native language. This practice serves the purpose of having students deeply think about a topic without having to consider the words and phrases they will need in a new language.

If used before students share with the teacher or write bout the topic, this practice can help them solidify ideas before attempting to explain their thoughts orally or in writing in English. This can also aid in listening comprehension, as they have expressed their thoughts and heard the perspective of another who speaks the same native language. While this is not always possible, it can be a useful practice.

The above example also demonstrates the interconnectedness of the four C's. It is difficult to weave in critical thinking and problem solving into a lesson without also incorporating some aspects of communication.

Similarly, collaboration is an effective practice in problem solving as students work together to share differing perspectives or ideas. This collaboration may include creative ways to solve problems.

In the next installment of the series, we will look more carefully at collaboration and ways to incorporate this skill with English learners.