I have always wanted to enhance the critical thinking skills of my students using different activities when I happened to stumble upon The New York Times Learning Network resources on “What’s Going On In This Picture”, a tool to teach critical thinking using visual thinking strategies.
I used this picture and asked my English class three questions - “What do you think could be going on in this picture?” “What did you see that made you say so?”, “What more can you find?”
I knew that I needed to give the children ample time to not feel rushed and at the same time carefully observe all the details before they could come up with their observations and inferences. I informed them that they would have 15 minutes to view the entire picture and write down what they observed.
Sarah was skeptical of inferring from a picture but I told her to first make her observation and then make inferences. Hanan raised her hand in 3 seconds and started describing the picture. I had to stop her and told her to first write down her thoughts on paper. That would give her an opportunity to observe carefully, recheck her observations and change/modify her thoughts or ideas if needed.
I wanted each student to observe, re-observe, come to a conclusion and form ideas confidently. Then, later, based on the others’ observations, they could change or modify their own opinions. This would teach them to observe more carefully the next time, thinking with varied perspectives before jumping to conclusions. This skill cannot be taught in any class by lectures. The children need to learn to develop a sharp eye for detail and correct their own way of thinking when and where necessary.
I did not want the children to be in a hurry to form conclusions to prove they knew the answer. My students took 30 minutes and each one was allowed to describe what they observed. They were allowed to comment on the peers’ observations and modify their own understanding based on others’ views.
Izaan started the conversation saying the farmer lady was trying to cover the entire field with a net, maybe she wanted to protect her crop from a locust attack. I was thrilled to know they were aware of the recent news of the locust infestation in India. Last year, we had to really insist on newspaper reading at school but this year kids knew what was happening around them even if it was through the news on TV.
Sarah told me she felt like the lady was clearing a spider’s web but then, based on the others’ observations, she now believed it was a net she was spreading. Hafsa postured that these were paddy or wheat fields and the woman was probably protecting the crops from the birds. Khadija pitched in saying that it must be a village because there was a lot of greenery around as well which is difficult to find in a city. She also pointed out that the lady probably lived close by, as she was working alone on the field. They saw a building in the vicinity and concluded that the farmer woman probably lived in it.
Muhsin said that it must be cold in the early morning as she is wearing a full-sleeved coat and has covered her head. He was also surprised at the enormity of the job of covering the field which was huge as the net extended throughout the field in the background as far as the eye could observe. They came to the conclusion that she was pulling the net over the crop using a stick as they could see the net around the stick. Khadija observed the woman’s expression and noted that it must be strain on the woman to pull the net using a stick.
Hanan added that she must have regularly worked on the fields as she had tanned skin and the bandana on the head showed that it could be cold. She also spotted that there was a grasshopper trapped under the net but it was not very clear if it was really a grasshopper. They all chorused that it was a wheat field except Sarah who felt the grass was too tall as it was up to the lady’s shoulder. I drew their attention to the grain on the grass but, sadly, since these children live in the city, they were unable to recognize the paddy crop. I reminded them about their visit to Sirudavur paddy fields last year to get them to connect that it was paddy that they were looking at.
Initially, Sarah observed that it was probably evening time because it was bright enough but the sun or sunlight is not seen so the sun was probably setting behind the trees. Much of the sky was not seen in the picture so Sarah later changed her guess to it being early morning. She supported her argument with the fact that the birds were not there in the fields to eat the grain.
I nudged them to comment on the ethnicity of the woman and they said, it’s probably NE India or Assam or maybe even Indo-Nepal border but we finally generalised that she was Asian.
The caption was revealed to the students at the end of the class, “This is how crop is protected in Java-by covering it with a fishing net.” from the section Your Evening Briefing on NYT Now.
This took an entire 50-minute class but there was the satisfaction of my students embarking on a journey of not just observing carefully for minute details but also providing supporting evidence to justify their claims. These are the first steps to developing higher order thinking and questioning skills. What more can we ask for?!