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.


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.