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A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

ISTE NETS*S Part 4: Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making

 Decisions, decisions . . . This is my fourth article in a series of six about ISTE’s NETS*S (National Educational Technology Standards for Students).  The fourth standard is “Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making.”

Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making

Students use critical thinking skills to plan and conduct research, manage projects, solve problems, and make informed decisions using appropriate digital tools and resources.


  1. identify and define authentic problems and significant questions for investigation.
  2. plan and manage activities to develop a solution or complete a project.
  3. collect and analyze data to identify solutions and/or make informed decisions.
  4. use multiple processes and diverse perspectives to explore alternative solutions. (excerpted from

I don’t know if you’ve been reading all the articles up to this one, but you need to know that I have approached each topic with varying levels of confidence.  I concluded that we’re not doing enough to encourage creativity and innovation, we’re somewhat better with communication and collaboration, and we’ve come a long way with research and information fluency.  But as I sat down to write this installment, I had a bit of an epiphany.  Our success with this technology standard depends completely on how willing we are to let go of the reins and let the students drive their own learning.

I wish I knew the source of the now-famous “sage on the stage versus guide on the side” metaphor for the shift we need to see in education.  Oh look, here’s a webpage that claims to know the origin of the saying.  I’m not even a little surprised that it came out of using inquiry as a tool for critical thinking.  That was apparently written in 1993 about changing college teaching.  But we now have the tools and the experience to know that we should be using inquiry and critical thinking with our youngest students as well.

My epiphany had a “part two”: we don’t do this enough because our society and culture have conditioned students to be afraid of failure.  Most of my students are afraid to bring home anything less than an A.  The grades are what drive their achievement, not the learning.  What they cram for a test is gone within weeks, and all they have learned is how to do well on tests.  Are they using what they’ve learned?  Have they retained anything of value?

My middle school students just finished up a project in which they created short surveys, had fifty or more people respond to them, and then graphed the results for an analysis report.  The older students had a proposed independent variable and dependent variable.  Their graphs should have helped them determine if there was any kind of correlation between the two variables.  I have a speech I give several times over the course of the project, which goes a little something like this: “Sometimes all you find out is that these two things have nothing in common, or if they do, you can’t prove it based on your data.  To say otherwise would be a lie, and will cost you points on the grade.”  I remind them that Thomas Edison had a thousand failed ideas before every successful patent achieved.  I still suspect they don’t believe me.

We are fighting an uphill battle on this one, folks.  How can we get our students to think critically, solve problems, and make decisions, when the dialog inside their minds sounds like this: “Which choice will get me the best grade with the least work? Which choice will make my parents happy? How can I still get an A if I start on this project two days before it is due? Which of my friends is on Facebook right now?”  We need to encourage students to try things out, with the goal of failing more than they succeed, so that they can come to appreciate that we learn and retain much more from our failures than we do from our victories.

For my graduate school cumulative portfolio, I’ve been reviewing Keller’s ARCS model of motivation a lot recently.  ARCS stands for attention, relevance, confidence, and satisfaction.  As I look at the fourth standard, it’s clear to me that if we can apply these four principles of learner motivation to any problem-based project, we can achieve all the goals of the standard while also providing a very meaningful, motivating learning experience for students.  By allowing them to find and choose a problem to solve, we get their attention, keep it relevant to them, enable them to gain confidence by trial and error, and just sit back and watch them derive satisfaction from their results.

Have your students start locally: what is a problem they perceive in the community where they live and attend school?  How can they decide on a problem to solve, develop a solution, and report on their experiences in ways that provide numerous opportunities for decision making?  I’d love to hear what others are doing in their schools.

Image “Decision Making” from Flickr user SimonDoggett, some rights reserved, Creative Commons.


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