Monday, February 15, 2010

Let's Banish Critical Thinking, Part 2: Learn

Kyle examined his bookmarks. If he’d printed out all the information he’d found the paper would pile up to well over an inch high. Even though he’d been discerning in the references he noted, the information available was overwhelming and defeating, an obstacle that prevented Kyle from moving past the data collecting stage of his project. Whether he chose the traditional approach and wrote a paper or the technological option of a multimedia presentation, Kyle couldn’t communicate ideas he didn’t yet “own” himself, and the list of bookmarks represented more than he could ever apprehend.

His teacher expected evidence of his learning, but Kyle lacked the know-how that could enable his success. Kyle was a successful student in traditional classrooms, but he did not know how to learn, especially when he was responsible for the process.

As teachers we tend to focus on our teaching and assume students know how to learn. It’s a natural perspective—we teach, students learn. Focusing on learning can seem misdirected because what we’re going to do in the classroom demands our immediate concern—it’s what we describe in the required lesson plans. However, failing to focus on student learning capacity produces the predicament Kyle faced: expectation without enablement.

I suggested in the previous post that we examine thinking as a target. “Memorize” formed the target’s outermost ring. Learning represents a movement toward the target’s center and beyond mere recall. In fact, we’re moving from a relatively straightforward process (rehearse→remember→recall) to more complicated combinations of processes.

Learning often involves four core processes, or four “states” of thinking. (Thinking is more fluid than the term states suggests, but this simplification can help us understand its flow.) Through experience, the brain gains raw sensory data. During comprehension, the brain sorts, labels, and organizes the raw sensory data. Through elaboration, the brain examines the organized data for patterns, recalls relevant prior experiences, and blends the new data with your experiences to construct understanding. During application the brain practices using or expressing the new understanding. There’s much more that could be said just about these core processes (an entire chapter of The Architecture of Learning explores these in depth), but allow me to move on and introduce a related idea.

The influential book 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times argues for a greater emphasis on “Learning and Innovation Skills.” Such skills, explain authors Trilling and Fadel, “are the keys to unlocking a lifetime of learning and creative work.”1 We should increase instruction in the skills of learning, not just guide student learning of core subject matter. In other words, we need to place more value and emphasis on teaching students how to self-teach (or self-learn). We need to teach them how to engage learning’s core processes; we need to teach them the thinking skills that enable self-directed learning.

As we explore learning’s core processes in detail, a myriad of related skills emerge. Here’s a partial chart I’ve compiled. (Click on the table to enlarge it.) All these skills either contribute to a core process or engage a combination of learning’s core processes.

Going deeper, learning to learn becomes even more interesting (or complex, depending on your perspective), but what we can actually teach comes into focus. For example, a group of educators in Philadelphia took part of the very first skill (identifying, clarifying, and phrasing questions) and discussed, “What is the range of this skill? What do its initial steps of development look like? What would its fullest expression look like?” After we grappled with these concepts, we considered when instruction for each step might begin and where it might mature to mastery. Here’s what evolved: As we saw this potential scope emerge, the group became excited. For the first time, many of them felt they knew what to teach to equip students to think critically. (I know, I used the term I’m advocating we banish!) My response, and what I still believe, is that we identified, at least in part, the skills we could teach that would equip students to learn independently. Learning is not separate from thinking but dependent on it:
What we know results from what and how we think. Researcher and critical thinking expert Diane F. Halpern explains:

Knowledge is not something static that gets transferred from one person to another like pouring water from one glass to another. It is dynamic. Information becomes knowledge when we make our own meaning out of it…[We] create knowledge every time we learn a new concept.

Educator Laura Erlauer agrees, explaining that thinking processes “allow the brain to thoroughly understand the new concepts and internalize them into meaningful memories.” Learning is a product of thinking.2

Where does that leave us? Here are a few possible conclusions:
  • Learning is more than memorizing. It engages cognitive processes (comprehension, elaboration, application) that extend beyond rehearsal and recall. Learning is powered by thinking, and learning provides new material for thinking. (As one commenter on the last post put it, you have to have something to think about.)
  • Teaching students how to become learners requires helping them develop these cognitive processes and their associated skills/sub-skills.
  • The associated skills possess “steps” of development that provide more specific direction for what we can emphasize in the classroom.
  • Teaching these skills should be our priority. Everything else, such as the specific topics we teach, should be the material students learn through practice in using these skills. In other words, these skills should “drive” the curriculum. That does not mean we do not teach the traditional disciplines, but that the traditional disciplines are a means to the desired end of equipping self-directed learners.
I realize this leaves plenty of unanswered questions, such as:
  • What are the developmental steps for all the other skills?
  • What about problem solving? creativity? reasoning?
  • How can we “cover” the mandated curriculum while teaching students the skills to become self-directed learners?
  • How does teaching students to become self-directed learners aid achievement as measured on standardized testing?
  • Are there approaches we can use that would engage students in utilizing these skills while becoming knowledgeable of new subject matter?
I’ll address some of these in future posts, but honestly, I don’t have answers to all of them. It seems current educational mandates and structures hinder good answers to some of these critical questions (and produce the very problems Kyle faced). Changing direction likely requires a rethinking of current emphases and structures.

But then you probably already knew that.

  1. Trilling, B. & Fadel, C., 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009), 49.
  2. Washburn, K.D., The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain (Pelham, AL: Clerestory Press, 2010), 186).

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Here's a Thought: Let's Banish Critical Thinking

I’ve been thinking about thinking lately, and I’ve had it with critical thinking. Note the italics. I’ve had it with the term critical thinking, not the actual practice. From a recent immersion in thinking-related research, I’ve concluded that critical thinking is like the weather: everybody talks about it but few do anything about it.

No arena bandies the term about as widely as education. Few conferences fail to include at least one session devoted to the topic, and book vendors at these events hawk the latest tomes dedicated to it. Educators seem to agree on the need for students to learn to think critically, but that seems to be the end of their consensus. Ask three different educators for their definition of critical thinking and you’re likely to get at least four different ideas, and at least half of them will include a nod to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Somewhere in our history, many of us were convinced that if our questioning climbed a ladder and we called on students whose names we wrote on popsicle sticks and pulled randomly from a styrofoam cup, we were teaching students critical thinking.

Because of the confusion all these preconceived notions create, I propose that we stop talking about critical thinking and instead just think about thinking. To that end, I’ve started referencing a different model. Imagine thinking as a target. As any marksman knows, the center of the target is where you aim if you want the best result. However, though the center of this target represents the ultimate goal, the outer circles are not without value. Let’s examine the first of these outer circles: memorize.

Wait, don’t stop reading! I know memorizing lacks the flash and appeal of the target’s other circles, but our brains do indeed memorize information, sometimes without our consent. For example, I know every lyric to the 70’s classic but somewhat mind-numbing “Funkytown.” I never intentionally sat down and used flash cards to learn the lyrics. They just got stuck in my head, which is one way to define memorizing. We memorize when things get stuck in our heads, on purpose or otherwise.

When educators talk about memorizing, it’s usually with a scowl on their faces and the taste of battery acid on their tongues. Memorizing is so beneath us. We don’t have students memorize anything. Everything we teach is meaningful. It’s all the others—teachers who teach other disciplines—who make students memorize unnecessary information. We’re above such an approach. We climb questioning ladders and pull popsicle sticks, for pete’s sake!

But let’s be honest. Despite the fact that most everything factual can now be found quickly via technology, some information still possesses its greatest value when it’s memorized. At its best, memorizing enables efficiency in thinking and acting. For example, knowing how to spell the words critical and thinking saved me plenty of time in developing this post. If I didn’t know instantly how to spell most of the words I use in writing, I’d probably have far less to say. (I know what you’re thinking: that’d be a bad thing?) Can you imagine trying to compose any significant passage of writing if you had to stop and check your wireless device for the correct spelling of every word?

I once had an experience that provides a picture of what this might be like. My wife and I love going to the theater for live performances. One time, just before the curtain was raised on a new drama, the announcer spoke via the public address system: “Today the role of Countess Calista will be played by Jane Smith, script in hand.” Apparently the lead actress and her understudy were unavailable. Sure enough, Ms. Smith waltzed onto stage with “script in hand,” and read her lines throughout the performance. It was disjointed and distracting. So much so that I can’t even remember the name of play, let alone what it was about. Memorizing has its place, even when technology that can provide the next line or correct spelling exists.

However, at its worse, memorization becomes merely testable material that lacks any use beyond the end of an instructional unit. With such material, its measurability is often its sole benefit, and it’s a benefit for the teacher not the student. Unfortunately it seems that many schools would rather aim for this outermost circle, decreasing the likelihood of hitting any part of the thinking target. But if we aim for and even hit this outermost circle, we have problems. Memorizing, while valuable when engaged selectively, has its limits.

First, students who only memorize remain subject to dogma’s sway. Parroting is evidence of memorizing, and a student who has highly developed memorizing capacity without equally developed processing abilities will tend to repeat the ideas of others, often without understanding.

Second and relatedly, students only equipped to memorize tend to accept without question. Such individuals tend to take the words that fall from the mouths of people they like and repeat them whether they are true or not. Since they lack the ability to process the ideas the words represent, accepting and repeating those words become the individual’s way of “thinking.”

Third, individuals who rely solely on memorizing as thinking cannot entertain or even understand conflicting ideas. That which they’ve memorized becomes their sole reference, so anything new must conform with the previously memorized information.

In short, merely memorizing severely limits an individual. So, while hitting the outermost circle represents one element of mental activity, always aiming there produces individuals I don’t think most schools and teachers would claim as their intended outcome. We need to consider the inner circles (and we will in future posts) and actually teach students the cognitive skills associated with them. Popsicle sticks and questioning variety alone won’t get us there.

Let’s think about thinking—teaching it, increasing it, developing students who actually can do it—but let’s leave our confusing dance with critical thinking behind.

Top Image: 'la linea della vita, nichilismo'