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Promoting Equity in Critical Thinking Skills

29 Oct 2021 by Teachstone

How can we shape innovators starting at a young age? Early childhood teachers have a big role in growing that mindset in children that they can solve problems.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay joins us to explain how teachers can get students comfortable with shades of grey in the discovery process and with not knowing the right answer.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay is a professor at Florida State College and the author of a globally marketed undergraduate microbiology textbook with Pearson. She earned her baccalaureate degree from the University of Florida and her Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine. For the past 18 years, Dr. Norman-McKay has been teaching allied health students at the collegiate level. She also serves as a speaker for the U.S. Department of State's International Information Programs––a diplomacy outreach bureau––to promote STEM education, innovation, and women in STEM.

This episode dives into Quality of Feedback and Concept Development.

Actionable tips to try from this episode:

      • Ask more questions, give fewer answers
      • Increase questions on how children know things rather than on what they know
      • Focus on learning by experiencing and doing
      • See mistakes as opportunities

 

 

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Transcript 

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
One of the things that strikes me is with young girls, there is a tendency to want to avoid making mistakes. Young girls are really at risk for having their STEM identity dinged because they have a lack of confidence perhaps that they're going to not be able to be perfect. Building that supportive environment where mistakes aren't seen as a problem, but more as an opportunity is super important.

Mamie Morrow:
Hi, everyone. So glad you're here. I'm your host Mamie, and welcome to the Teaching with CLASS Podcast, where we explore topics that help educators deepen their connections with children and enhance their social, emotional, and cognitive growth and development. I am so excited about today's topic. We are exploring STEM and how to promote equity in the development of critical thinking skills.

Mamie Morrow:
Our guest, Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay shares her passion for promoting curiosity in the classroom and ensuring that all children get to fully engage in experiences and conversations that truly spark creativity and critical thinking. You'll definitely want to try out some of her fun ooey gooey, spooky exploration box ideas to celebrate this fall season. Dr. Norman-McKay is a scientist, professor, published author, and STEM curriculum specialist, and we are so lucky to have her with us today.

Mamie Morrow:
Now, please enjoy the conversation and all of the fantastic strategies that you can take back to your classroom. Lourdes, can you please help us understand what does STEM stand for and what does it mean?

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
Yeah, so STEM is science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Anymore, there's also STEAM, science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. So almost every subject under the sun, right?

Mamie Morrow:
Absolutely. It's a pretty big umbrella at this point. How early does STEM learning start and why is it so important in the early years?

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
I would say, first of all, STEM learning, when we say that, it sort of compartmentalizes it for people. I want us to be very clear that this inquisitiveness, this curiosity that we're shaping that promotes areas of STEM actually applies across every discipline that we need as human beings to be creative professionals in what we do. It starts immediately, like when children are so, so young at that preschool level. That is really planting that seed to grow curiosity and innovation that serves not just STEM, but all areas.

Mamie Morrow:
I can't wait to talk with you about how to really grow this curiosity. Can you explain to us why it's so important to promote equity in the early years of equity and of opportunity to have curiosity be developed?

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
Right. One of the challenges we have in STEM disciplines is an under-representation of women and especially of minorities. One of the things that strikes me is with young girls, there is a tendency to want to avoid making mistakes especially. Yes, perfectionism, exactly. Young girls and young women are really at risk for having their STEM identity dinged, if I can use that word. I don't, but suppressed, rather, because they have a lack of confidence perhaps that they're going to not be able to be perfect.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
One of the important things in promoting diversity and equity in STEM is to help encourage underrepresented groups, which would include minorities and women, to build their STEM identity, to be secure in what they're saying, to feel confident even if they are not perfect. This is true for everyone actually, but it just seems to be especially impactful on women and underrepresented groups because they're already kind of outliers, right? They're already feeling like they may not fit in.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
Building that supportive environment where mistakes aren't seen as a problem, but more as an opportunity is super important. There are data, for example, that women who are not as qualified for a job may not apply for it. Whereas a male may look at the job application and say, "Well, I meet most of these criteria. I'm going to go ahead and apply." And whereas women, unless they're to the T qualified-

Mamie Morrow:
Or even overqualified.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
Exactly, or even overqualified, they won't apply. There are data that show this. Just another point of speaking to that perfectionist streak that is kind of instilled in young girls from a very early age. We need to sort of step back from that and help them build their STEM identity. Building curiosity involves a couple of things, right? It's not positioning mistakes as a problem. Mistakes are opportunities to learn.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
When you have a baby learning how to walk, you don't chastise them for misstepping or falling down. You encourage them and you see it as a chance for growth, and this has to be true in academics, in all types of academic subject matter.

Mamie Morrow:
How do teachers in the classroom help children to be more comfortable being curious, being more comfortable making those mistakes? How do teachers create more space for that learning process, which is really fraught with failure and mistakes?

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
Yeah. As a teacher, and I teach also not very, very young children, but I have done STEM development education kind of stuff with Departments of Education, and the number one thing really is asking questions. Not necessarily that you want a specific answer and not giving specific answers, but asking questions and letting the kids develop their responses and go through that very organic and natural process of thinking about things to formulate an answer, which may or may not be on point and that's okay because it's the process that becomes important.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
And then the other thing in addition to asking more questions and giving fewer answers really, letting students come to those answers, is that support of how we view mistakes. Again, seeing a mistake not as a problem, but as an opportunity. I think when we frame those conversations, keeping those two things in mind are really important.

Mamie Morrow:
It sounds a little bit like trying to kind of let go of the need to get to that correct answer as quickly as possible.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
Right,

Mamie Morrow:
We're time exploring.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
Exactly. You're not trying to expedite an answer. You are trying to shape a process in a human being. The preschool level and early grades level, this is so essential. I don't know that the teachers in these roles even appreciate just how important they are in this process. They are building the innovators of our nation, of our world. This is not a process to rush. It's not a process to feel anxious about.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
It's really a super exciting opportunity for the kids, for the teachers to be a part of something that whether they know it or not is really important.

Mamie Morrow:
It sounds like one of the strategies is for teachers to perhaps avoid going straight to the child that they know will give that right answer.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
Yes.

Mamie Morrow:
What are your thoughts on that?

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
Yes. Everybody has that student who's super eager to answer the question. You know they're going to nail it. You're going to be able to move on to the next thing. The kids around them aren't going to be flustered or confused by the answer or left scratching their heads, right? They're going to check that box. Sometimes in shaping that curiosity and that STEM identity, that willingness to feel like they're participating and to then in turn participate more is calling the kid who maybe isn't even raising their hand and ask them what they think.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
If they don't nail it, it's okay. They're going to say something that you can help them build off of. I was working with a group of kids one time, and this was about third or fourth grade. This little boy was raising his hand, behind everyone else. He was like, "I don't know about this three states of matter. You said there are three states of matter, but I don't know what's lightning." And I said, "Well, it turns out lightning is a special state of matter called a plasma.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
You're right. Technically there are more than three states of matter." And all the kids at first though, they had laughed at this kids, like, "What's lightning? There's more than three states of matter. What's wrong with you? Teacher said there are three states of matter. The book says there are three states of matter. What's this crazy stuff about lightning?" And sure enough, there are more than three states of matter. There are five states of matter actually, and this little kid just through curiosity came to that.

Mamie Morrow:
It sounds like it's a little less important that we ask the right questions and more important that we think about the way we respond to children's answers and help them stay in that exploration. And maybe ask them, "Tell me why you're thinking that, let's explore that a little bit." The little boy who says there's four states of matter, what makes you think that, right? What do you guys think lightning is? Where would it fit? Is that what you're talking about getting the kids to just really explore those moments?

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
Exactly. So that back and forth conversation is developmental in and of itself, right? And we can learn things too as teachers. A lot of times a student will give their reasoning behind something and it might be an explanation that we've never even thought of. We can learn through that. It might even make us better teachers, right? Because we start to think about how we put something to the group, maybe our own preconceptions or biases, and we can address that.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
It's also fun, right, when you go back and forth in conversation like that and learn from each other and get the kids excited about it and have them know it's a conversation. That's what science is. Science is an ongoing conversation. It's not just a black and white, cut and dry thing. It is a continuous back and forth refining.

Mamie Morrow:
Yeah. I like to think about when kids make those, those unexpected statements about, "Hey, what about lightning," I think there's [crosstalk 00:11:28] It kind of makes me think about children often during almost every lesson I've given and I've observed, children often make some kind of a statement that's almost like a little gift wrap package they're handing to the teacher and they're saying, "Here's how you can make this lesson even more exciting, more interesting, more connected and applicable to us, more meaningful."

Mamie Morrow:
It's really important that the teachers go along with that for a little while and out why that child thought to make that statement at that time.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
Yeah, and inviting diverse perspectives is also really important to the innovation process. As an example, let's say I have a red liquid and I ask a bunch of kids who are from all over the world, different backgrounds, let's assume. And I say, what is this red liquid? And it's not dangerous so they can touch it. They can taste it. They can smell it, and they decide that based on the way it tastes, it looks, and it's sticky, they say it's Kool-Aid.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
But some kid who has never had Kool-Aid before, maybe they're from a country where Kool-Aid is not the common drink that kids will have, and it's some other beverage and they suggest that beverage. It might very well be that, but because no one else in the room has ever had that beverage, they wouldn't even know what they don't know. Whereas this kid might have a unique perspective that could be the best answer. And unless we had invited those diverse perspectives into the picture, we'd never get to the actual answer.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
This is what happens in science. A lot of times really cool discoveries are made by people who didn't know what the rules were.

Mamie Morrow:
Exactly, yeah. And that makes me think about like if we were to bring in little items, like an egg yolk separator into the classroom, right? And just ask the kids, what do you think this is? We may not have children from other countries, but we'll definitely have children from different backgrounds, different ways in which their parents cook in their homes.

Mamie Morrow:
Kids could give their different perspective of what they think it is, whether or not they accurately know it's an egg yolk separator, or they're really just curious about, "Well, I wonder what that could do," and really invite those conversations. Is that a way that we can kind of simulate that in our classrooms?

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
In terms of simulating that exploration process in the classroom, yeah. I mean, bringing in an object from the house that maybe the kids won't know what it does or what it is. I mean, they're little, so their experience is going to be a bit more limited, right? You could bring in an Allen key wrench or an egg yolk, separator or a whisk. I mean, just so many different things that maybe a little kid wouldn't know necessarily what it's for, and say, "What do you think this is used for? How would you describe this?"

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
Just prompting their powers of observation even can be really useful. How would you describe this to a friend? There you're helping them fine tune their observation and their communication skills. If you had to get a friend to draw this, how would you describe it for them? Or maybe even have one kid describe it. They can see it and the other kid can't and the other kid's drawing it. Or what do you think this might be used for? And let them come up with different ways that the tool may be used.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
That is a way of thinking about things outside of the rules, right, where you're getting creative. You could do really easily with any object just at the start of the day or in the middle of the day when people are getting a little bit tired, the kids are getting a little tired, or you just want to have a little fun and build that curiosity. Very easy to infuse and it can take as much or as little time as you want or need it to take.

Mamie Morrow:
It sounds like the important thing for teachers to take away from that is to not be focused on getting the kids to know exactly what it is and to say what it is. The focus is that conversation. The focus is their observations. The focus is the way they describe it and talk about it and the questions they might ask. And also for equity, making sure that all voices are heard. All of the children get to see it and explore it and get an opportunity to talk about what they think it is.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
Exactly, exactly. Giving every voice a chance to be heard and to practice that curiosity moment.

Mamie Morrow:
Halloween's coming and I know that you have done some really fun experiences in your children's schools as they were growing up. You'd go in and volunteer. Can you tell us a really fun takeaway that the teachers could do to explore this type of STEM opportunity with a Halloween and pumpkin theme?

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
Yeah. Yeah. One of the things that my girls really loved and their classmates, this was in preschool, we did curiosity box, like a Halloween box. You can call it whatever you want. You put all different objects in a shoe box, and then you put it behind something so the kids can reach into the box and touch whatever's there without seeing it. Maybe you get a really big box. You put little arm holes in it. And then on the other side or inside that box, you have shoe boxes containing whatever item it is that you're going to have them touch.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
They touch it and they can describe what it feels like. Do they like how it feels? Do they dislike how it feels? Why do they like how it feels? Why do they dislike how it feels? What could it be? And again, it's just through that one sense of observation, just touch. We have, of course, our other senses at our disposal. But in this case, just touch, that one sense. What can you explore? What can you learn? And what conclusion can you come to? You could use pumpkin guts.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
You could use egg yolks. You could use jello. I mean, any kind of thing that you think might be-

Mamie Morrow:
Marbles in some dishwashing liquid so they would feel sticky.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
Yeah, marbles in some dish soap. All kinds of different things you could toss in there and just get them to explore that and make a description and see if their peers agree or disagree and what they could add on and just make it a conversation.

Mamie Morrow:
I love that. I think that's a huge takeaway for me is just make it a conversation. That's the focus. Not the correct answer. It's make it a conversation. This sounds a lot like you're really focusing on learning by experiencing and doing and building confidence for kids to be able to share their thoughts and ideas about what they're thinking. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
Right. All of us, when we're little, we want to share what we think. And then at some point in time, something happens to a lot of people where we stop wanting to share what we think, because it makes us vulnerable, right? This early age is where you're trying to encourage that confidence. You don't want to squelch that curiosity or that confidence. You want to bolster it. You want to let them know that their voice matters and that they have something to contribute.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
And just knowing that there isn't necessarily a correct answer, that there are diverse ways to approach the problem. Let the kids know, there's not really one correct answer here. Feel free to share what you think. And just making sure that you're allowing that conversation. Just remember these little kids that you're teaching are going to be adults. You're not just teaching kids that are going to stay kids.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
These are going to become adults who are going to work in society and work with peers and have to contribute in ways that you might not even imagine. They might be doing jobs that you don't even know about because they don't exist yet.

Mamie Morrow:
I think they're going to be doing a lot of those jobs that don't exist yet.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
Yeah. I mean, we need them to take good care of us people, so let's train them up to be curious.

Mamie Morrow:
Yeah, they're going to need that curiosity and that confidence and their ability to express their thoughts and ideas. That's an essential skill that they're going to need to be successful adults, successful in the further years of schooling as well.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
Well, and even just as human beings, right? I mean, interacting with others around them. We tend to afford people that respect that we're given. We treat others often the way we've been treated. If we can treat these kids with respect for their viewpoints and share in that discourse and teach kids how to respect each other's viewpoints.

Mamie Morrow:
We respect everyone's viewpoint in our class. Again, for the equity.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
Exactly. That's being civil. That's civility. It's teaching civility as well, which we could always stand to bolster in our communities, right? Kindness and civility and respect for each other as human beings, no matter what we look like, what we sound like, how we talk, whatever. It's those diverse pieces of us that make for an interesting world. If everyone were the same, it would be a pretty boring place.

Mamie Morrow:
Teachers model so much more than they possibly are even aware that they're modeling. And by the teachers modeling, I accept all these different perspectives and viewpoints, and everybody's voice is important and every contribution is going to be valued in our classroom. That is actually modeling so much more for children to really be accepting and open to all these other ways of thinking and ways of viewing the world.

Mamie Morrow:
It's going to do so much more than a conversation that they might have with a child at one point, just the way that they're modeling that every day.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
Yes, absolutely. I would say too, you can extend this outside of STEM, this sort of asking, questioning, deeper thinking. For example, my husband teaches reading. He's a reading specialist, and he would always say to our girls when he would read to them, when they were little. Let's say they're reading something about a fairy princess or something. You got an evil character and you got the protagonist in there. The evil character is doing all these things that are clearly evil.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
And he would say, "Oh, Maleficent is so friendly. She's so cute and friendly, isn't she?" And our girls would just get indignant. They were just like, "No, daddy, she's evil." And he would say, "Oh, well, why? What makes her evil?" They would go through and provide evidence from the text of all the things, all the traits that made this character unpleasant. And little did they know that they were starting to draw supporting evidence from a story for their perspective, which is something, of course, they're going to build on as they get into higher grades.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
But it's fun and funny, right, because you could just see these kids just so indignant that you would even think that that character could possibly be nice. You can build that curiosity and questioning just even in story time.

Mamie Morrow:
Yeah, and such a fun way. Taking the devil's advocate there, right, and say, "Oh, she's so nice. She's so wonderful," and seeing how the kids respond. And you're exactly right. They're going to be pulling their proof from the text. And that's a great way to explore reading comprehension and their ability to really attend to what's happening in the story and understand these actions have consequences.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
Right, or, I mean, just even having kids predict what might happen. Seeing a picture and saying, "What do you think we're going to learn about here? What do you think is going to happen just looking at the picture?" So that those higher order thinking skills of building evidence, supported arguments, predicting and summarizing and analyzing, those are all things that we do every day. And you build them just through this curiosity of thought process.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
You have so many different ways you can tackle that and fun ways. I mean, little kids are just fun to talk to, right? They say the craziest things.

Mamie Morrow:
Yeah. I always loved when I would read stories to not only ask them along the way, what do you think is going to happen next, before it turned the page, but a couple pages before the end, I would stop and say, "I want you guys to write the ending of the story. If you were the author, how would you end it?" And they would go and... My little four year old would draw their pictures and they would dictate to me what the ending is going to be. They would have these endings.

Mamie Morrow:
And then we would read the authors endings and they compare and contrast and think about why theirs ended theirs way and their friends ended a different way and the author chose to end it in a different way. It was just a fun way to really kind of explore opportunities.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
Yeah, exactly. I mean, there are famous authors who have done that. For example, Gregory Maguire, I think is his name, with the Wicked series, the story from the Wicked Witch's standpoint.

Mamie Morrow:
Exactly.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
It's a skill and it is an art really to think in that way. We start building that in kids really, really young.

Mamie Morrow:
Lourdes, you've given us so much to think about and so many exciting things that I hope the teachers listening are like, "Ooh, I want to go and try that." Can you just talk with us about how we can help kids to know that they know things? How do they know that they know things? And really kind of going back to exploring that learning process and building that confidence and the curiosity, how do we help kids know how they know things?

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
That metacognitive work is super important. How do we know what we know? It extends to everything. How do you know that you're loved by this particular person? How do you know that it's daytime? How do you know that it's dinner time? I mean, all these little things every day throughout our lives, even as adults that we know how we know certain things. And instead of giving a kid an answer, if you have them go through the process of coming to that answer, you can ask them, well, how do you know it's a marble in some sort of liquid?

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
For example, if you're doing the icky geeky touchy box thing, how do you know that's pumpkin guts? What are the traits that helped you come to that conclusion? What are the things you could do to find out? Because if we know how we know things, then we have tools at our disposal to get new information, because we know what it takes to understand and know something. It's that learning how to learn, which is so important because eventually kids get to a point in their development where they can't memorize everything.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
They can't know the exact right answer for everything. They have to learn how to learn. This is where we have the Fourth Industrial Revolution situation. The Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is what we're in right now and we'll continue to proceed toward, is where we are solving problems in different ways and information is exponentially increasing to a point where you just really can't know all of the information. You have to be a really good learner.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
Right now, for example, when you solve a problem in school, it's often you have a known problem, a known solution, and a known process to get to that known solution. And check, you get it right. You get the A. But really what happens more in life is you have a known problem and maybe you know what solution you want, but you have no idea how to get there. Or you might have a known problem and no idea what the solution is, nevermind how to get there. And sometimes you don't even know you have a problem.

Mamie Morrow:
You can't even figure out what the problem is. You know there's a problem. You can't figure out what it is.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
Or you might have overlooked something. Knowing how you know is super important, and that's going to serve the generation that's coming up in this Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Mamie Morrow:
You've inspired me. I hope that you've inspired all of our audience listening. I just want to thank you so much, Lourdes, for taking the time to talk with us and our listening community today.

Dr. Lourdes Norman-McKay:
Yeah, my pleasure. And I'm so thankful for the people who go in the classroom and work with these young kids and get them so prepared. When they get to me, they are little innovators.

Mamie Morrow:
If you're interested in continuing this conversation with other educators, I'd encourage you to join our CLASS Learning Community. You can share or learn more strategies with thousands of educators around the world. The link to join us is in the show notes available on your listening platform. Also in the show notes is a link to a few really helpful blog posts on this topic that I hope you'll check out.

Mamie Morrow:
Thanks everyone for joining us today, and I'll see you again next time. But until then, be humble, be teachable, and let's always keep learning.

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