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March 22, 2011

Critical Thinking...huh?

Critical Thinking...huh?

By Kathy Reschini Sweeney

BrooklynCollege_Classroom I love teaching.  I really do.  Yes, I only do it part-time and I teach college students, not little kids. But here is the bad news - these students are starting to scare the hell out of me.  And I am not alone.

Lest you blame any one institution or geographic area, be assured I have discussed this issue with teachers at all levels all over the county, and from an educational standpoint, it's an epidemic.  The bad kind.

We all know that No Child Left Behind was less than successful (that is what we call a grotesque understatement, but I don't want this to get political).  This generation of kids has been taught to take tests. This means they get an information dump, take a test, then flush it out and start on the next set of facts.

As a result, they do have better vocabularies and I would even venture that they know more things.  The problem is that they understand much, much less.

Even the Internet, which gives us access to an incredible amount of information, contributes to the problem, because you type a key word in a search engine, and bloop - another information dump.

But ask them to use the index or glossary in a textbook and they look at you as if you sprouted wings.  Ask them a question in a form they haven't seen before, and they cannot apply the concept you thought they learned.  Ask them to do actual research - not using Wikipedia - and you get more blank stares than Galliano at shabbat dinner. 

I have learned that these missing skills are part of something called Critical Thinking.  Basically, it means that if the student does not already KNOW the answer, they have no tools to find it or figure it out.

Images-1 Here is an example, albeit a silly one.  The following is a true/false question from an exam.

___ 5.  If your fish accidentally poisons your dog, that would be murder.

First of all - yes, it was supposed to be a gift.  I normally include a couple of these to help break up the tension of a test and to engage the lighter parts of the brain.

If you don't know the answer, first let me tell you that every semester I teach business law, and we come to the chapter on criminal law, we end up doing what I like to call "Would that be murder?".  It never fails.  I will ask if there are any question, and one student will start the ball rolling with a question like this: "My Uncle Chucky told me that if you kill someone in your yard, you just have to drag them in the house and say they tried to kill you, and that way it's not murder."  (Answer: Not true and have someone make sure Uncle Chucky's gun is locked up, especially once he cracks a six pack.)

I end up giving examples - including ones involving pets - like dogs and fish, to explain the elements of murder. (Hint: one element involves the death of a human).

So how could a kid miss a question like that one?  Or - better yet - leave it blank? Easy explanation is that they didn't really read the question.  But when I asked them about it, the real story was much more disturbing.  As in, they don't read books.  They don't know how to use a textbook.  They don't even know that you are better off guessing on a true/false question because then at least you have a 50/50 shot, rather than no shot.  It's terrifying.

Due to the quirks in regulation, someone like me with a terminal degree (a J.D.) can teach without a degree in education.  Fortunately, I did learn how to do research, and this is my current quest.  How do you teach kids something that seems to come naturally?  I am reading books on critical thinking, and taking some steps, but boy, would I love to get some advice from our TLC community - you know, from people who read.






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I dunno. My students are brilliant and especially good at the creative end of things, a little less good at the critical theoretical writing. But is mine a select group: theatre and writing students? Most of them do read a lot. Plus they see TV I wouldn't blink at. How do they find the time?

I teach toddlers at the other end of the spectrum. For us it's all about basic problem solving. If your shoe falls off, what do you need to do? I know your students probably get that but it doesn't hurt to go back to the basics...

People seem to have lost the ability to actually think. Or they don't know how to think. In some extreme cases, thinking in a logical manner is brushed off, dismissed, "Don't make a big deal out of it," kind of response.

I don't have the answer, but I am extremely grateful in that I didn't 'go to school', I received an education. And there's a big BIG difference between the two.

I'm very "Old School" when it comes to letting students compete. I'll pose a question (ie. what were the reasons women were not allowed to be actors during the Elizabethan era?) I'll break them into teams and allow them "research time". We have a Smart-board and computers in the classroom along with printed material.

Each team gets to present their answer. The other teams get to vote on how valid the answers are (I get the deciding vote) winning team gets a homework-pass.

There's an advantage to going first (no repeat answers) and the work groups need an even distribution of talent. Points are also scored and taken away for good arguments for/against the other teams' presentation. I got the idea from the "Around the Horn" (ESPN 5:00PM Mon-Fri)

The question is: Is our children learning?

Is it possible that critical thinking is being thrown out with the bath water? Maybe we need to learn new ways to learn instead of teaching the old way to learn....IDK. Probably not. But it's just possible that we need to consider that. Does it really matter how one learns as long as they learn and understand it?

Due to the quirks in regulation, someone like me with a terminal degree (a J.D.) can teach without a degree in education.

I think I smell a sitcom!

While kids are being taught how to do power point presentations in third grade (at least in our school district), they are not being taught how to research anything. If they don't find it on Google, they figure there's no information out there. They think Wikipedia is a reliable source! I make my daughter go to the online card catalog of the library and find books to check out in preparing research papers. Her teachers are amazed - kids don't do that anymore. There's a lot to be said for the printed word. Sigh.

When you have people in the media getting famous for willful ignorance, it becomes uncool to be smart or well-educated. Someone might mistake you for an "elitist".

The education process starts at home, practically in utero. If we don't read to our children, and expose them to a vast array of external stimuli, how will they know to think about things outside themselves? The education system is broken, but so is parenting, I think.

When my oldest was pregnant with her son, six years ago, she asked me for advice. After I picked myself up off the floor I told her three things I'd learned as a child-rearer for 35 years:

- Read to the child, every single day, beginning long before they can understand. How else will they learn the richness and usage of our language? Besides, when they see parents reading children are 1,000's of times more likely to want to read, as well.

- Never pass up a teachable moment. When I walked at the park I'd see moms tearing around the track, on a cell phone, with a bored child in the stroller ahead of them. The mom could be pointing out all the different birds, trees, colors of green, dogs, snowflakes, flowers, etc. A million things she missed out on teaching the kid, things they'd have to learn later instead of other things. Wasted.

- Always be consistent. If you say no once, always say no.

So far, so good. He's in kindergarten and reads at a high school level, and he has good manners. I can't wait to see what else he does!

Good points. I would love to do more small group projects, but my classes are too big. We did do one where they had to present proposals for Constitutional Amendments and none of the groups were persuasive enough to get the rest of the class to adopt one.

Which is another symptom of the problem: they don't learn advocacy or persuasion skills. They battle back and forth with 'facts' (many of which are unfounded) rather than trying to compromise or negotiate.

I have them doing puzzles - real ones - not the word search or find the differences between the photos. I've also started repeating (and repeating) the steps in an analysis - and making them answer each step of the process. I feel like I'm wasting time, but I have to tell you, I feel like I need to do something!

Karen said: When you have people in the media getting famous for willful ignorance, it becomes uncool to be smart or well-educated. Someone might mistake you for an "elitist".

"Because the idea of American exceptionalism doesn’t extend to Americans being exceptional. If you excelled academically and are able to casually use 690 SAT words then you might as well have the press shoot video of you giving the finger to the Statue of Liberty while the Dixie Chicks sing the University of the Taliban fight song. The people who want English to be the official language of the United States are uncomfortable with their leaders being fluent in it.

Where does a guy with eight houses who was legacied into Annapolis get off calling you an elitist? And by the way, if you do nothing else, take that word back. 'Elite' is a good word, it means well above average. I’d ask them what their problem is with excellence." Aaron Sorkin, "Obama Meets Bartlett", 2008

“And I want to thank all the female nominees tonight for helping demonstrate to my young daughter that 'elite' is not a bad word, it’s an aspirational one. Honey, look around, smart girls have more fun, and you’re one of them.” Aaron Sorkin, Golden Globes, 2011

Baltimore Jack, your class sounds like fun.

Kathy, I'd bet Celtics-level money that you're a wonderful teacher. I'd rush to be in any class you taught.

And I have no useful suggestions, alas.

R and I took a young friend to the library to look thru microfiche......she had just been there......to only the first floor.....with here private school(WT)and was still wondering how to do her paper on the Canegie steel strike and the Pinkertons. Boy was she thrilled to be reading all the newspapers from the day and talking over the different views when we went for Chinese.
That was one save. Alas

Karen,what wonderful pieces of adivce!

Kathy, you are my hero. You and my kids' teachers, trying hard to squeeze in some critical thinking while passing out tests, tests, and more tests. I know how many tests there are, because my eyes glaze over at the number I sort through every week between my 5th grader and 3rd graders. All to satisfy some legislators who think that the rules that apply to businesses and corporations should apply to education and very small humans. Grrrr.

My teaching experience is now--egad--30 years old, so maybe it's not relevant anymore, but asking kids to explain their thinking in writing was the way to go.

My beef is with group projects. I know it's easier---and quicker--for a teacher to check one project for six kids instead of reading six different papers, but my observation (during my daughters' education) is one kid does all the thinking while the other five sit around texting each other. Writing a paper clarifies thinking in a way no verbal report or artistic poster creation can ever do.

(The AP History teacher who taught history as a random order of events blew my mind.)

Beachfla, I am betting your third graders are being shown PowerPoint, not how to use it. I have been in education IT support for about a dozen years. As I type, my schools students (Post High School) are making presentations that are little better than a third graders, because they are being taught the PowerPoint tools, not how to make an argument or present a point of view. I am betting your elementary school is in the same boat. Video clips, sound effects and 17 fonts, but I have said about “Moby Dick” is it is about a guy and a whale.

As much as I dislike NCLB, it did not start this mess. It has been called many things, but the “Spock Effect”, is probably the most accurate. Captain Kirk says, “Mr. Spock, what is this?”

“That is a Regalian Poison Rose. The thorns will kill an ox in ten seconds, but the petals make a tasty tea.”

Google works the same way, except the answer is not always correct. It is my biggest beef with Wikipedia. A student can do everything right, and get the wrong answer. I have told students that they need to print any Wikipedia page they use. The day they look, the encyclopedia may be wrong.

Sadly, I have seen students discover that no one has created mrssmithshistoryclass.com as a website.
It is hard to teach how to think. I was working on teaching computer troubleshooting. When I started putting down what I do, I discovered that trouble shooting has dozens of steps. Way too many for a flowchart or PowerPoint.

For good or bad, technology will force the issue. Being able to remember a date or fact for a test will become meaningless when my calculator also has the entire math book available. Being able to find and present the correct information, being able to form an opinion, to base an opinion on facts, to be able to present those facts so others can understand them, being open to the idea that there are more than one point of view, those are 21st century skills.

Some of you may have seen some of the presentations on from http://thefischbowl.blogspot.com/ The Fischbowl.com, They float around in emails from time to time.

Ah, the presidential campaign of 2000. Yale '64 vs. Yale '68 while both were just, "Good ol' boys".

A decorated war hero is a wimp and defending Alabama while being in the Texas National Guard is noble.

And getting the most popular votes wins, or should have.

DO you think these students have a shot in the real world? We are raising a society of idiots! Could it be that teachers salaries and making AYP have something to do with 'teaching to the tests?' Regarding the T/F issue, WTF. Meet your new village idiot

Fb just told me it is Rod's birthday.

Happy Birthday!

Great topic with an interesting thread of posts. Thinking involves work and how many people really want to think? Most want to clock in, clock out and be told what to do. However, thinking skills are valuable in the workplace and people have more earning potential because of it.
In my classroom of nontraditional, low income adults, I have to do a better job of presenting the process of thinking. I need to ask probing questions to get my students to think. I need to present problems that are complex and have multiple perspectives. Teaching is work if you really do it right. I can't control what my students learned or didn't learn in K-12. I can provide guidance and direction and also realize that not all of them will get it because they may not be willing to do what it takes. That is another problem altogether.
You are obviously one of the great teachers because you care and I can tell this is keeping you up at night!

Shoveling sand against the tide, Kathy. I used to say that education gave you the tools to teach yourself how to think and learn. Now I wonder if it's more than learning how to Google a subject. No more indices. No more card catalogs. No more going back to original sources. All pre-digested capsules.

It really is keeping me up at night!

Renee - I just got a book titled "Critical Thinking and Learning: An Encyclopedia for Parents and Teachers". Assuming I have time to check it out, I will send it you if I think it's worthwhile.

This is not impossible but it takes effort and funding! Instead we're getting attacks on teachers as if they're the ones who caused the national deficit.

I live (by design) in a town with a great school system. The kids spend real time in the library beginning in kindergarten. By fifth grade they are doing serious research projects that must be sourced to books on the specific topic, encyclopedias and on-line sources. They have to do a bibliography. It's rigorous, and they learn. But we've just been through two years of nasty budget fights, which I see continuing into the future for years to come. People are too selfish and stingy to pay property taxes, and they act like education is unnecessary and spoils kids. Why do these kids need so many different English classes, and why they can't just take everything on-line so we don't need this low student-teacher ratio? They don't have kids in the school system, so they think this doesn't effect them. Who's going to pay for your social security when you're old?

I homeschool my kids for complicated reasons. And I don't really care if they memorize anything. I will consider myself a success if the kids learn how to FIND an answer themselves. This week my 7-year-old used the library card catalog (on computer), navigated the dewey-decimal shelves to find his book, read the table of contents and then the index to find the page he wanted and answered his own damn question. I figure my work is done with him. Sadly, my 10-year-old cannot make himself a bowl of cereal. He may wind up living in my basement for the rest of his life. My point being: sometimes they get it, sometimes they don't...

I teach Musical Theatre. Because of the limited time I actually have the kids they get basic movement and then learn a dance based on those movements.
It's the show at the end that is the all important culminating event.
I asked them to make up something and they just stood there. All the steps they'd learned and repeated vanished from there brains.
I think a class in how to learn to learn and retain what you learned would help the kids. At the same time at least they are doing more than being baby sat until their parents come and pick them up after school.
It's a kind of a can't win for losing situation.

I know people make fun of the nuns, but they gave me a good education and we gave them respect. Yes, they had serious faults.But I learned in their classes and butted heads with them often enough to get a serious rebel streak.
Now teachers are seen as overpaid enemies of the people. A start -- and I'm not sure it's possible with today's over-protective parents -- would be to return control of the teaching process to teachers. In Broward County here disruptive students cannot be expelled without parental consent. Way too many parents say, "I don't want my child selling drugs while I'm at work. Keep him/her in school."
How does anyone learn under those conditions?

I for one am heartened by the fact that most of the teachers around central Illinois as sticklers when it comes to research---at elementary school level no less. However, the parents don't seem to understand the why of it. When a child is assigned a report, the teacher will accept online sources, but ONLY if the child can back it up with three books or printed articles. Period. End of story. Now...in my day, we headed to the library, armed with that precious little paper, the library card! Today, parents bring their kids to B&N and expect us to find "the best book on.....(name of subject here)just waiting for them on our shelves. Depending on the subject, we have found the following to be true:
a) No one has written a book suitable for a ten year old on Chinese dynasties.
b) The most current book or magazine is not in store but can be ordered...takes a week. "But my son's report is due tomorrow!"
c) The child doesn't want to read any book and gives his parent grief (that's too long, that's too hard, why do I have to use a book at all?)
d) High school students wait until the last minute and then get upset when we don't have the book they need
e) College students often cannot spell the name or subject they're assigned (sometimes we can't either)

But...what I find most intriguing is that when we mention checking the library, and we have two public, one community college and one fine University library...all open to the public, we get a blank stare. What? Use the library? I never thought of that. Use a card catalog? Ask a librarian? (The implication to me...but that takes time and I don't want to spend that much time)

I don't know the answer to the lack of Critical Thinking, but I'd say it begins with reading to learn, NOT to take tests. And parents who take the time to take an active part in their children's study routine. And teachers who challenge their students to think when taking a test by including questions that have no easy answer. I hated essay questions when I was young, but I know that they made me think more about why or how things happened.
OK ramble over. Do your students know how lucky they are to have you, Kathy? If not, I'd be glad to tell them.

michele wrote:

"People are too selfish and stingy to pay property taxes, and they act like education is unnecessary and spoils kids. (SNIP) They don't have kids in the school system, so they think this doesn't effect them. Who's going to pay for your social security when you're old?"

Amen, sister, amen. What the Bible says: "Love of money is the root of all evil." Which means greedy shortsightedness is evil according to a Biblical God.

Kathy, keep teaching critical thinking. It's the best thing you can do, especially in that complex of complexes, The Law. Remember Professor Kingsfield?

I just finished teaching a 7 week research paper workshop for homeschooled 10 to 14 year olds. We talked a lot about sources (Wikipedia not allowed), correct methods of referencing, how to do quotations, etc. The kids mostly did a pretty good job collecting facts and writing them up in a fairly coherent way. What struck me was the extent to which the type of work you are talking about depends on intellectual maturity - the ability to reword questions, to make connections, to move beyond an answer to an analysis. Thoughtful analysis is hard, painstaking work and for most of us it requires not only training but time. Lots of time. Perhaps our students live in a world where answers are easy to get, but that same world is so intrusive that leisured contemplation is almost impossible. Without some sort of reflection, maturity may be impossible and critical analysis is ... problematic.

Well now I am a little bit depressed. I'm 22, a senior in college, planning on attending graduate school for my masters in Education, and I have always wanted to be a teacher. I think I am close to the problem. I think I am surrounded by the problem. Us kids know how to use the internet (maybe to a fault), we spend entirely too much time on our phones, we fill our days with endless activities, and as every minute passes we worry about success in the future. At least my friends and I do. With 54 days until graduation, yes I counted, everyone I know is thinking about their future. However, I'm the only one I know who sees that future in education. I know that I've been lucky in my life to have received an education that nurtured me and pushed me to think, act, and create.

Not a day goes by that I don't mentally thank my parents and my high school teachers for the gifts they gave me. I agree with a few others who have commented already that it all starts in the home. I trace my current ability to write a paper, construct and defend an argument, and adequately research a subject to not only my parents constant expectation of success but also to a childhood spent reading, studying, and enjoying it. I was surprised when I came to college and my peers had trouble constructing a simple 5 paragraph thesis paper, but that is not to say that there are not people in my school that make me feel like a blabbering idiot.

From my own experience our education system is filled with teachers who teach because they could not do. The most influential teachers in my life were those who wanted to be there, where searching for the answers, and worked hard every day to make sure that we were prepared for the world. For every one of those gems, there were four who had not changed their syllabus in 10 years.

As to the thing that I believe makes all students better? Write. Write, write, write, write, write. A multiple choice test is all well and good but it takes me 20 minutes to take it and 10 to promptly forget about it. Essay or short answer tests take longer, force more thought, and give a more accurate picture of what the student does and does not understand. Paper topics should be well thought out and grant the possibility of a variety of responses. Wikipedia can be a reference but should always be double checked and never cited. The internet is a wonderful resource for research and more and more libraries are creating an online database. Teachers should familiarize themselves with helpful and trustworthy databases, while keeping an eye out for any sort of '.com'. And finally, most of all, never stop asking if students need help. This generation is independent. We do not want to ask for help, we do not think we need help, and most of all we really do not know how to ask. Offer writing workshops, study/review sessions, and plenty of office hours.

School are understaffed and overpopulated, gifted young teachers are passed over due to issues of tenure, and children with significant potential are lost in the cracks. I think the answer will come one teacher at a time. I know I will never have the power to restructure the entire education system, but I hope that I will have the power to give every class that comes to me all that I have been given.

My parents did myself and my siblings the greatest service they could have by telling us "go look it up" when we asked them about something they weren't sure of the answer to. There were 3 different sets of encyclopedias in our house (one was from 1931), a huge medical encyclopedia and a whole series of books about animals. We learned a whole lot from those books.

My parents also taught us practical stuff, like how to read from a very early age, how to make change for a dollar, how to cook and (mostly thanks to my dad) how to hunt, fish, survive in the outdoors and how to do lots of farm related chores.

Public School, on the other hand, started losing my interest about 6th grade. High school mostly taught me how to pick up girls and plan parties.

I believe that once the fundamentals are taught such as reading, writing and arithmetic the joy of learning should be infused into our kids or students.
A teacher, whether a parent or a formal educator should be able to inspire their students with a quest which include opening up their minds to new cultures and experiences.
I have teachers in my family..two daughters and I go to their classrooms to observe at times.
The little ones are typical kids and can be compared to most generations. Parent involvement cheers my daughters on. However, there are only so many hours in a day. The eagerness in a child to grab a book or try a project on his own is invaluable.
Critical thinking comes with having to see their parents solve family problems and letting the child figure out some things on his own. Then when he reads a book from the library or encounters quizzes and problems he will not be flummoxed by them.
And I do believe that each child has potential and that some children are blessed with more skills than others but that does not mean that everyone who has a desire to learn is way ahead in the game of life.

My mom raised me right. LOL! Granted, I had a rough time in school being on top of projects and essays, but excelled at doing them the last minute when I truly only had time to focus on the pertinant details. However, even here at work, I am the research queen. It is not uncommon for my mom to call and ask me to find out information about some such thing. It was I who discovered that the cancer doctor had double-dosed my brother with the radiation back in the 80's.

Kathy, I know what you are talking about, regarding the children of today. My best friend has a 10 year old and an 8 year old. Their mom is also a teacher (although she hasn't since the first arrived), so has been able to teach the way to do real research. Luckily, both munchkins love their books, and that is their first request when ill or injured.

Other than that, I have got nothing.

Susan - you make me feel much better!

So many teachers are discouraged - I don't want to start on the politics of unions or anything else, but trying to be a good teacher is an exhausting job.

When you place unrealistic burdens on teachers and students, even the most dedicated teacher gets worn down.

I am glad to know that there is a new generation of teachers on their way.

I also think we need to start viewing teachers as part of the public service, rather than simple employees. Obama said it in his State of the Union address - this country needs to recognize its Nation Builders!

I just retired after 36 years of teaching with a sigh of relief. I do believe that we need to have tests to see how we are doing, but I don't think we need to have tests every month. Sadly it is worth a teacher's job to have their students do well on the tests.
Problem solving projects with each person assigned a specific part is a great way to go. Students can't get credit if they can't prove their answer.Give major points for their Bibliography requiring specific kinds of resources. There is a group of people proposing real-life problem solving projects.
I integrated technology with research based projects requiring a bibliography.

I am digging into the recesses of my mind and recalling the teaching style of the forties and fifties and I am here to tell you, folks, it was all based on intimidation and the pointer and rulers had their place in the classroom.
The pull down charts with the letters and numbers and the rulers clacking on my desk were all persuaders.
Time lines, and later cramming the railroads of Russia (handy if I ever become a Jeopardy contestant) all played into the fear of "not passing."
However, I guess I was a "survivor" because I still overcame math anxiety and revelled in foreign languages and literature.
So I guess I am here to say it might be the survival of the fittest. And I suppose that philosophy helped me barrel through life regardless of what was thrown on me. And learning philosophy early on help me dream my way through the tribulations because it taught me that there is a reason for everything in life.

Teaching is a hard job, mentally, but also physically. It takes a lot of energy to stand in front of a class and beam your own thought processes into 10-30 other heads, and even more so if some (or most) of those heads are busy doing other things. The lights are on, but nobody's home, etc. I always made a point of teaching my kids' teachers, especially after I became one myself. It's exhausting work, and I rarely ever taught more than 15-17 hours a week. Can't imagine having six or seven classroom hours a day, five days a week.

Part of the problem is that so many young people are pushed, guided, shoved into careers in which they can make the most money. Money isn't everything, and I wonder how many doctor, lawyers, corporate chiefs would have made fine teachers instead.

Another problem I see a lot here in Ohio is older teachers who have retired, coming back and working for part pay. They are essentially double-dipping, getting their 70-80% retirement income, plus the income from their part-time teaching, plus all the benefits. At the same time, teachers just coming out of college are finding there are no jobs. Administrators justify this practice by saying they get "experienced" teachers; I say they are getting worn out, crabby teachers who should have stayed retired, instead of the fresh, newly minted teachers with more modern ideas. And who already know how to use the Internet, for crud sakes. Today's students are way more sophisticated long before they even begin attending school than some of the older teachers give them credit for.

This is not to say ALL older teachers are this way. But having taught computer skills to older adults I know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the younger teachers are more competent in this regard, at least, and are much less likely to get over their heads with the kids in their classes than the older teachers are.

Kathy, I commend you (and all those still "in the trenches" for trying . . . and that's all we can do . . . keep trying. Students' parents and I would often come to the conclusion that it might take many repetitions to get through to our hard-headed, distracted youth, so we just had to keep on until it registered. Judging by the former students I see from time to time, it does eventually work, even with the tough ones. Challenging them to original thought is your gift to them!
The NCLB tests make it harder. Even the "open-ended" essay questions are graded with a rubric of expected answers. If a student gives them the unexpected, no matter how brilliant, it will score lower. I would tell my classes to save their genius work for me, and give the MAP test more boring, conventional answers. In my stealth storytelling workshops, our mantra was "shut the door and teach" because "they can't watch you every minute."
It's a shame it has to be by stealth, but even when presented with stellar results, admin. doesn't want to give up the drill and test and drill. A friend compared it to a pig farmer constantly weighing the pigs, no time to feed them, and wondering why they didn't gain weight. For my own catharsis, I wrote my short "The NCLB Murder." It helped me through my final year.

Karen, I can no longer imagine how I taught six classes a day -- it is hard work! I would have held on a bit longer, though, if sarcoidosis from the mold in the building hadn't waved a red flag right in my face. Miss the students; don't miss the bureaucracy.
Many of our retirees do return parttime or as subs, in part to help pay for their health insurance, which is expensive even as part of a group. I have not done so because health prohibits going into the building I know (which is where there would be the best advantage of being experienced and known). My favorite sub (or assistant, as I called him in that last year when I needed more sick days) was retired from the junior high, so he knew many of the students. He also told stories and maintained discipline, so they began to accept him and behave as if they were not with a sub.

What's sad and somewhat scary is that the world we live in is demanding critical thinking more and more at the very time test-intensive education lessens the likelihood of critical thinking as an educational outcome.

Each time a utility is deregulated, companies and offers spring up brandishing shiny offers and incentives we need critical thinking to figure out which one is best (and of course, what is best for one family or person may not be for another).

Every time there's a major disaster and there's an urge to help, one needs critical thinking to evaluate how one can be most helpful, or which nonprofit will use one's donation most responsibly.

More and more critical thinking is necessary in family grocery shopping to get past the marketing fancy-flash to get the best value for one's money.

And surely there can be no area requiring truly skilled critical thinking than voting on both issues and candidates, making sure one has done the right sort of research to evaluate claims and canards made by the flood of paid advertising.

Those are just areas where critical thinking is quite literally critical, and I haven't even made the leap between what one thinks and skill in expressing it.

I just thought of a great book for you!! . . . hmm (brain working to recall details), by Sharon Creeden . . . I had to go searching online for the title because my own bookshelves are very . . .random, yeah, that's it!

_Fair is Fair_ -- folk tales combined with real court cases -- very thought-provoking. Sharon was a lawyer first and then left to tell stories.


I think that sometimes the social environment of a school is overlooked.
Case in point: Older teachers seemed to be a norm during my elementary and middle school years.
A teacher who resembled the literary character, Ichabod Crane died during the summer after she taught our grade. We went back to school somehow feeling guilty that maybe we caused her death by our unruliness but were relieved to find out later that she died of a brain tumor. We were selfish ingrates, I admit.
Younger teachers always caused a stir. A beautiful teacher came to teach and was the proverbial dish with the romance novel description of full lips, porcelain skin and a halo of blond hair. The one male teacher we had trailed after her in the hallway panting with his tongue hung out. He later vented his frustration by hanging a kid by his ankles out the third story window of the school as a disciplinary method. I challenge him to try that today.

By high school I think what I had learned was to learn what each teacher wanted and how to give that back. It was less about the actually class and more about expected responses. My favourite teacher was Mrs. Ring. From the first day she gave out the course schedule, the things that would be tested and the expected grades to go to the next level. She took no crap, no emotional teen age angst allowed. It was such a relief to go to her class and learn!

They first started provincial testing when I was in Grade 5, when I tested with a 1st year university reading/comprehension level - I was looked at like I was an alien. Realistically I had learned to read to survive being abused so did I know how to research, write or perform critical thinking, NO. But that reading level was like a magic ticket, I was so 'smart' that I was forgiven too many things. I sure would have liked to have learned more when I was in school.

At least I have lots of common sense, another thing lacking in upcoming generations.

One thing I did learn firmly while in school was that I didn't want to be a teacher! Too hard of a job for me, I commend all you teachers, keep up the good work.

This has turned into a really wonderful discussion.

In fact, a PhD candidate (and former student) contacted me to see if she could use this blog and a follow-up interview for her thesis.

And another teacher friend said she printed it out and they discussed it in the faculty lounge all after noon. Teachers are so harried that they rarely have time to discuss the theory of eduction - they are usually mired in some mini-crisis or another.

Here is what I hear about K-12 - parents- GO TO THE CONFERENCES! Talk to your kids' teachers! Most do really want to help.

Kathy, I am curious about something: do you ever suspect that the parents of some of your students are doing their written assignments for them? I was shocked to find out how many people I knew were doing their kids' term papers for them, whether the kids were in high school or college! In my opinion, that's a sure fire way to rob one's child of the ability to learn critical thinking! Some parents I knew were doing all term papers and other written assignments, including take-home exams, and then bragging about "their" grades. Excuses for doing the projects ranged from "Tommy doesn't know how to organize himself" to "Ashley is hard to live with if she has a deadline."

I wonder how these kids can handle the stresses of adult living: jobs, family life, etc.

I think I may be the only college student who is posting, and I think all these suggestions are very interesting. Unfortunatly, from what i have seen of my generation, you either are or are not able to critically think. If at this age someone can not critically think, they become stuborn in there educational process. They would rather learn facts they cant understand, or create a faux-understanding that looks blindly at one side of the topic. I say, give up.

I, of course, blame Ronald Reagan. He intentionally defunded education to make the populace less able to reason and more likely to vote unreasonably (i.e., against their interest). An ignorant population is more easily controlled by demagogues.

Reagan knew this, and after 30 years, this is where we are.

As a professional student who is now in grad school, I can't tell you how disappointed I am in the quality of the instructors. I thought that once you get to grad school, they get better. Unfortunately, that's as far from the truth as you can get and I'm not alone in that assessment. Last semester, my instructor spend most of the lecture time, talking about her social life! I couldn't complain because she was the dean of the department.

I understand what Kathy is talking about. I get the opportunity to proofread a lot of college papers because I have a degree in English and I find quite of few of them have the writing skills of a 5th grade. I've even had to scold them for using Wikipedia as a source. Come on let's get real here. Do you want an automatic "F"?

America’s education advantage, unrivaled in the years after World War II, is eroding quickly as a greater proportion of students in more and more countries graduate from high school and college and score higher on achievement tests than students in the United States, said Andreas Schleicher, a senior education official at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, which helps coordinate policies for 30 of the world’s richest countries.

“Among O.E.C.D. countries, only New Zealand, Spain, Turkey and Mexico now have lower high school completion rates than the U.S.,” Mr. Schleicher said. About 7 in 10 American students get a high school diploma.


Insane. We can do better. Why aren't we?

Kathy, interesting commentary. I work as an Assistant in our K-8 media center (formerly known as the Library) Our Media director does exactly what you say is needed; she teaches classes on how to research, cite bibliographies, what is an index/glossary, how you use them etc. And how to use critical thinking. For example, our third graders just did a section on fractured fairytales. Stephanine read the kids 3 fractured fairytales, we discussed them in class and then the kids had to write their own fractured fairytales, based on the criteria that we discussed in class. which I thought was just great, She was teaching them to think of their own story, using a subject matter that was interesting to them. And while it was a headache keeping the thirdgraders focused, I think the results were pretty awesome.

Yet we are a private school, and because there is no "intrinsic" value in the library, there is no grade for the class. Which blows my mind...

ANd I don't want all the blame to be put on the schools. either. Many parents aren't willing to put the extra time into making sure their kids do the right thing. whatever is fastest and easiest. I often say we live in a microwave society. we want it in 5 minutes, completely done.

This is why School Librarians are SO important!! They are the ones to teach your kids how to research and where to find good information that is not only found on Google or in Wikipedia. School Librarians will help your children learn to find and discern accurate sources with reliable up-to-date information. School librarians will teach kids to use reference books - including the Table of Contents and Indexes. But school boards are cutting school library positions because they don't feel that they are necessary in this day and age. Most good school districts are staffed with good librarians - please help keep it that way. And try with all of your might to get the 'not as good' school districts to realize the power of an excellent school librarian. We are becoming more important than we ever have been!!

This past semester at the USNA I had a brilliant Calculus III teacher who gave points not for getting a correct answer, but for creatively searching for a solution using the mathematical "tools" that we acquired in class. He always joked about how it was highly unlikely that we would ever need Calculus III in life, but that critical thinking skills would be more necessary on a battlefield than a rifle. It doesn't shock me that math majors out perform any other major on the LSATs.

Just checking back in - so great to hear from so many people, especially new commenters. Thank you!

When did we stop giving grades in Library for K-6? My kids are only 15 and 19 and they both had library. This disturbs me almost as much as anything else I've heard today.

After experiencing this tragedy for myself this week, I wrote about it as well and linked to your post:

I wish I could see a solution!

...although, another sad thought is all the education cut-backs. My best friend was considering getting back into teaching (somehow, the bozo convinced the judge to take an unearned teachers salary as the basis for support?), and found that while there are teachers retiring, the schools are not hiring. The remaining teachers have to absorb and pick up the slack, so to speak.

So, more students for fewer teachers. And it isn't even college yet.

Kathy, you are so so right. Even as a PhD student (hopefully candidate in another 11 days!!), I can tell that my critical thinking is lacking. I have the hands for the experiments, I can read the papers, but I struggle to understand my results and I struggle with delving into the literature to find the information I need. Although part of that is the search function on PubMed severely needs to be changed. Or maybe, once again, I've become so used to the ease of Googling (and boolean searching) that any other method just pales in comparison. But I digress.

This semester, I'm required to teach a bunch of undergraduates. Granted, it's a microbiology lab and not a lecture course. And it's only something like 25% of their overall grade in the course. We give them a short (15 minutes or so) lecture at the beginning of the experiments, during which we go over the rationale of the experiment, what it should tell them and how to interpret the results. None of them take notes during this time. None of them even print out the pre-posted Powerpoint slides. And then they still ask frustrating questions like "wait, do we put the bacteria on first and THEN steam or the other way around?" when it is clearly written in the manual AND on our slides.

Just a couple of days ago, we gave them their midterm. They have weekly quizzes (over the previous week's experiments plus that day's experiment. Despite saying it 10 times, do you know that it took several of them 4 weeks to realize that we were covering 3 days' worth of information?). Our quizzes are typically simply fill in the blank because we're busy grad students and don't want to grade more than that, plus they're only worth 10 points each. But I know that these students just aren't getting the point of the experiments. Oh sure, they know that the pink color means there's E. coli present, but they don't know why it means that. Or how to then interpret that result. Or what the next step would be to determine how many organisms are present in the sample. The midterm was a combination of matching, fill in the blank and critical thinking questions. I'm afraid to grade this exam because I'm afraid of the answers we'll get for the short answers.

Even more so, I'm afraid of grading their unknowns report in a few weeks. We've taught them all of the tests they need to be able to identify an unkown bacteria sample. Starting next week, they have to run all of their tests then write up a 10-page report on what they did and why they think their microbe is E. coli versus Staph aureus. Up until now, all the work has been in partners. This is going to be a giant disaster. I know they're going to be mad at us for making the midterm tough (because it is only a lab after all, right?) and for making them think, but they need to know this stuff to pass the unknowns. And some of these kids want to go to medical school or dental school.

Which reminds me of when I had to go to the doctor for something last year at the student health center. I explained my problem, she checked me out and then said "hold on, I have to go check the dose and medication for this." Um, what? You're a doctor. You've finished residency and now practice on your own, but you still don't know how to treat a simple skin rash? I've had another doctor at the student health center answer my question by printing out some information from an online database. Which I have access to as a student on the medical campus. And could have found myself.

Anyway. This lack of critical thinking and the lack of math skills, etc. is why we now have to outsource everything to India, where education is a premium and a luxury so you better damn well use it and be grateful. And learn how to speak in three accents so the poor American/Australian/British sops don't realize the 1-800 number they just called is actually being routed to India. And that someone in Asia is calling for their ambulance in Oklahoma.

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