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Jan. 27 - New York Times blog helps students hone their critical thinking skills

As she displays this photograph on a large projection screen, Walden Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Mary Wingerden asks her class, “What do you see first? What jumps out at you?”

The students’ heads nod up and down, from projection screen to paper, as they jot down their observations. When Ms. Wingerden asks the class to share answers, they’re varied.

“I see an eight on the wall.”

“There’s some kind of drum that says 2015.”

“There’s a kid with playing cards in his hands.”

Ms. Wingerden is participating in The New York Times’ Learning Blog’s weekly “What’s Going on in this Picture?” activity. Each week, the website posts a photograph from across the world and invites educators to encourage their students to guess what is happening in the photo using observation and reasonable evidence. At the close of the week, the blog will post the background story behind the photo and students will have the opportunity to compare their perceptions to the reality of the photograph.

The free activity is part of a teaching methodology called Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), which aims to strengthen critical skills such as problem-solving through teacher-facilitated discussions centering around art or other visual mediums that encourage students to make observations and draw reasonable conclusions based upon what they are seeing. According to the VTS website, these discussions “enable students to use existing visual and cognitive skills to develop confidence and experience, learning to use what they already know to figure out what they don’t; they are then prepared to explore other complex subject matter alone and with peers.”

teacher Mary Windergarden facilitates discussion  As Ms. Wingerden’s students list their observations, she facilitates the discussion, using open-ended questions to encourage students to elaborate on the reasoning behind their observations. No detail is too small.  When one student points out that there is a young boy in the photo, Ms. Wingerden asks, “What makes you think it’s a young boy?”

“Because he doesn’t have any facial hair and he’s short,” the student answers.

“Why do you think there’s no electricity?” she asks another student.

“Because if he had electricity, he would have a space heater near him instead of a blanket,” the student answers.

It’s all personal observation, and the students don’t always agree.  While one student sees a broken light on the ceiling, another describes the same object in the ceiling as “a hole with sticks in it.” 

Once the class has discussed and compared their observations, Ms. Wingerden asks them to use their observations and critical-thinking skills to describe what they believe may be going on in the photo. Again, the answers vary, but the overwhelming consensus of the students is that the young boy in the photo lives alone and does not have, or has lost, his parents. Ms. Wingerden continues to prod the students to use evidence from the photo to back up their theories.

“If he had parents, he wouldn’t be allowed to light a fire by himself.”

“He looks depressed, and there is no one to cheer him up.”

“The room isn’t clean. If he had parents, they would have made him clean it up.”

 “The benefits of VTS are tremendous,” Ms. Wingerden said. “Aside from sharpening their analytic and observation skills, they also learn how to have a productive conversation and a healthy debate using evidence to back up their assertions.”

The students’ observations have sharpened since Ms. Wingerden  introduced the lessons in October. They are noticing more details in the photos and improving their sense of what is reasonable based on the context of the photo.

“They’re starting to really understand how to infer,” Ms. Wingerden said. “Giving them the practice of verbalizing it really helps. Once they’re able to verbalize their observations, their writing becomes much more effective.”

After a lengthy discussion, Ms. Wingerden asks the class to write a story based upon their observations as the final lesson until The New York Times Learning Blog publishes the story behind the photograph later in the week. The students open their Chromebooks, and the air is filled with the sounds of fingers tapping computer keys.

Miss Windergarden's fourth-grade class

“It helps improve my typing and gets me thinking about what’s happening in the picture,” Michael Holmes, a student in Ms. Wingerden’s class, said.  “There was one photo where all these people were holding shields and one girl was sitting in front. I guessed they were protesting about something, and I was right. I’m mostly right.”

On Friday, The New York Times reveals the photo’s original caption: “A child played cards in the local Palace of Culture, used as a bomb shelter during fighting between the Ukrainian Army and Russian-backed militants.”

 “It’s my favorite part of class,” Maddox Rivera, a student in Ms. Wingerden’s class, said of the VTS activities. “Mysteries are my favorite type of books, and [these lessons] help me get better at solving them.”

 Photo credit: Top photo by Anastasia Vlasova/European Pressphoto Agency. Originally published here