Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Beyond Ovals and Pencils: Thinking in the Disciplines

Only the sound of #2 pencils carefully blackening tiny ovals could be heard. On one side of the room sat high school seniors, AP history students. On the other, working historians. All were taking the same test—an assessment that demanded typical school-oriented items: names, dates, events.

When the #2 pencils were put down and the answer sheets were scored, the results surprised the researchers. Many AP history students outscored the historians. In fact, some of the practicing historians knew answers to only a third of the questions!

Round one: students!

The second half of the assessment didn’t require #2 pencils. Researchers presented a collection of historical documents to the two groups. The documents made competing claims that had to be identified, sorted, and interpreted. The historians dove in, excelling at the task and even energized by it. The students were stumped, unaware of how to even start. Though they knew their facts, the students could not form interpretations or reach conclusions when given historical material.1

Round two: historians!

The second half of the assessment required thinking within the discipline. It required historical thinking, not factual recall. Faced with this challenge, the students were stumped. According to Howard Gardner, such results are not surprising: “Most students, including those who attend our best schools and receive the highest grades, are not able to explain the phenomenon about which they are being questioned. Even more alarmingly, many give precisely the same answer as those who have never taken the relevant courses and…never encountered the concepts relevant to a proper explanation…[they] have accumulated plenty of factual or subject matter knowledge, but they have not learned to think in a disciplined manner.”2

If we’re not equipping students to function beyond a multiple choice test, are we really educating them within the disciplines? I realize I’m not the first to ask this question, and I do recognize that factual knowledge plays a role in constructing understanding.

I’ve sat in numerous conference session where presenters admonished us to “engage students in thinking,” and then offered their preferred “tool” for making such activity happen in the classroom.

I always leave these sessions feeling like I am missing something. The generic approach to thinking seems to fit in some disciplines much more naturally than in others, and it seems like I often just ask for more information rather than engaging students in different ways of thinking. I never feel like I know what to teach so my students will know how to think.

So, what are the general characteristics of successful thinking within a discipline? While not intended to be exhaustive, allow me to suggest four possible traits.

First, thinking successfully within a discipline requires deep familiarity with the discipline’s major concepts. Ever seen a commercial where an individual is surrounded, 360°, by words? That’s how I envision the successful thinker within a discipline, surrounded by concepts that are so familiar he can reach out and grab those needed within the moment. He owns the concepts and can use them beneficially. He can illustrate major ideas with examples drawn from the discipline. For example, when a decision requires a careful consideration of structure and function, the scientist may recall and consider cell anatomy, the historian—forms of government, the writer—nonfiction paragraphs. Each would not only understand the decision to be made but also relate it to discipline-based concepts. These concepts can then inform their thinking, possibly leading to better decisions.

Second, thinking successfully within a discipline includes the ability to organize ideas in a wide variety of ways, and in so doing, discover new connections between concepts. For example, we’ve all experienced history taught sequentially. Every textbook I’ve ever used, both as teacher and student, presented history with sequence as its primary structure. But what would happen if we thought of major eras or movements (e.g., the Civil Rights Movement) in different schemes, such as organizing events from most to least influential? or those that involved the greatest number of participants to those that involved the least? Would we find correlations between number of people involved and influence? Would we return to the sequential organization and notice an ebb and flow of significant and common events? What new patterns would we discover? Such thinking empowers new perspectives that can initiate breakthroughs in understanding and generate new knowledge within the discipline.

Third, thinking successfully within a discipline is demonstrated by responding to circumstances with relevant ideas. For example, a historian may raise a simple question: “How did we get here?” She may then attempt to retrace the events that led to the current situation. However, this look back involves more than picking and ordering obvious happenings. Influences will be recognized, entrances and exits of critical contributors will be noted, causes and effects—even indirect examples—will be identified. The historical thinker looks broadly at the past, knowing that influences may never appear in the actual events. Recognizing such influences can illuminate solutions to problems, guidance for decisions, and effective ways to proceed through the current circumstances.

Finally, thinking successfully within a discipline includes recognizing limits of the discipline. Jonah Lehrer makes this point in his book How We Decide. An understanding of basic economics can help us make many choices, such as which of two potato peelers is the better value. However, it cannot help us choose the strawberry jam that tastes the best. In fact, trying to apply numerical reasoning to select the best-tasting jam often results in choices that are ultimately unsatisfying.3 Economics is a valuable discipline, but its usefulness does have limits. Every other discipline possesses the same characteristic, and successful thinking will not try to force the discipline into arenas where it lacks utility.

Obviously, knowing facts, no matter how numerous, does not equal successful thinking within a discipline. If we’re committed to equipping students to function within the disciplines and to use the valuable thinking represented in the disciplines, we have to do more than prepare them for tests requiring #2 pencils.

  1. Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R., eds., How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1999), 146.
  2. Gardner, H. Five Minds for the Future (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2006), 21.
  3. Lehrer, J. How We Decide (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009).


TH said...

I really liked Richard Feynman's term "fragile" knowledge, that he used when someone had just learned formulae from books and didn't know how to apply them to new situations or across contexts.

And an idea that's stuck to my mind from Keith Sawyer, he talks about how important it is to have to explain what you know to someone outside your field. This requires you to step outside the usual jargon and actually explain "in other terms" or using analogies from outside your own field, what it really is that you are doing.

Purview Projects seems to be a great wake-up call to anyone who teaches, or is interested in learning, as it encourages you to dissect the foundations of the way you think.

Todd I. Stark said...

Two thoughts: (1) these are really good, solid principles, and (2) is educational theory really so far removed from other sciences and modern practices in other fields that these are considered *revolutionary* ideas? They seem so fundamental and sensible to me. Maybe I've been living in a rarified atmosphere.