The 11th-12th Grades: An Extended Opportunity to Explore Complex Material and Strengthen Critical Thinking

By WMHS teacher Sharon Dunn

In the first quarter of 11th-12th grade Social Studies, we initiate a year-long process of deep learning about an often over- or ill-used term and concept, leadership. The process begins with some premises: first, that one must learn to lead oneself in order to lead anyone else, and second, the greater value of leadership lies in providing meaningful interactions. We begin by grappling with Study Guide questions designed to stretch the mind: What do we know? What do we think we know? What’s the difference? How do we know we know?

Students also start with a self-reflection, using a Critical Thinking questionnaire and self-rating scale from Claremont College Professor of Psychology Diane Halpern’s workbook, “Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking.” We then tackle a subject we shall continue to address more in depth, using card material that delineates the components and structure of an effective argument, and the wide array of fallacies that can distract from or even distort authentic communication. The Study Guide questions, Critical Thinking questionnaire, and card material not only invite discourse and reflection, but also introduce fundamental features of the course:

  1. Getting comfortable with uncertainty—the kind of work we are doing seldom lends itself to definite answers
  2. Expecting to converse, seminar-style, daily, with the expectation that all students will both speak and listen
  3. Allowing and honoring the time that is needed: when dealing with a text, a question, a presentation by a peer, the purpose is to extract and make meaning. If that takes a while, so be it.
  4. Being ready to learn through questions

Experiences include:

  • Reading excerpts of chapters on Socrates and Plato from “The Examined Mind” by New School Philosophy professor James Miller
  • Watching, outlining, and discussing a lecture on Socrates, Plato and Aristotle by Stanford Professor Eugen Weber
  • Reading and exploring the meaning of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”
  • Watching a brief lesson on Aristotle’s “Self-Love” by Professor Gregory B. Sadler, then reading and discussing that text from the “Nichomachean Ethics”
  • Reading and discussing a small portion of Epictetus’s work of Stoicism, “Self-Control”
  • Reading, discussing, and interrelating a portion of “The Crito” with part of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

In this early part of the year, our exploration and resources allow the students to consider the role and nature of goodness, and of the valuing of truth, beauty, virtue, and justice. These will be our topics for ongoing attention. This is a year designed to give students the resources and time to consider the nature of an examined and meaningful life, and to help them build a giving and transactional interpretation of leadership.

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