Using Critical Thinking In Classroom Training

Students learn more by doing
Students learn more by doing in a critical thinking scenario with practical applications than in a classroom.
When in a classroom setting, it’s important for the instructor to use simple tactics to keep students involved, like calling on those who don’t raise their hands, asking them to state the purpose of their assignments and making sure questions are always answered thoroughly. (Fire Apparatus Photo)

Over the years, we all have been subjected to a variety of training methods as instructors struggled to present new material, review standards and practice skills.

As we find ourselves tasked with training responsibilities, we are looking for ways to ensure our charges are able to absorb the information in our presentations and, ultimately, are able to apply our lessons to their practice.

Decision Making Business

We are in the business of making decisions based on changing circumstances that can make the difference between life and death for our patients and, in some situations, for ourselves. At our best, we are skilled “critical thinkers,” able to make rapid assessments and apply actions best suited to the needs of the situation.

The long answer to the question as to what is critical thinking is, according to the Center for Critical Thinking: “The intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”

The short answer is critical thinking is: “skillful, responsible thinking that facilitates good judgment because it relies on criteria, is self correcting and is sensitive to context.”

And all that simply means critical thinking is based on knowledge enabling a person to nimbly respond, re-evaluate and alter a response and whatever action taken is sensitive to the uniqueness of the situation. Further, critical thinking is thinking effectively.

That certainly sounds like the kind of thinking we want our students to be able to perform. To give our students their best chance to function this way in their work, we need to create classroom environments that allow them to practice thinking in this way.

In the emergency medical service and the fire service we find unique people who run toward danger and people in need, rather than away from them. We pride ourselves in being problem solvers. That’s also the definition of a critical thinker.

Critically Thinking

Critical thinking welcomes problematic situations, uses active inquiry, tolerates ambiguity, is self critical, and searches for alternatives. When we’re thinking critically, we value rationality, perceive thinking as helpful, appreciate contributory responses, perceive interdependencies and reflect on our decisions and their effect on the situation.

If you think about it, defining critical thinking describes the best of fire and EMS personnel. We are drawn to people in problem situations. We enjoy situations that present puzzles to be solved. We count on perceptive co-workers to assist us in making our decision, and we look for alternative ways to manage situations before we act. Once we’ve acted, we reflect or review to measure the effectiveness of our decisions.

The opposite of critical thinkers search for certainty and are passively accepting. They are not critical and often are satisfied with first attempts or proposals. These types of thinkers are the kind of people that might say something like “I’ve made up my mind, don’t confuse me with the facts.” Evidence that conflicts with a decision is generally ignored.

Enabling People To Think

If a goal of our lessons is to enable people to be able to think rather than learning or memorizing responses, our training needs to encourage thinking rather than memorizing appropriate responses.

One of the best techniques for bringing critical thinking into a classroom is through the use of scenarios. Students learn best in context.

That means the value of information presented to them must be clearly relevant to their work. Once the importance of the information is clear, the experience becomes more profound if students are given the opportunity to apply the information in practice.

While many instructors use scenarios or stories, many also don’t use them to their best advantage. Let’s make it clear; we’re not talking about war stories here. While war stories can be entertaining and informative, scenario teaching is intended to give a situation to the student that will be driven by what the student does or does not do in response.

This type of teaching is more work for the instructor, but it is an extremely valuable experience for the student.

As I mentioned, it’s harder to create a critical thinking atmosphere than the traditional classroom. It’s easier to read off slides and demand that the students memorize the answers we provide. As we know however, our work requires us to think. Memorized answers often are inadequate for our patients’ needs. We need to be able to evaluate, decide, act and re-evaluate. This calls for people who are prepared to think.

This is a much harder approach. First, as an instructor in a critical thinking classroom, you have to know your material cold. You will encourage questions and follow the thread of questions and discussions rather than push them to your own conclusion. Doing this takes skill. You need to keep the discussion focused.

Guide The Scenario

While you want relevant questions and answers to be encouraged, you have to guide the scenario in response to your student’s direction. You must also reign in distracting irrelevant discussions. When things slow down or your students seem to be lost, ask a probing question that helps to identify where they are with the situation and what they need to do to move on.

It’s important to summarize frequently. It’s even better when you have your students summarize. Ask them questions like:

What have we done so far today?

Why is it important?

How will you use this?

Having students summarize and explain what’s gone on gives you a sense of what’s working and what isn’t. As your students tell you how they see it, you’ll get an idea of what you might have to focus on as your class continues.

Get as many of your students involved in your scenarios as possible. As they participate, you’ll get a sense of what they’ve grasped and what they haven’t. They’ll also find out that, contrary to real life, there’s no penalty for making a mistake in the classroom. It’s important that we practice difficult situations in this manner to give us a better chance of not making mistakes in the field.

Scenario-Based Training

Preparing for a critical thinking classroom is not easy. In order to let the scenarios run according to your students’ responses, you must be confident enough to follow their lead. If a response is not what you expected, alter the path of the scenario in a cause and effect manner. Trying ideas and practicing thinking in an atmosphere where failure has no cost enhances the learning process.

Be prepared to let students learn reasoning from you. What better way to build confidence in thinking than by letting students see instructors thinking? Be ready for their questions and when they stump you, let them see you work it out. Even if it includes looking the answer up or researching, what better way to teach them? Your students will learn to value reason and to be able to recognize poor reasoning.

When teaching, there are simple and complex tactics to be used. Complex tactics include reading critically, using scenarios and self-evaluation. When I’m asked to describe reading critically, I usually recall a story about a conversation with my son one night about his homework.

He was getting ready to run out of the house, and I asked him if he had homework. He said, “Oh yeah, I forgot.” He then went upstairs to his room to do his homework. About 15 minutes later, he was back and on his way out. “Wait a minute,” I said. “I thought you had homework.” He responded saying he was already done, as he only had to read a few pages of history. So, I asked what was covered in the material.  “I don’t know,” he responded. “I just had to read it.”

No ‘Ritual Reading’

Critical reading is the opposite of that. Surprisingly, when it comes to reading assignments, many students perform the ritual of reading, but pay little attention to what they are looking at.

Have you ever been reading a book and after a few minutes you realize that your mind has wandered and you’ve been turning pages without grasping what you’ve been reading? Reading critically means paying attention to what you’re reading and going over it until it makes sense – even if it means going on to other resources if needed.

We’ve already discussed the value of scenarios. Self-evaluation is possibly the most important piece as it speaks to confidence and comprehension.

Self-evaluation in the classroom means asking students to review their own responses. This has a double value in that it reinforces an important professional behavior. This self evaluation in the classroom can result in re-evaluation in the field. For EMS this means reassessing patients after treatments and determining whether patients’ needs have been adequately met.

Answering Questions

Simple classroom tactics include calling on students who don’t raise their hands, asking students to summarize what other students have done, requiring students to state the purpose of their assignment and making sure the questions, even when raised one-on-one during the break, find their way into the classroom. You can be sure that if one student had a question, others did too.

Our patients depend on us to think critically. Our students depend on us to give them an opportunity to hone their skills in our classrooms. Instructors have the responsibility to make that happen.

An example of how old this concept is, and a very simple description of how it works, comes from Confucius. He tells us: “Tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me and I’ll remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.”

That’s critical thinking in a nutshell. Experience it yourself. Use it in your work and share it with your students.

Editor’s Note: Will Chapleau, who has 30 years of EMS experience, is the Advanced Trauma Life Support (ATLS) program manager for the American College of Surgeons. He is in charge of trauma training programs for doctors all over the U.S. and in 50 countries around the world. He is the former chief of the Chicago Heights (Ill.) Fire Department. He has served as the chairperson for the Prehospital Trauma Life Support (PHTLS) program since 1996, has been a member of its international faculty since 1984 and is a board member of the National Association of EMS Educators.

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