How to Teach Thinking Skills in Social Studies and History

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Copyright 2008 Barry K. Beyer

How to Teach Thinking Skills in Social Studies and HistoryBARRY K. BEYER

ABSTRACT. This article presents four guidelines for providing direct instruction in thinking skills in social studies and history at any grade level. The author first describes, with examples, three major components of any thinking skill that students need to know. Second, he presents teaching techniques for making these components explicit. Third, he outlines and explains two different strategies for organizing introductory skill lessons. Fourth, he describes a variety of techniques for scaffolding and cueing continuing thinking-skill practice as well as strategies for organizing different types of skill-practice lessons. He explains principles for employing these techniques and strategies throughout. He also highlights three factors teachers should consider in implementing thinking-skills instruction. The article concludes with a brief research-based rationale for infusing thinking-skills instruction with social studies and history instruction. Keywords: direct instruction, history, social studies, teaching, thinking skillsBARRY K. BEYER is a professor emeritus in the Graduate School of Education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and the author of numerous books and articles on teaching thinking skills. He can be contacted at SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2008


s educators, we are committed to helping students develop the knowledge and understandings of the social studies and history we teach. To accomplish this, we engage them with course content through, among other learning activities, reading texts, documents, and other sources; making and analyzing decisions; classifying information; analyzing to establish causeand-effect relationships; evaluating sources for accuracy and bias; assessing the credibility of written sources; evaluating the strength of arguments; and so forth. These activities involve more than simply processing subject matter. They require application of various, frequently complex mental operationsor thinking skills, as we commonly call them (Beyer 2001). In fact, what our students learn, produce, and achieve in class depends considerably on how well and how consistently they apply these skills. In our classes, however, many of our students being novices or having little experience in using some of these skills when they come to usprove less than proficient at applying them (Lipman 1991; Nickerson 1989; Perkins 1992). Some of us may try to help their thinking by providing them with repeated opportunities to engage in these skills as

best they can on their own. Others may try to encourage, stimulate, or facilitate their thinking, and still others of us may even find ourselves prodding students to Think again, and then to Now, think harder! As researchers have noted, however, self-discovery techniques such as these all too often fail to improve thinking performance because they do not focus directly on teaching how to apply the thinking skills that need to be improved (Doyle 1983). As a result, such efforts usually do not produce the self-initiating, self-directing, or self-correcting thinking typical of skilled thinkers (Lipman 1991), nor do they often help students develop the subject-matter understandings and learning we may seek. A more direct focus on improving thinking-skill performance is needed. If we are serious about improving the quality of our students thinking and learning, we canand shouldactually teach them directly and explicitly how to better apply the thinking skills they need to use well in our classes but now cannot or do not. And we shouldand cando this while we are teaching social studies and history content. This article presents four researchbased guidelines we can follow to make purposeful instruction directly in any


thinking skill a reality while we are teaching social studies or history to students at any grade level, including postsecondary levels. By following these guidelines, we can, as research shows, improve the quality of not only our students thinking but also their subjectmatter learning (Beyer 2008). Guideline 1: Teach Thinking-Skill Procedures, Rules, and Information Thinking skills are not content-free or ill-defined phenomena. On the contrary, skill researchers and specialists assert that thinking skills consist of at least three key components: (1) one or more cognitive routines or procedures (usually a sequence of mental steps or moves) by which a skill is carried out; (2) rules or heuristics (general strategies or rules of thumb often used by experts) that inform and guide the application of these procedures; and (3) special skillrelated knowledge about when, why, and how to use that skill (Beyer 1997, 2008). For example, individuals adept at the skill of classifying (also known as sorting or grouping) commonly 1. Define a purpose for grouping (or classifying) the given items. 2. Scan the items to get a sense of what is there. 3. Select one item. 4. Select another item similar to the first one and pair them. 5. Label this pair with the feature they appear to have in common. 6. Scan to find other items that fit this label and add them to this pair (now making them a group). 7. Repeat steps 36 with remaining ungrouped items until as many items as possible are in groups. 8. Combine or subdivide groups as needed. Other individuals equally adept at applying this skill may employ entirely different but equally effective classifying procedures, depending on their familiarity with the items being grouped. Like this skill, most thinking skills can usually be effectively carried out by any of several procedures.

One rule or heuristic commonly used by those adept at classifying is to create a dont know or miscellaneous group into which they place items they cannot readily identify. This allows them to complete any classifying effort without getting stalled in the process by trying to figure out an items proper placement before proceeding. They find it much easier to tackle these ungrouped items once they have sorted the more familiar ones. An important type of skill-related knowledge is called conditional knowledgeknowing when or under what conditions it is appropriate to use a specific skill. For example, knowing that grouping like items together is useful when beginning to make sense of a group of mixed-up objects or data allows us to select and apply the skill of classifying whenever encountering a condition or situation like this (Beyer 1988). Criteria used in making criticalthinking judgments constitute another type of skill-related knowledge. Criteria for judging (or evaluating) the credibility of a source, for instance, include its authors reputation and the degree of his or her expertise in the topic presented (Ennis 1985). The effectiveness of all judgment-making thinking skills requires the application and therefore the knowledge of specific, widely accepted, or respected criteria (Lipman 1988). Many, if not most, students tend to be unaware of these components of the thinking skills in which they need to be more proficient. Yet, it is the knowledge of these skill components and proficiency in applying them that lead to skillful thinking. Guideline 2: Make These Skill Procedures, Rules, and Information Explicit Teaching thinking skills means, in large part, instructing students in the skill components with which they are unfamiliar and helping them to master their application of these components. Among the most effective skill-teaching techniques we can employ for these purposes are those that make these compo-

nents explicitobvious, specific, clear, and precise. When we make as explicit as possible how and why, step by step, to carry out a skill efficiently and effectively, we enable our students to become more conscious of how and why they, their peers, and experts actually do that skill. Witnessing how experts apply a skill provides a model for replicating more effective application of that skill. Listening to student explanations of how they do a particular skill allows us, as teachers, to recognize gaps and flaws in their applications of that skill so we can intervene to suggest ways to improve its application. Research shows that this also enables our students to recognize gaps or flaws in their own thinking and to adapt or adopt procedures, rules, or skill-related knowledge they hear or see others using that appear to be more efficient and effectiveor, as some students say, easier or smarterthan those they have been using (Beyer 2008). The following two techniques, metacognitive reflection and modeling, are especially valuable in making thinking explicit. Metacognitive Reflection This technique consists of three parts. First, after students have applied a thinking skill, they think-pair-share to reflect on and tell a partner what mental steps they took to apply that skill. Then, the teacher guides three or four volunteers to share with the whole class how they did it by prompting each in turn to state clearly and specifically what they believe they did mentally each step of the way and why. Finally, in a follow-up entireclass discussion, the teacher can then help students deconstruct and assess the apparent effectiveness of the procedures volunteered and consider modifications, if any, in how this skill might be more effectively applied the next time (Beyer 1997; Swartz et al. 2007). Modeling This technique consists of (1) demonstrating step by step an authentic or expert routine or procedure for applying a thinking skill, while (2) specifying andSEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2008 197


labeling each mental step as we enact it, (3) displaying a list of the steps being demonstrated, and (4) explaining the reasons for using each step as it is taken, along with any rules, heuristics, and criteria being applied. Modeling makes explicit a mental routine that novices can then imitate when practicing a new skill (Beyer 1997). Modeling may take the form of standup or video demonstrations of applying a thinking skill, written or recorded transcripts or protocols of individuals thinking aloud as they do a skill, or reflective narratives of what one did to carry out a just-completed skill. Explanation and analysis of any modeled skill are essential to highlight and clarify the significance and utility of the mental moves demonstrated. Other researchvalidated techniques for making thinking explicit also exist. Which methods we elect to use depends largely on the types of models available, the students abilities, the complexity of the skill being taught, and the amount of time available for thinking-skill instruction. Guideline 3: Introduce Each New Skill in a Lesson Focusing on That Skill Researchers suggest that the initial lesson in a new thinking skill should articulate and make explicit one or more procedures and the major rules or heuristics and skill knowledge for applying that skill. Modeling and metacognition thus prove especially useful in such a lesson. In addition, researchers affirm the importance of keeping students focused throughout this lesson continuously on how to do the new skill (Beyer 2008). One useful strategy for doing both in a twenty-five to fortyfive minute lesson follows: 1. Preview (introduce) the skill (its name, some synonyms, definition, when to use it). 2. a. Model and briefly review how to apply it (as described in the previous section). b. Have students apply the given procedure to a new example and engage in metacognitive reflection on how198 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2008

they did it, as described previously (and then skip to step 4). Or 3. Have students apply the skill as best they can and then engage in metacognitive reflection on how they did it, as described previously. 4. Have students apply the skill to a second example, reflecting on and sharing how they did it (differently) this second time as they refine their procedure(s). 5. Review and summarize why, when, and how to apply the skill. 6. Identify other times or situations in which the skill could be used. Step 1 establishes the lessons purpose and seeks to tap any prior student experience with the skill being introduced. The teacher can then either go to step 2 or skip to step 3. Using step 2 makes this a teacher-directed, didactic lesson, as in step 2a (Here is how skilled thinkers do it), followed immediately in step 2b by student application of the presented skill procedure and reflection on how we just did it. Using step 3 instead of step 2 allows students to construct a skill procedure from their own initial attempts. Going on to step 4 (from step 2 or 3) then allows students to try the procedure used in their first attempt at applying the skill and perhaps modify it based on this second experience. In steps 5 and 6 they produce one or more tentative workable skill procedures and any related heuristics or rules and then bridge the skill to other places or times when it can be usefully employed (Beyer 1997, 2008). We can and should use social studies or history subject matter as a vehicle for applying a new skill in an introductory skill lesson as in all skill lessons. For example, we can introduce the skill of classifying in a study of colonial New England by first previewing it (step 1). Then we can model how to do it by grouping part of a list of items used by inhabitants of a 1750s inland settlement to identify key features of life there at that time (step 2a). Students can then group the remaining items on the list on their own or in pairs (step 2b). For their second skill application in the lesson

(step 4), they can classify a list of objects used by inhabitants of a 1750s New England seaside community. This strategy works well for introducing virtually any thinking skill. Subject matter used in introducing a new skill ought to be familiar to the students. Research reveals that unfamiliar types of content or any lengthy discussions of content or other digressions during the introduction of a new skill seriously interfere with keeping students focus on that skill and thus what they learn about the skill (Posner and Keele 1973). However, keeping them focused on the skill does not eliminate subjectmatter learning. Experience shows that even when attending to the skill in an introductory skill lesson, students learn considerable social studies or history. Guideline 4: Guide and Support Continuing Skill Practice It takes more than an introductory lesson in a thinking skill for students to develop any degree of proficiency in using that skill. Continuing teachersupported practice in applying a newly introduced thinking skill is essential for them to internalize and master it. Scaffolding, cueing, feedback, and coaching are essential components of this thinking-skill practice. Techniques for Scaffolding Practice Scaffolding provides support and procedural structuring for student application of a thinking skill. A scaffold is a step-by-step structure for applying a thinking skill. Like the scaffold that structures the physical actions of workers constructing a new building, a thinking-skill scaffold structures the mental actions to be completed by novices in applying a new thinking skill. Continued practice using an authentic thinking-skill scaffoldone that presents an expert, step-by-step procedure for carrying out the skillallows students to develop and internalize a more functional or expert thinking procedure than they might otherwise adopt without such structured guidance, while they simultaneously apply the skill to the


subject matter at hand. The three types of scaffolding devices described in the following paragraphs have been found to be especially effective in structuring early student practice of any newly introduced thinking skill (Beyer 1997, 2008; Rosenshine and Meister 1992). A procedural checklist lists, in order, the mental steps by which a specific skill procedure can be effectively carried out. Checklists of these steps (like the one for decision making that follows) prove especially helpful in modeling a new skill procedure and are also useful when constructed by students at the conclusion of a skill-introducing or practice lesson for use the next time they will need to apply this skill.___ State the problem. ___ State the goal to be achieved by this decision. ___ Identify possible alternative choices. ___ Predict possible consequences of choosing each alternative. ___ Evaluate each consequence to identify its good and bad effects. ___ Select the alternative that best meets your specified goal.

may also occasionally contain written prompts. As students fill in each section in response to its place in the sections sequence or a prompt, they move through the skill-using procedure. The graphic organizer in figure 1 exemplifies such a structure. Prompts can be gradually eliminated and scaffolds altered as students become more self-directed in applying a skill. Techniques for Cueing Practice As most students become more selfdirecting and self-correcting in their application of a thinking skill, they require less teacher support. Yet, some students still benefit from occasional hints or cues that trigger or structure a skill procedure to be applied. Cues are prompts that remind us of what to say or do without providing the complete action to be taken. Thinking-skill cues come in many forms. For

decision making, for example, the mere name of the skill or a synonym such as choosing or opting may be enough to trigger the recall and guide the structured application of a previously introduced and practiced decision-making procedure. Acronyms also can be devised to cue skills, as the studentdevised acronym DECIDE does for decision making: Define my goal Establish alternatives Consider consequences Investigate good and bad of each Determine the best alternative Express my choice Rhymes, symbols, and formulas may also cue specific thinking skills (Beyer 1997). Techniques for Coaching and Feedback Techniques for coaching and feedback assist students in correcting performance

Decision Making Problem: Goal:

Process-structured questions move students through the steps of applying a skill, not by telling them what to do, but by posing questions. Producing the answers to these questions, if done correctly, requires students to take these steps. As the following example reveals, these questions are less procedurally explicit, although usually just as structured, as procedural checklists. 1. What do you want to make a decision about? 2. What do you want to accomplish by making this decision? 3. What alternatives do you have? 4. What are the possible consequences of each alternative? 5. What are the good and bad aspects of each alternative? 6. Which alternative is best? Why? A thinking-skill graphic organizer is a diagram or chart, the sections of which visually present in sequence the steps in a procedure for carrying out a thinking skill. Sections of these visuals






FIGURE 1. Scaffolding example: a graphic organizer for decision making.




errors or missteps and improving their skill-using performances. Coaching most often consists of cueing a previously introduced procedure or heuristic, reexplaining or demonstrating a portion of a skill procedure, or providing additional skill information, hints, or corrective reminders, usually during a students attempted application of a skill (Pressley and Harris 1990).

in the initial practice lessons described above but should (1) substitute cueing for scaffolding techniques in step 2 and (2) gradually eliminate steps 3, 4, and 5, then step 2, and finally step 1 as students come to apply the skill effectively on their own. In teaching these lessons, we can shift focus between skills and content to gradually concentrate increasingly on content as student

Listening to student explanations of how they do a particular skill allows us, as teachers, to recognize gaps and flaws in their applications of that skill so we can intervene to suggest ways to improve its application.Feedback provides similar kinds of information about a skill performance after that skill application has been concluded. Research demonstrates that the closer in time the feedback or coaching is to the skill performance, the more effective it is when shaping a followup independent application of the skill (Posner and Keele 1973). Practice Lesson Strategies Two kinds of practice lessons should be offered. Practice lessons (perhaps three or more) immediately following an introductory skill lesson should be frequent and scaffolded. The following teaching strategy is useful for directing these practice lessons: 1. Preview or review the skill. 2. Scaffold (using a checklist or graphic organizer) student skill application. 3. Ask students to reflect on and share with the class how they did it. 4. Identify other contexts for using the skill. 5. Discuss the subject matter learned by applying the skill. Subsequent skill practices (as many as needed to move students to independent application of the skill) should be increasingly intermittent and cued as necessary. These lessons may use the same teaching strategy employed200 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2008

use of the skill taught becomes more self-correcting and self-directed. Implementing These Guidelines Of course, there is more to improving student thinking-skill performance than presented here, but following these guidelines is a useful way to start. In implementing them, however, we should note the following. First, it is crucial for us as teachers to know the expert (authentic) thinking-skill procedures and heuristics we are teaching. Often we do not or may be unsure of them. Telling or showing our students how we do a skill may not be wise or productive unless we can clearly verbalize the authentic skill procedures steps and rules. Neither is inventing skill attributes out of thin air. However, numerous researchers and teaching specialists have identified expert skill procedures and rules for many thinking skills. These can be readily adopted, or adapted, if necessary, for instruction at appropriate grade levels (see references in Beyer 2001, 2008; see examples in Beyer 1988 and in Swartz and Parks 1994). Repeated experience and reflection in joining our students in applying newly encountered thinking skills can add to and sharpen our understandings and performances of these skills as well.

Second, it is useful to remember that, as important as it is for students to see and learn authentic skill procedures as beginners in skill learning, they may naturally alter these procedures over time as they become more expert in applying them. We need to allow our students to modify any of the skill procedures we introduce based on their experiences in practicing, reflecting on, and discussing them, rather than insisting that they continue to replicate them exactly as they are first modeled or presented. Third, we obviously do not need to teach directly all the thinking skills our students use. Some may require no instruction at all, and a little review or coaching may be sufficient for others. In many such instances, such as when middle or high school students cannot seem to classify given social studies data, a simple explanationand perhaps a brief demonstrationof how to apply the skill, or just a portion of it, followed by a quick practice or two may suffice. However, systematic, continued use of direct skill teaching using guidelines 14 is most appropriate when students have to apply unfamiliar, particularly complex, or abstract thinking skills essential for learning the subject matterskills such as judging the credibility of an observation, identifying unstated assumptions, or sourcing a historical document. Developing proficiency in skills such as these calls for direct skill instruction through the sequence of lessons employing the techniques and lesson strategies as described in this article. Conclusion In sum, the direct teaching of thinking skills treats thinking skills, like social studies and history, as subjects to be learned. It consists of providing explicit procedural instruction and repeated guided and supported practice in applying each thinking skill through a sequence of lessons, from an introductory lesson through a number of scaffolded and cued practice lessons, to lessons providing for independent student application, using many of the techniques and lesson strategies described in this article. Teachers can conduct all these lessons using


the regular social studies subject matter they are teaching without interrupting the content flow of their classes (Beyer 1997, 2008; Swartz et al. 2007). Direct teaching in thinking skills, as described here, is worthwhile. It is especially worthwhile in social studies and history classes, where proficiency in many of the complex thinking skills required for academic success is essential to effective citizenship and classroom learning. Research shows that student motivation to invest in learning a skill increases when students realize they have a need to apply a skill in which they may be deficient to accomplish a valued learning objective. Research also reveals that students who receive instruction in thinking in their subject-matter courses, including social studies and history courses, not only improve the quality of their thinking but also achieve higher grades on end-of-course subject-matter assessments than students who do not receive such skill instruction in those same courses (Beyer 2008; Estes 1972; Nickerson 1989). Moreover, direct teaching of thinking skills is worthwhile because continued academic success in applying thinking resulting from instruction increases students self-confidence and thus willingness to engage in increasingly challenging cognitive tasks they encounter later on (Bandura 1997).

If we expect our students to develop the social studies and history understandings, concepts, and other learning goals set for them; to become effective and contributing citizens; and to become lifelong learners, we have an obligation to help them master the thinking skills they must use to do so. To accomplish this, we can teach these thinking skills systematically, explicitly, and directly as we engage students with the social studies and history content they are supposed to be learning. This helps our students think smarter rather than harder, and by doing this, we can surely get the better and longer-lasting improvement in their social studies and history learningand thinkingto which we aspire.REFERENCES

Bandura, A. 1997. Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman. Beyer, B. K. 1988. Developing a thinking skills program. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. . 1997. Improving student thinking: A comprehensive approach. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. . 2001. Infusing thinking in history and the social sciences. In Developing minds: A resource book for teaching thinking, 3rd ed., ed A. L. Costa, 31725. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. . 2008. What research tells us about teaching thinking skills. The Social Studies 99 (5): 223320

Doyle, W. 1983. Academic work. Review of Educational Research 53 (2): 15999. Ennis, R. 1985. A logical basis for measuring critical thinking skills. Educational Leadership 43 (2): 4448. Estes, T. H. 1972. Reading in the social studies: A review of research since 1950. In Reading in the content areas, ed. J. Laffery, 17883. Newark, DE: International Reading Association. Lipman, M. 1988. Critical thinking: What can it be? Educational Leadership 46 (1): 40. . 1991. Thinking in education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Nickerson, R. 1989. On improving thinking through instruction. In Review of research in education, Vol. 15, ed. E. Z. Rothkopf, 357. Washington, DC: Educational Research Association. Perkins, D. 1992. Smart schools. New York: Free Press. Posner, M. I., and S. W. Keele, 1973. Skill learning. In The second handbook of research on teaching, ed. R. M. W. Travers, 80531. Chicago: Rand McNally College Publishing. Pressley, M., and K. Harris. 1990. What we really know about strategy instruction. Educational Leadership 48 (1): 3134. Rosenshine, B., and C. Meister. 1992. The use of scaffolds for teaching higher level cognitive strategies. Educational Leadership 49 (7): 2633. Swartz, R., A. L. Costa, B. K. Beyer, R. Reagan, and B. Kallick. 2007. Thinking-based learning: Activating students potential. Norwood, MA: Christopher Gordon. Swartz, R., and S. Parks. 1994. Infusing critical and creative thinking into content instruction: A lesson design handbook for elementary grades. Pacific Grove, CA: Critical Thinking Books and Software.





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