April 12, 2006

Spelling It Out

In a recent interview, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said:

Really, it'’s across the board. One of the things we know is that our elementary school curricula need to have more higher-order thinking skills embedded in them. Fractions, number line - things that really are precursors to being able to do more rigorous work in middle school and high school. Less repetition, less computation over and over.

Another, less pompous, name for "higher-order thinking skills" is "thinking skills." Last I checked, this was the biggest buzzword in education. Everyone says they teach "higher-order thinking skills." And yet, when we look at student achievement, we see students unable to use these higher-order thinking skills they've supposedly been taught to solve simplistic math and reading problems. Oops.

Of course, we already know that you need to know a lot of stuff (let's call it knowledge) before these thinking skills can do you much good. It's difficult to think when you don't have much to think about. But, in most schools the acquisition of knowledge, or facts, is downplayed as being rote learning.

Spellings got the fraction and number line thing right, though I'd hardly call these higher-order thinking skills. They're more like critical basic skills anyone studying algebra or calculus needs to know cold. Which brings us to Spellings' concluding sentence:

Less repetition, less computation over and over.

Hmmm. Clearly, Spellings doesn't talk to cognitive scientists much.

Apparently, Spellings believes that academic learning is unlike any other form of human endeavor in which mastery of skills requires lots of practice (or as Spellings puts it -- repetition). Academic learning is like magic -- we just learn. Little practice is necessary. Just embed higher-order thinking skills in everything that gets taught. Education crisis solved. We can all go home now.

Practice of basic skills and learning of facts leads to mastery and automaticity. Automaticity of basic skills frees up the brain so it can attend to other things, such as -- wait for it -- higher order thinking skills.

Don't forget that we already know that the more effective instructional programs build lots of practice in. Usually, 4-5 times as much as the typical instructional program.

Sounds like Secretary Spellings needs a bit more practice using her higher-order thinking skills.

Catherine Johnson said...

Here's a Zig line:

This design provides for some “overlearning,” but having the program err in the direction of providing too much practice is better than providing too little practice.

page 2

(Where does he have his line about 4 to 5 times as much practice as in ordinary programs?)

Catherine Johnson said...

For what it's worth, Robert Sternberg argues that the research cited by Willingham is wrong....What Is An Expert Student?

The results of three sets of studies suggest that the theory of successful intelligence serves as a potentially useful way to teach in school. This way of teaching differs from that emphasized by some other conceptions of expertise, such as of Ericsson (1996) or Gardner (1993, 1999). Ericsson (1996) and Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer (1993) emphasize the role of deliberate practice in acquiring expertise. Such practice is indeed important in many fields, especially in performance-based domains such as music, athletics, or chess. It appears, however, to be necessary but not sufficient in other kinds of domains. Becoming an expert physicist, composer, or teacher, for example, seems to require a blend of creative (generate ideas), analytical (evaluate the ideas), and practical thinking (make the ideas work and convince others of their worth) that goes substantially beyond deliberate practice (Sternberg, 2003).

I think this is a distinction without a difference.

First of all, Sternberg is talking about teaching, not learning. I don't think any good teacher would teach strictly practice and memorization FIRST and only then teach meaning, thinking, connections, etc.

Willingham's argument isn't that teachers should teach procedures and facts alone, and let expert knowledge emerge when it emerges.

His argument is that normal human learning starts out concrete and specific and only later becomes abstract, generalizable, and 'flexible.'

Still, it's worth taking a look at Sternberg. He's at Yale; he's well-known; and educators know this article I assume. (This article was distributed to our curriculum committee.)

Catherine Johnson said...

I wonder what's really going on out there??

Why does Spellings feel she needs to criticize practice?

Are there schools where kids spend too much time practicing?

Or does she need to frame her remarks this way to persuade educators to listen?

KDeRosa said...

(Where does he have his line about 4 to 5 times as much practice as in ordinary programs?)

I'm pretty certain it's buried in Student-Program Alignment and Teaching to Mastery.

KDeRosa said...

Still, it's worth taking a look at Sternberg. He's at Yale; he's well-known; and educators know this article I assume.

The problem with cog sci studies is that even if what they say is true an instructional program still needs to be designed that incorpates the findings. Then that program needs to be tested to see if its effective.

Engelmann has already designed an efective instructional program around masteryand practice. Engelmann validates Willingham (or whomever did the underlyingstudies). No one has validated Sternberg's studies yet. When someone does we'll know he was right. In the meantime, his theory is just that -- still a theory when it comes to its application to instruction.

Anonymous said...

I assign Willingham in my teaching methods class. My students, soon to student teach, love what he has to say, which often validates what they already think. His article on learning styles in summer 2005 is excellent.