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Teaching Critically
Is Worth the Effort

With all the pressures to prepare for tests and stick with the curriculum, some teachers feel they are losing teachable moments. But it is just those moments, argues Mary Cowhey, which can help students develop as critical, creative thinkers. Included: Ideas for teaching critically.

Too often, teachers are reluctant to wander from their lesson plans prescribed path, even though a detour could lead to discussions that force students to think more critically and creatively.

Mary Cowhey, who has been teaching first and second grade at Jackson Street School in Northampton, Massachusetts, for ten years, discovered the benefits of one of these detours thanks to the presence of a black ant in her classroom. While some children were prepared to stomp on it, another child held them off, saying it was wrong to kill another living thing just because they did not like it. This led to a discussion of why some people think it is fine to squash ants and others dont and differences in peoples beliefs.

Inspired by her discussions with her classes, Cowhey wrote to help other educators look at their lessons differently.

Mary Cowhey

Cowhey has won numerous awards for her teaching, including a Milken National Educator Award, an Anti-Defamation League World of Difference Teacher Recognition Award, and a National League of Women Voters award. Before becoming a teacher, she was a community organizer for 14 years.

Cowhey talked with Education World about ways teachers can promote critical teaching and thinking.

Education World: How would you define teaching critically?

Mary Cowhey: Teaching critically means that teachers and students are actively involved in constructing, questioning, and deepening the curriculum, probing its relevance and connection to the daily lives of students and their families. For both teacher and student, it means thinking critically and learning to learn. What might arise as a question or a conflict (inevitably poorly timed in relation to my best-laid plans) can crystallize into a series of essential questions that can guide our inquiry for months. In the process of the investigation, we often develop a passionate motivation to apply authentic skills in reading, writing (speeches, e-mails, letters of inquiry or thanks, news articles, etc.), listening, speaking, research, handwriting, math, and science. Here are a few examples of questions generated by first and second graders:

  • Why do some people think it is not okay to crush ants? Do they see the world differently than people who think it is okay?
  • Who thought up the weird idea that white people are better than black people and why did anyone believe them?
  • Is it better to save the trees or the tent caterpillars? If humans have a right to eat plants, then why wouldnt tent caterpillars? If humans didnt cut down so many trees, would tent caterpillars be considered a problem?

EW: What are the major obstacles to teaching critically in today's classrooms?


"If we dont have time to respond to the intellectual curiosity of our students, we need to ask ourselves why we are teaching.

Cowhey: What I am hearing from teachers around the country is that the overwhelming pressure to teach to standardized tests gets in the way of their ability to teach critically. Another factor is that many teachers say they dont have training or experience (and therefore confidence) in teaching outside of the box. Some teachers fear a lack of administrative support and others feel nervous about how teaching critically would be received by parents.

EW: What would you say to teachers who say they like your ideas, but don't have time to stop for discussions about black ants or sewage?

Cowhey: I would humbly encourage them to try it, to see where it can go. Particularly in inner-city schools, teachers are increasingly being handed scripted curriculum and pacing guides. We need to recognize that such control over teachers is taking power out of teachers hands.

Teachers need to organize with colleagues and particularly among parents to have real discussions about the relevance and effectiveness of such restrictions on teachers. I dont believe there is educational benefit for students to simply plow through a script or march through a pacing guide if the content of the curriculum is not made meaningful to the students. Repeatedly practicing how to take standardized reading tests may ultimately raise reading scores on standardized tests, but it will it turn kids into lifelong readers? Will it get them excited about learning? Will it raise the level of participation in democracy? Teachers need to take a stand for good teaching. If we dont have time to respond to the intellectual curiosity of our students, we need to ask ourselves why we are teaching.

EW: What are a few things teachers could do in their classrooms to promote critical thinking and social justice?

Cowhey: One of the simplest yet most radical things a teacher can do is to question the status quo, to internalize this practice as a habit of mind.

Basically, I start small, right where I am. I ask a lot of questions. I try to really listen to children and learn from them.

I was invited to speak at an educational conference at a large university in another state. Bottled water and canned soda were served. During the lunch break, I brought my empty water bottle over to the table where Id gotten it and looked for a recycling container. I did not see one, but I noticed many of the water bottles and aluminum cans in the trash, dozens of them. I asked a couple of teachers standing nearby where I should put the cans and bottles for recycling and each responded that she didnt know. I asked one of the conference organizers, who taught at the university. She said the university didnt have a recycling program.

I was a little surprised, but she was busy with program details. I asked another teacher if there was recycling in the state. She said of course. A student teacher told me she thought there might be a box for paper recycling on the second floor. I asked a food service worker if she had a plastic bag I could use to separate out the cans and bottles. She also told me the university did not recycle, but gave me a bag. I started sorting.

She started to help as we continued to talk. Another teacher came over to help and asked if I was going to bring them with me to recycle. I laughed and said no, that I was getting back on a plane to fly home in a few hours. She said that she had a car and would be happy to take the cans and bottles to recycle. We made a sign near the trashcan; I asked one of the conference organizers to announce that there was a bag to put the cans and bottles in that someone had volunteered to take to recycle.

With about five short conversations and a bit of oral and written language (a sign and an announcement) we were able to change the status quo by diverting at least 200 plastic bottles and aluminum cans out of the landfill or incineration waste stream.

I dont know if any of the education professors followed up by reflecting with their student teachers about that story or inspired any investigation or action to starting a can and bottle recycling program at the university, but surely they could have. Not only would the university community get a recycling program, but those student teachers would gain some authentic experience in critical teaching. It would seem a natural part of teaching and learning.

What made me stop and think about recycling at the conference was that last year one of my students proposed we do a can and bottle drive to help get food and water for Hurricane Katrina survivors. He was a resourceful low-income student who lived in a housing project near the school. As a second grader, he was already an experienced can collector who earned money by cashing in bottles and aluminum cans for their deposits.

He taught all of us how to identify which ones could be turned in for deposits, and which could be recycled. We made posters and announcements, collected, estimated, sorted, counted, multiplied, cashed in and recycled hundreds of cans and bottles. That student had left school in the middle of kindergarten, after repeated suspensions for angry, violent outbursts and was out of school for a year and a half. He was socially awkward and unsure if he belonged when he re-entered school last September as a member of my class.


"I dont believe there is educational benefit for students to simply plow through a script or march through a pacing guide if the content of the curriculum is not made meaningful to the students."

On that first day of school, he was outraged that Americans in New Orleans had no water to drink, and he had a kid-powered and kid-possible idea to address it. When I looked in the university trash can and saw it full of cans and bottles, I was inspired by the image of that powerful and determined child. He helped me overcome my apprehension that conference attendees might find it inappropriate (or downright tacky) to see their keynote speaker rummaging through the trash barrels or that my question might offend my hosts. I did not know any of them very well, but I had high expectations for their ability to learn and trusted their willingness to rethink the status quo.

EW: What has surprised you the most about children's responses to your lessons?

Cowhey: I am not surprised that the children say brilliant and insightful things and ask profound questions, but I love when they do. I am not surprised when children make connections between the books we read and issues in their lives and the larger world, but I love when they do. I am not surprised when my students are brave, confident, and articulate, but I feel pleased and proud.

I suppose I was surprised my first year or two of teaching, when I was just learning what 6-and 7-year-olds were like and what they were capable of. When I talk about my students, people often ask me if there is something special about them, insinuating that perhaps I teach in a program for gifted children. Many of my students are English- language-learners; some have individual education plans. Some enter second grade not knowing the alphabet and some read above grade level. Many are eligible to receive free lunch. Some of their parents are professionals and some are service workers. Some have survived trauma and some continue to experience trauma. My students represent a cross-section of my community. I quickly came to realize that all children are brilliant and capable.

In classrooms in which I have had the opportunity to visit, teach, or interact with children from San Diego, California, to Greenwich, England, to Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa, I find children can do this. The challenge, the pride and joy of my work is showing the children, their families, and everyone else just how true that is.

EW: Have you received any criticism about your approach?

Cowhey: Sure. I devoted a whole chapter (Going Against the Grain) in Black Ants and Buddhists to the issue of criticism. I teach my students that they must feel safe enough in our classroom community to take risks if they really want to challenge themselves to learn. It is the same for teachers in a school. When I started teaching, I was considered an odd duck. In the spring of my first year, some teachers approached the principal with a list of complaints about my non-conformity. In the ten years Ive been teaching at my school, the culture has shifted significantly, largely due to the leadership efforts of our principal. Theres genuine respect and appreciation for a diversity of teaching styles.

Good teachers keep learning. I dont live in fear of criticism. I am interested in criticism, to see what I can learn from it and how I can improve my practice. I always try to be thoughtful, but criticism makes me even more thoughtful and reflective. That doesnt necessarily mean Ill stop doing what I do, but Ill think harder about it, and probably do it better. My practice is always evolving.

This e-interview with Mary Cowhey is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World


Originally published 10/25/2006
Last updated 12/31/2009