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Critical Thinking Resource: Pieces of Learning

When it comes to critical thinking and science, Pieces of Learning has some great supplemental texts!  In case you haven’t heard of Pieces of Learning, I wanted to let you know that they specialize in differentiated learning.  Differentiated learning is individualized to meet the unique needs of students, which is exactly what homeschooling is all about.  With a background in gifted education, Pieces of Learning has been offering high quality resources for students and teachers since 1989.  According to them, “Our products will always make kids and educators THINK – at a higher level”  

Within the science section of their website, they carry the Challenging Puzzle series, which are filled with critical and creative reasoning problems.
According to their website, “[w]hen deductive and creative thinking puzzles are linked to content they can be used to:

  • teach facts
  • teach content vocabulary
  • reinforce research skills 
  • motivate students”
“Critical and creative reasoning puzzles can be used as curriculum extensions and as anchor activities in the differentiated classroom, for pre and post testing, or as an introduction to a new unit.”
Here are some of the titles Pieces of Learning carries in the Challenging Puzzle series:

Also, check out Primary Science Readers’ Theatre and The Scientific Method in Fairy Tale Forest, among many other titles, and not just in the field of science!  

If you have used any of these books in your homeschool, I’d love to hear about it— leave a comment!

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Critical Thinking and Science

Science is the study of the universe and the beginning of that study is in critical thinkingA person who thinks critically asks questions about nature and attempts to find answers.

When a person is thinking critically, he is attempting to explain events, solve problems, or just simply— to understand God’s universe.  Thinking critically does not mean just being critical, but the the ability to probe and examine a subject open-mindedly and from many points of view.  Once we understand the value of these kinds of thought processes, we can incorporate them into our homeschool agenda.

Critical thinking skills are vital.  Those who can employ critical thinking are better problem solvers, better equipped to understand how and why things work, and better at presenting and defending a logical argument not only in science but in nearly every field of study.

It is only natural, then, to teach critical thinking skills in home school, but what kinds of activities teach critical thinking skills?

First, we have to determine just what is this thing we call critical thinking.  There are several processes involved— analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and attempting to answer the question “why?”.  These types of thought processes really can’t be easily separated one from another, but it is helpful to distinguish them for the purposes of instruction.  These four thought processes are considered to be higher order thinking, and when they are used together, they become problem solving methods. 

Lets examine the four thought processes and then discuss problem solving methods in a bit more detail.

  1. During analysis, the thinker will try to break down ideas to determine an underlying pattern.  For example, you can check your student’s compositions to see if there are any consistent mistakes.   Another example would be checking over test answers to find a pattern revealing a weak understanding in a particular area or subject mastery in another.  In reality, these analyses are what a good teacher does with every test or paper.  Similarly, a scientist will look over data to see if she can determine patterns which would explain the data.  Analysis is often the first higher order thought process applied to solve a problem.
  2. Synthesis is another higher order of thought.  When a person uses synthesis, he or she is combining ideas to get a larger idea or concept.  In the case of a major weather event, scientists often attempt to determine if there is a pattern to the weather system which can be predicted based upon signs like temperatures or barometric pressure patterns.  A common example of synthesis is the combination of high strength of steel with the flexibility of thin strands to make a steel cable for a suspension bridge.  When a new idea emerges from a body of current knowledge, synthesis is at work.
  3. Evaluation is the thought process whereby we try to decide whether an explanation is true.  In school, we teach the children to evaluate their own work and they gradually begin to judge the work of others.  Another use of evaluation is deciding if a conclusion is justified, or correct, or true.  When writing up an experiment, the student is asked to write a conclusion: why did the experiment do what it did?  The student may have used analysis and synthesis to reach the conclusion, but at some point the student will have to decide that it is a good and satisfactory explanation. 
  4. Simply trying to answer the question ‘Why?’ is another type of higher order thinking skill.  Involving you children in this activity is a great way to practice higher order thinking.  These are the ‘I wonder” questions which spark a young scientist’s imagination.  Training a child to ask himself these questions is the goal of a good teacher.  A person who is curious about the universe is one who will learn easily.  This skill is really two-fold: first, the asking of the question, then the attempt at an answer.  Both of these can be learned and practiced.

Techniques for Problem Solving

Problem solving is a way we can practice critical thinking.  Two principle ways of problem solving are the scientific method and the engineering method.  The scientific method allows a scientist to determine what factors may be affecting a system.  By eliminating all but one factors, the scientist can then vary that one factor and measure its effect.  Norman Edmund, founder of Edmund Scientific has written a wonderful book which details the many parts of the scientific method.  Really a book about critical thinking, The General Pattern of the Scientific Method is valuable to every student.

The engineering method, like the scientific method, is systematic, but it is usually applied in concrete rather than theoretical situations.  When a person uses the engineering method, she attempts to solve a very specific problem using the materials at hand.

  1. First, she will carefully define the problem in order to understand exactly what she needs to do.  
  2. Then she will brainstorm ideas to determine many possible methods to overcome the problem.  
  3. Next, she will weigh those ideas to determine the best one for the situation.  
  4. Last, she will refine her work. 

Practice, Practice, Practice! 

Now, for some ideas you can use at home to practice critical thinking skills.  A student may be asked to solve a problem like making a lunch which includes all of the major food groups with an assortment of good-tasting foods— and be made up of what is available without a trip to the store.  This may sound simplistic, but is a good way to introduce the engineering method to your students.

Another good exercise is to build a crane of building blocks (or Legos or whatever) capable of lifting a glass of water off the ground.  Your students use the materials on hand to solve a particular given problem.

Problem solving can be done in the imagination, too.  You can present the children with a hypothetical problem— or one they have read about— and get them to brainstorm possible solutions.

Practicing brainstorming is another fun activity for home.  Science, without brainstorming or divergent thinking, would never have progressed to our high level of technology.  Just think of all of the everyday things you use which have been invented by people doing divergent thinking.  Velcro, transitors, tape recorders, airplane wings, and even the screw, are all examples. 

There are many fun ways you can practice brainstorming, but remember the primary rule:  don’t criticize the ideas the children come up with.  The single quickest way to cut off creativity is to be critical, so make no judgements about an idea no matter how far-fetched.  The important thing is the free flow of lots of ideas.  Later, you will analyze the ideas and toss out the ineffective ones, but for the present, you just want ideas and lots of them.

What kinds of things can you brainstorm with your children?  How about these—

  • how could we get across the street without touching the ground?
  • how can we make light with no house current?
  • how can we save energy used for cooking
  • how can we arrange the furniture for convenient homeschooling?  (You would be surprised at the ideas for this one that the children will come up with.)

Teaching Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is easier to teach when you are deliberate about it.  Most curricula do not attempt to teach critical thinking, so it becomes a stretch for the homeschool parents to follow through.  However, the benefits are greatly outweigh the effort required.  Do teach the children to think— after all, the Scirpture tells us that we should seek wisdom above all else.

How to use an activity to teach critical thinking:

  1. First, do something which allows you to collect data, keeping track of weather and temperatures, for example.  
  2. Next, you chart the data.  The making of a chart is helpful to scientists and students enabling them to see relationships more easily.
  3. Then, help your student to analyze the chart for information or patterns.  
  4. Ask your student if the information applies to other situations or studies.   
  5. Have the student write a conclusion or summary of what was learned.  
  6. If your student is curious about the outcome, he may want to do more experiments to find out more information.  At this point, the wise parent will drop out of the action becoming the curious audience.  This student is now becoming a self-directing critical thinker.

Here’s an Example…

Below is a performance chart which shows some of the factors affecting an aircraft’s takeoff.  An airplane accelerates down the runway causing air to flow over the wings at greater and greater speed.  As the air passes over the wings, they generate lift.  The faster the air, the more lift is created.  But speed is only one vital piece of information in determining takeoff performance.  Weather conditions also affect the takeoff.

Aircraft Takeoff Performance

Gross Wt(lbs) Airspeed at 50 ft. Head
to 50′
to 50′
to 50′
to 50′
2300 68 0 865 1525 1040 1910 1255 2480 1565 3855
2300 68 10 615 1170 750 1485 920 1955 1160 3110
2300 68 20 405 850 505 1100 630 1480 810 2425
2000 63 0 630 1095 735 1325 905 1625 1120 2155
2000 63 10 435 820 530 1005 645 1250 810 1685
2000 63 20 275 580 340 730 425 910 595 1255
1700 58 0 435 780 520 920 625 1095 765 1370
1700 58 10 290 570 355 680 430 820 535 1040
1700 58 20 175 385 215 470 270 575 345 745

Look the performance chart above and answer these questions.
1. What is the temperature of a day when the airplane can take off in the shortest distance?

2.  What are the best conditions for take off? The worst?

A normal curriculum will ask these first two questions.  These questions ask the student to read and show understanding of the chart.  This is the type of question normally found on an achievement test.   

Read on for questions requiring more critical thinking!

3.  How does air temperature affect the lift generated by the wings on an aircraft?  Brainstorm lift factors which the temperature of the air might affect.

4.  In a gas, the molecules have more energy and are farther apart when the temperature is warm.  How does this fact relate to the data in the chart? 

5.  What could you do to the design of an airplane to make it takeoff in a short distance?

6.  If you put ice in the wings, it would cool them and the air around them.  Would this reduce the takeoff roll of the airplane? 

7.  Could you reduce the take off roll by putting big fans at the end of the runway and blowing air down the runway towards the plane?

Are you teaching critical thinking in your homeschool?  Leave a comment and let us know how you’re doing it!

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Your Science Tool-Kit: Evaluating Scientific Messages

By Samantha Burns at

On any given day we are presented with any number of scientific messages;  it is important to understand science, so that we might better understand the natural world around us.  But what do we do if the information makes no sense to us?  What should you do if the message gets garbled by the news-reporter and sounds alien?  How do we know the information we are receiving is accurate, and not skewed to suit a corporation with a private agenda?
We use our scientific tools to question and research the information.
Ask yourself:

  1. Where does the information come from?
  2. Are the views of the scientific community portrayed accurately?
  3. Is the scientific community’s confidence in the ideas accurately portrayed?
  4. Is it a controversy misrepresented or blown out of proportion?
  5. Where can you get more information?
  6. How strong is the evidence.

With these tools you can decipher the messages, discern truth from exaggeration, and gain a better insight to the world around you.  This will aid you in every day decisions you make.  From the minor to the most monumental life-changing decisions you make, I guarantee that a better understanding of science and the world around you is only going to benefit you and yours.
Use the following checklist to determine how scientific something is.

How Scientific Is It?

  • Focuses on the natural world.
  • Aims to explain the natural world.
  • Uses testable ideas.
  • Relies on evidence.
  • Involves the scientific community
  • Leads to on-going research.
  • Benefits from Scientific “Behavior”.

Science is not just a subject to play around with in our school endeavors; it is part of our every day lives.  It is crucially important that we give our children the skills and tools necessary to decipher the scientific messages bombarding them on any given day.  In a world where the natural state of things is in such a precarious place, and a society that is increasingly reliant upon technology, science will surely play a key role.

Samantha Burns is a self-taught homeschool teacher to 2 sons, and wife 10 years to a citizen scientist. You can visit her website at