September 17, 2006

Critical Thinking, Not False Dilemmas

Today's installment of educational soft thinking comes courtesy of the L.A. Times in a piece entitled Critical Thinking, Not Standardized Tests. Odd that an article calling for more critical thinking starts off with a logical fallacy dontchathink? I suppose the teacher who wrote this piece never heard of a test of critical thinking.
I'M BEGINNING my 20th year of teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and if I've learned anything, it is that good teaching cannot be measured quantitatively.
A truly smart person would cut his losses at this point. Nothing that follows that line could possibly be worth reading. Fortunately for you, I'm not smart.

Of course you can measure good teaching quantitatively. Test the students. The measure of what the students learned is a good indication of how well the teacher taught. The author of the article is confusing teaching with presentation. A common mistake.
Every year, we hear administrators crowing or politicians moaning over student test scores as if these numbers were indisputable indicators of teaching excellence, mediocrity or failure. In fact, test scores (on the annual standardized state test) are like the closing prices on the stock exchange. They fluctuate for any number of reasons. A bad breakfast, a case of the jitters or skipping a line and filling in the wrong bubbles can wreak as much havoc as not knowing the difference between "abjure" and "adjure."
Another skillful use of the hungry Einstein defense coupled with a masterful use of passive voice. I didn't see that that one coming.
Likewise, teaching to the test can inflate scores but, given no context, all this random information is seldom retained.
Actually, based on those same test scores they're not even retaining it for the test.
As a result, evaluating a teacher based solely on student test scores is like evaluating a corporation based solely on just one day's stock price.
This seems like a good argument for more testing. But, tests are bad. I'm so confused.
If you really want to evaluate a teacher, you have to walk into a classroom, sit down and listen. I'm convinced that when you're listening to good teaching, you hear a familiar refrain. It goes like this: What is the connection between … and … ? So much of good teaching is about taking strands of information and looking for connections and broadening the context.
See what happens when you teach critical thinking in favor of facts. When you try to teach connections students only hear: "What is the connection between … and … ?" Then they fail their state exams and you wind up writing an op-ed for the LA Times blaming their failure on a lack of breakfast.
Endless test preparation has the opposite effect. It shrinks the context. It reduces inquiry. It mitigates against Socratic dialogue and can drain much of the passion from teaching and learning.
Endless test prep is the last resort of desperate schools who don't know how to teach their charges. It does not follow that more "inquiry" is the answer.
If we can get beyond the notion of schools as testing factories, then teachers will have the freedom to strive for a higher standard of excellence.
Oh what short memories we have. It was that freedom that produced the poor learning that got us in this testing mess in the first place.
Part of that higher standard would include the teaching of critical thinking. How does a teacher do that? By creating an academic environment in which students can sift through the mass of facts being hurled at them and begin to perceive pathways of interconnectedness.
What is critical thinking anyway? Isn't merely knowing a lot of stuff and being about to think about it. You need to know the stuff in the first place though before you can teach the thinking part. And, I'm thinking if you're going to refer to your teaching of the underlying facts as "the mass of facts being hurled at them," you're probably not doing something right.
The irony is that young students begin by making connections. They're taught to check their subtraction by adding. They can see that a rectangle can be divided into two triangles. They know there's some link between the Pledge of Allegiance and the flag hanging from the wall. They connect classroom behavior with a specific code of conduct.
Begin by what? Making connections? Between what? It's those things you need to start with, not the connection.
The challenge for teachers is to build on that foundation, to encourage students to seek connections between, say, fractions and percentages, or between lobbying and legislation, or between Copernicus and Darwin, or between the main characters in two different novels.
But the tests are telling us that the kids don't know all this stuff in the first place. How are they going to make connections between stuff they don't know?
I like to ask my students why the food in India, Africa and Mexico is so much spicier than the food in Ireland, Iceland and Finland. Typically, lots of theories are advanced and eventually (and perhaps with some guidance) students use their knowledge of geography, chemistry, botany and economics to make the connections that will lead to an explanation. We teachers call this "thinking across the curriculum."
Except that when teachers make students "thinking across the curriculum," students learn about about geography, chemistry, botany and economics in math class instead of learning math. So, the hurling of a mass of facts really isn't a good thing after all.
Once students start seeing how and why seemingly disparate topics are related, and more important, once they start looking for and making those connections, then the teacher will have performed that special kind of classroom alchemy — turning passive receivers of knowledge into active participants in the learning process.

The answer to the spice question: First, spices grow in equatorial regions; and, second, in hotter climes, food rots more quickly, so spices were needed to preserve the food and, later, to mask the rancid smell.
Just look at all the stuff the hapless student has to know to make these magical connections. And, yet this teacher fails to devote even one word that shows us that he recognizes how important it is for students to have properly learned all this stuff in the first place. mayb e that's why his students aren't making the connections and not doing well on the state tests. As always the answer is to get rid of the tests. Shoot the messenger.


rory said...


rory said...

Check out the authors background for some context.

Instructivist said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Instructivist said...

"The author of the article is confusing teaching with presentation. A common mistake."

That's one way of looking at it. But I think there is more. Proponents of this view typically fancy themselves of being above quantifiable humdrum knowledge and of teaching something ineffable. By its nature, they can't say what it is except to prattle on about "critical thinking" for which there seem to be no concrete examples.