ThinkCERCA™ teaches critical thinking through argumentative writing using a proprietary argument-building tool and online lessons. Lessons are available for grades three through twelve plus an additional level labeled higher education. Students can access lessons anytime from most devices with an Internet connection, although a computer will probably work best.
On the homepage, the default view is of options under ELA (English Language Arts). You will see a number of tabs, but the Full Core Curriculum button will take you into the heart of ThinkCERCA. There are also additional lessons targeting specific skills under buttons on the homepage that are labeled: Writing Arguments, Writing Narratives, Writing Informative Texts, Reading Informational Texts, Reading Literature, Speaking and Listening, and Language. If you click on Math, Science, or Social Studies on the homepage, the view changes to show your topics at the top with "Skills Lessons and Direct instruction" lessons at the bottom. So ThinkCERCA helps teach a broad range of writing skills. However, in this review, I concentrate only on the Full Core Curriculum.
Parents or teachers can assign topics as they wish by creating a “class,” entering students, and assigning lessons. To access, begin by selecting one of four subject areas at the top of the homepage: English Language Arts, Social Studies, Science, or Math. Then click on the Full Core Curriculum button. Under each subject area, you will be presented with a number of general content areas. For example, clicking on Social Studies, I get the content areas: Civics, European History, Geography, World History, and United States History. Under each content area, you can get a list of narrower topics. For example, under European History, some of the topics are The Art of the Renaissance, Christopher Columbus, and Thomas Paine and the Philosophy of Revolutions. Click on one of these narrower topics to get to actual lessons. You can select a particular grade level from the home page, or you can do so within each narrow topic. For each grade level there will be a writing prompt on that topic that is suitable for the selected grade level.
Clicking on Christopher Columbus and selecting the lesson for third grade, brings up the writing prompt: “Why is the connection Columbus made between Europe and the Americas important?” Sixth, seventh, and eighth graders are given the prompt: “Should people celebrate Columbus Day?” Eleventh and twelfth graders are presented with the more provocatively-phrased prompt: “Was the greed and violence Columbus inflicted an inevitable outcome of the Old World meeting the New World? Why or why not?”
Some topics require students to really argue a position while others seem to require students to simply provide information. For example, the prompt, “How does homeostasis maintain glucose levels? What happens when those systems malfunction?” requires students to do little more than locate information within the companion article and parrot it back in their own words. Still, there are plenty of prompts that should provoke student interest and develop argumentation skills.
Students work through a complete, six-step lesson on each writing prompt.
- Connect: Students are presented with a question such as, “Should the elderly have robotic pets or is human companionship better?” This is followed by a brief article that overviews the topic. Students then have a box on the screen where they are to write some of their own thoughts and experiences related to the topic. In this case, the prompts ask: “Write about a situation you experienced or saw when technology did the job that a human may have done in the past. How was the technology helpful? Were there any downsides to the technology?”
- Read: A lengthier article presents more information on both sides of the question. This is followed by a set of multiple-choice questions to ensure that students comprehended the article. Answers are entered online and are scored immediately.
- Engage with the text: Students reread the article with the original question in mind. Students are also provided with two different-colored, online highlighter tools to use to mark up the article. They should use one color to identify points supporting one side of the question and the other color for opposing points.
- Summarize: Students are presented with a frame in which they are to write their own summary of the article. Sample sentences that are incomplete help them develop a thesis sentence and the points supporting both sides of the question.
- Build an argument: On-screen instructions assist students as they marshal arguments to support their own position on the question. Students write their claim in space provided on the screen.
- Create your CERCA (argumentative paper): Students write their argumentative paper on the computer using work they have done in previous steps. Online helps and tips are readily available.
The process is excellent for developing writing skills, especially for position papers. Third and fourth graders might struggle with the process, but it should be ideal for students beyond those levels. For example, the writing prompt “Should the United Nations continue peacekeeping missions in the Middle East?” that is given to third graders seems more appropriate for older students. Parents or teachers can always assign a lesson from a different grade level if they wish even though the program defaults to the lesson identified for the student’s grade level.
Some lessons include more than one source article to allow students to draw on a wider range of information as they should be doing by junior high and high school level. The folks at ThinkCERCA are working at creating more lessons that use multiple sources. Theoretically, parents or teachers can ask students to do additional reading or research before writing their final papers, but I think that the "self-contained nature of ThinkCERCA is one of its most appealing features.
At some point, students need to move beyond ThinkCERCA to do their own research and writing, but that shouldn't be until after they have mastered the process within the program.
Parents or teachers can evaluate student work online. The program shows the student work on the left side of the screen and an evaluation rubric on the right. Comments can be added in pop-up boxes. There is also a “quick score” option, but it will generally be best to give student scores with comments using the evaluation rubric. The program tracks student assignments and scores.
The program was designed with group classes in mind. There are definitely benefits from using ThinkCERCA in a group class since students can hone their skills through discussions and by testing their arguments orally before writing their final papers. (Albeit, a student can do this with a parent, but it’s not the same as a peer process.) Nevertheless, the lessons are well laid out for students working independently, a feature that should make ThinkCERCA very useful for homeschooling families.