In 1982, the late, great NZ reading researcher Marie Clay identified a group of children having difficulty learning to read as “tangled tots (with) reading knots”. She was referring to children who, despite…
Via Mel Riddile
Your new post is loading...
Your new post is loading...
Amanda Ronan writes: "The Common Core State Standards do not have to mean the death of creative work produced by your students. If anything, the emphasis on textual analysis gives you more reason to explore interesting and creative ways for students to engage with texts. "
Via Mary Clark, Les Howard
February 2008 | Volume 65 | Number 5
Thinking Is Literacy, Literacy Thinking
Terry Roberts and Laura Billings
In literacy cycles built around Paideia seminars, students practice thinking as a function of reading, speaking, listening, and writing.
Several years ago, we were leading a daylong professional development session in a large school district. As the morning progressed, we noticed that one of the teachers was pointedly not participating. She sat at a table in the media center with her training materials shoved to one side, and it soon became clear that she was using the day to grade student tests and record the marks in her grade book. When we took a break, one of the session leaders walked over to her table and, in as friendly a manner as possible, asked how her students were doing.
She glanced up and without apology replied,
Terrible! I teach algebra, and this is a simple chapter test. I worked and worked to teach them a few simple concepts. Early in the week it seemed like they got it, and their homework papers were improving. Then yesterday I gave them the test, and they bombed it. They not only couldn't transfer what they had learned from one problem to another, but a lot of them couldn't even recall what they had understood two or three days before. I don't know if it's them or me, but something has got to change because this is just an exercise in frustration.
She stood up and grabbed her empty coffee cup, apparently intending to refill it while there were a few minutes left in the break. "If you can tell me how to make my students understand and remember just a few simple formulas, then maybe I'll start paying attention to you people!"
"Understand and remember"—those were her words. What she didn't say was that perhaps her students hadn't really been asked to understand the few "simple" concepts she was trying to teach them. Apparently, they had memorized some formulas and practiced applying them to a series of numbingly similar homework problems, but because they hadn't thought deeply about how and why the formulas worked, even their memory of them was fragile.
Thinking as Literacy
At the National Paideia Center,1 we have struggled with how to teach thinking consistently and effectively. We have come to define thinking as the ability to successfully explain and manipulate complex systems. By system, we mean a set of interrelated ideas, often represented in a human artifact. As students learn to think, they are able to explain and manipulate increasingly complex systems containing many discrete elements and complex relationships. We can find systems in content across the curriculum, from kindergarten through high school. A folktale by the Brothers Grimm, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, and a word problem in algebra are all systems. The periodic table of the elements is a complex system.
Our experience with teaching thinking has taught us that learning to think requires frequent, deliberate practice. To become clear, flexible, and coherent thinkers, students need to work with both the process and the product. The only way we have found to teach the process and product of thinking is to recognize the profound relationship between thought and language.
This is not a new idea; as far back as the 18th century, the chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier quoted the Abbé de Condillac in arguing that "we think only through the medium of words. … The art of reasoning is nothing more than a language well arranged" (Lavoisier, 1799/1984). To teach thinking consistently, therefore, we should treat it as a fundamental literacy skill, whether the language in question is algebra or English. There is no question that reading, writing, speaking, and listening are interconnected skills that develop synergistically. They are also the key to teaching thinking. The more fluent students become as readers, writers, speakers, and listeners, the clearer, more coherent, and more flexible their thinking will become.
To this end, we have developed the traditional Paideia seminar into a literacy cycle of instruction (Roberts & Billings, 1999). In preparing for a seminar, a teacher uses a wide variety of content reading strategies to help students build their comprehension of the system they are studying. The teacher also coaches individual students in speaking and listening skills in a preseminar process session. During the seminar itself, students collaboratively use their reading, speaking, and listening skills. Immediately following the discussion, the teacher leads the students through a postseminar self-assessment. Finally, the students write in response to the system. In each of these five stages, the teacher coaches students in thinking. The whole process is greater than the sum of its parts.
Skilled teachers build a series of seminar-based literacy cycles into their curriculum—ideally, at least two seminars every month. Each cycle in turn asks more from the students as they gain fluency in thinking about ideas.
Thinking About Dickinson
To illustrate how a literacy cycle works, we'd like to invite you into a middle school classroom. In spring 2005, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction videotaped a seminar cycle in a heterogeneous 6th grade classroom at Guy B. Phillips Middle School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Crissman, 2005). The seminar, part of a language arts unit focused on poetry, was on an eight-line poem by Emily Dickinson that some scholars believe contains Dickinson's definition of poetry:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
When we first discussed this text with the two teachers who were leading the project, Nealie Bourdon and Becky Campbell, they questioned our choice because they felt that the poem was too difficult for their students. We argued that we wanted to challenge the students with a poem that would require them to stretch intellectually. We reassured Nealie and Becky that, given the right kind of coaching, the students would rise to the occasion.
The eight lines in Dickinson's poem were the "system" we were asking the 6th graders to "explain and manipulate." There were profound questions inherent to the poem that made this system increasingly complex as the students studied it: What is poetry? What is the nature of truth? How does poetry function in relation to truth? The questions involving poetry were tied directly to the standardized curriculum that Nealie and Becky were responsible for teaching their students, and the even deeper questions involving truth made the whole cycle relevant for the students.
While studying the poem, the students themselves realized that Dickinson's second line ("Success in Circuit lies") reflects the thinking process; successful thought often involves circling a problem multiple times, gaining understanding with each circuit.
Thinking as Reading
Teaching students how to think about a system requires that they first "read" the system by applying a variety of strategies. If the seminar text (or system) had been a math problem, we might have asked students to identify key terms, work in groups to define them, and show their relationships on a graphic organizer. If the seminar text had been an essay on the environment by Rachel Carson, we might have asked students to summarize the text by identifying the topic sentence in each paragraph, listing those topic sentences on a T-chart, and paraphrasing each in turn. If the seminar text had been a map of South America, we might have asked students to work in teams to analyze the information portrayed by the various symbols in the map legend. In each instance, we would have emphasized that reading comprehension is a form of thinking.
In the case of Dickinson's "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant," Becky and Nealie asked the students to work in collaborative groups to analyze the poem in a variety of ways. One group worked with a copy of the poem that gave only the capitalized words—Truth, Circuit, Delight, Truth's, Lightning, Children, Truth—asking themselves what a poem built out of those key words might mean. Another group counted the syllables in each line and identified the rhyme scheme. A third group divided the poem into smaller units, like sentences, and paraphrased each of the units. A fourth made one long list of the words in the poem starting with tell and ending with blind, alphabetized the list and then asked themselves what a poem made out of just these words (and no more) might mean. The groups then shared their insights with the whole class while students took notes on their own copy of the poem in anticipation of the discussion to come.
Thinking as Speaking and Listening
The next stage in the literacy cycle involves the teacher coaching the students, both individually and as a group, in the speaking and listening skills they will need. After a brief self-assessment, students choose both a group process goal and a personal process goal. The facilitator makes it clear that the goal of the seminar is to think collaboratively about the ideas in the text and that these process skills are what make collaborative thought possible. Both speaking and listening are forms of thinking because they allow a nascent thought to be refined through conversation. The better a student's verbal communication skills, the more quickly his or her thoughts about a complex topic gain clarity and coherence.
In the case of the "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant" seminar, students chose staying focused as their group goal because they knew that as a class they tended to stray far from the stated objective. Nealie, who was facilitating the seminar, then asked them to choose one of several individual process goals to guide their personal participation in the discussion: I will speak at least three times, I will refer directly to the text, I will ask at least two questions, or I will think before I speak. Students wrote their personal process goals directly on their individual copies of the text so that they would be reminded of them each time they glanced down. After the seminar, Nealie asked the students to self-assess their personal process in writing so that they could set even more appropriate and ambitious process goals in the next seminar.
Thinking as Collaboration
The actual discussion began with students responding to Nealie's opening question: Emily Dickinson did not give her poems titles. If you were her editor, what title would you give this poem? This question allowed all students to offer an opening statement or rough draft of their initial thoughts about the poem. Very quickly, the students began to talk to one another rather than to Nealie: asking questions, building on other students' comments, and agreeing and disagreeing politely, as they'd been coached to do all year. Teacher Becky Campbell sat in the seminar circle as a participant, and the students challenged her assumptions and asked her questions just as if she were another 6th grader.
At several key junctures, students disagreed with one another and worked to reconcile their different perspectives by further analyzing the text. In response to Nealie's questions about Dickinson's use of capitalization, for example, one student said that he believed every word beginning with a capital letter (except the first word in each line) was a synonym for Truth. Another student challenged him about whether Children was synonymous with Truth, and the discussion picked up momentum. As the seminar unfolded, students' comments became longer and more sophisticated as they took into consideration previous comments and incorporated multiple points of view.
Students were clearly "explaining and manipulating a complex system" with increasing fluency as the discussion went on. When asked after the seminar whether they understood the poem better than before the discussion, every participant said yes, including the teacher-participant.
Thinking as Writing
Having practiced reading, speaking, and listening in relation to a complex system, students are now fully prepared to write in response to a prompt based on the text and discussion. The goal is for students to produce clear, accurate writing that reflects the maturity of their thought. We ask students to write simply about complex topics, a task that demands that they synthesize their thoughts specifically and precisely into concise sentences. This challenge is a necessary culmination of the thinking process.
Nealie gave her students two options: (1) write an eight-line poem about truth using the same structure and techniques that Dickinson did, or (2) write a personal definition of poetry and its relationship to truth. In both cases, they were dealing with the core concepts in the Dickinson poem and using writing to refine their thoughts even further. Those students who chose to mimic Dickinson's style and techniques had to demonstrate a mastery of the structure of this particular system—meter, rhyme, capitalization—a challenge that many relished. The work that emerged surprised even the students with its complexity and sophistication.
Examples from Math and History
You might wonder whether this literacy cycle could be replicated with other age groups and in other subject areas. Let's consider a common elementary math seminar in which we challenge students to explain and manipulate the system represented by M. C. Escher's artwork Mobius Strip II. More specifically, we challenge the students to come to grips with the concept of infinity.
The Mobius strip is a continuous, one-sided surface formed by twisting one end of a rectangular strip 180 degrees and attaching this end to the other. Partway through the seminar, the facilitator typically explains that when turned on its side, Escher's image is the same as the symbol for infinity. Starting with simple definitions of infinity, the students offer examples of things that are infinite and eventually discuss why it is necessary to have a symbol to represent an idea like infinity. This is a striking example of how the literacy cycle can teach vocabulary in a math or science setting—vocabulary that in turn enables more complex thought. After the seminar, students construct Mobius strips of their own using construction paper and tape. They write on the continuous surfaces of their Mobius strips a string of words or images that they think should be rendered infinitely. Their writing is obviously the result of highly personal, highly relevant thinking.
At the other end of the age spectrum, let's consider a literacy cycle in a high school U.S. history class. Embedded in a unit on the creation of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is a literacy cycle centered on the First Amendment, which guarantees five personal freedoms to individual Americans: religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. In the preseminar content sessions, students break into five teams, and each team investigates why one of the five freedoms was included in the First Amendment.
After each team presents its background information, all the students discuss how they will actually be practicing their freedom of speech during the seminar and the importance of speaking and listening skills in a democracy. During the discussion itself, the focus slowly shifts from the five freedoms and their interrelationships to the dynamic tension in a democracy between individual rights and social cohesion. Students offer increasingly sophisticated comments about the importance of both. By the end of the seminar, they begin to articulate how each depends on the other.
After the discussion, the students work on a Student Bill of Rights, which they hope to take to the school governance council for approval. Later in the school year, students will be asked to address complicated First Amendment Supreme Court rulings in the same way, thereby "explaining and manipulating increasingly complex systems."
Growing Lifelong Thinkers
As Francis Bacon wrote more than 400 years ago, "Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man." Each stage in the literacy cycle involves thinking about a system in a different way, and all the stages are joined in synergy; it's not enough just to read about an interesting idea, or to discuss it informally, or to write about it without preparation. Rather, to teach students to think in a consistent and deliberate way, we have to practice thinking in concert with the full range of literacy skills—probably in the order that Bacon himself prescribed.
There remains, of course, the challenge of assessing student thought so that we can measure it as it matures. In teaching thinking as a function of literacy, we assess the process as well as the product, collaborating with students to identify their strengths and weaknesses as readers, writers, speakers, and listeners so that we can continue coaching those skills through successive cycles. In addition, we assess the product of thought in a way that teaches thinking, meaning that we evaluate student writing at the end of the cycle through rubrics that define what clarity, flexibility, and coherence look like in written form. Finally, we take into account the increasing complexity of the systems that students are asked to think about, so that we can show them how to address larger and more intellectually demanding concepts over time.
Our experience has convinced us that thinking can be defined, taught, and assessed. More important, creative and coherent thought is an attribute of a life-long learner. By teaching students to think, we prepare them not only for employment and citizenship, but also for leading abundant lives.
Crissman, C. (Producer). (2005). Experience odyssey series: Paideia seminar (Part of the Literacy to Learn: Professional Development for 21st Century Educators program produced by the United Star Distance Learning Consortium) [Videotape]. Raleigh: North Carolina Public Schools. Available: www.ncpublicschools.org/distancelearning/professional/experience_odyssey.html
Lavoisier, A. (1799/1984). Elements of chemistry. Mineola, NY: Dover. (Original version published 1799)
Roberts, T., & Billings, L. (1999). The Paideia classroom: Teaching for understanding. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.
Guide students through the five steps of understanding and writing literary analysis: choosing and focusing a topic, gathering, presenting and analyzing textual evidence, and concluding.
Literary analysis is a vital stage in the development of students' critical thinking skills. Bloom's Taxonomy illustrates that analysis should come at the fourth level, right after comprehension and application. What this means is that students must be able to understand and describe the text before they are able to analyze its elements.
Teaching literary analysis is often a daunting and overwhelming task. After all, it is essentially guiding students slowly through the process of critical thinking and understanding literature. That’s not a simple undertaking. Most importantly, with so many ways to go about doing it, where to begin?
To guide students toward discovering literature all on their own, the steps of this process need to be introduced in a simplified form. It's very important for the student to understand that literary analysis is indeed a process where there is no right or wrong answer. This empowers students to be passionate about their topics and, most importantly, encourages them to look beyond the words on the page.
Click to enlargeImage credit: Rebeca Zuñiga @rebezuniga
1. Choose a Topic
Some students need guidance when choosing a topic, but others have ideas that they would like to explore. Topics can be divided into the main literary elements:
CharactersThemesLiterary devicesSettingNarrative.2. Focus the Topic
Here is where many students will need to do a lot of brainstorming, outlining, and specific thinking about the element on which they would like to focus.
The brainstorming process involves mapping out the different aspects of the chosen element.Make a choice by narrowing down the selection and focusing the ideas.Come up with a question to answer (thesis statement): What do you want to explore about the topic? Why does it stand out to you?Answer the "why" question. Instead of letting students simply describe the text, "why" pushes them to analyze and even synthesize. This aspect is vital to student understanding, as most of the time a teacher is able to identify a relevant thesis related to modern-day issues and concepts. Here is where real-world application, analysis, and synthesis can begin to form in this piece of writing.3. Gather Textual Evidence
Collecting material to answer or support your question is often a time-consuming stage, because most of the close reading will occur here. It's important for students to know that they're allowed to research the topic or text before starting to write. Many students feel that they should not be using Google or Wikipedia to research their texts. Here is where the teacher can have an honest discussion about digital citizenship, and how to tell credible academic sources from non-credible ones.
Show students that close reading and gathering evidence doesn't have to be a mundane, one-dimensional task.
Identify common themes, repetitions, and patterns.Categorize elements, tone, and narrative style.Highlight characterization, setting, and foreshadowing.Label character types, symbols, and metaphors.4. Introduce, Evidence, Analyze
Learning through writing and literary analysis happens through stages (see Bloom's Taxonomy). At this stage of writing, students have already accomplished remembering, understanding, and applying. Next comes analysis.
Students should introduce their point in one or two clear topic sentences. Next, it's important to provide evidence that supports the main topic in order to convince the reader of the stated point of view. There are a few ways students can add their evidence.
EvidenceQuotation: When providing evidence word for word from a primary or secondary source, students should be reminded to use quotation marks only if the words have not been altered.Summary: Students summarize a piece of evidence by restating it in a shorter form using their own words.Paraphrase: Students explain a piece of evidence using their own words.
At this stage, it's important to use the lesson as a reminder to cite and give credit for words and ideas that belong to others. A conversation with the class about academic honesty is very important to help them understand intellectual property. This conversation will also prepare them for honesty and ethics in the real or academic world.
This critical stage is often a learning curve for many students. It's important that the teacher helps them distinguish between descriptive writing and analytical writing. Descriptive writing answers the "who," "what," "where," and "how" questions. It often tends to summarize the text. Analytical writing, however, answers to the "why" question. When students consider the question, "Why is this point important?", it pushes them beyond mere description into ideas that are convincing, argumentative, and defend a position.
A strong conclusion outlines the main ideas of the essay, but it also works to provide a solution to a real-life problem. Students can focus on concluding with what they hope to get out of their analysis, or provide closure to the topic. Most importantly, students should seize the conclusion as an opportunity to provide their own opinion and reflection about their process of analyzing the text. The self-reflection here would be a vital key for teachers to assess the writing process and a great opportunity to provide essential feedback to the student.
Application of Common Core State Standards comparing observations, characters and closing arguments from two trials using non-fictional accounts dealing with the Scottsboro Boys trials of 1931 and 1933 and the fictional trial narrative in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Dave gives a great explanation of how to use Kelly Gallagher's Article of the Week assignment. This is an area where librarians can support teachers--help find articles, recommend Newsela, etc. Key features I liked from Dave's approach:
Via Mary Clark
by Eveyn Wassell
"I found this site (http://bit.ly/101tagxedo)from Hardy Leung, creator of Tagxedo, about 101 ways to use Tagxedo, and thought about the myriad of ways it can be used in the classroom. The images created by Tagxedo and their derivatives are free for personal, non-commercial use, subject to the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike License. And what teacher doesn't love the word free???
Via Jim Lerman, Miloš Bajčetić
February 2008 | Volume 65 | Number 5
All Our Students Thinking
Any subject—be it physics, art, or auto repair—can promote critical thinking as long as teachers teach in intellectually challenging ways.
One stated aim of almost all schools today is to promote critical thinking. But how do we teach critical thinking? What do we mean by thinking?
In an earlier issue on the whole child (September 2005), Educational Leadership made it clear that education is rightly considered a multipurpose enterprise. Schools should encourage the development of all aspects of whole persons: their intellectual, moral, social, aesthetic, emotional, physical, and spiritual capacities. In this issue, I am primarily concerned with intellectual development, in particular, with teaching students to think. However, as we address this important aim, we need to ask how it fits with other important aims, how our choice of specific goals and objectives may affect the aim of thinking, and whether current practices enhance or impede this aim.
Thinking and Intellect
Writers often distinguish among such thinking categories as critical thinking, reflective thinking, creative thinking, and higher-order thinking. Here, I consider thinking as the sort of mental activity that uses facts to plan, order, and work toward an end; seeks meaning or an explanation; is self-reflective; and uses reason to question claims and make judgments. This seems to be what most teachers have in mind when they talk about thinking.
For centuries, many people have assumed that the study of certain subjects—such as algebra, Latin, and physics—has a desirable effect on the development of intellect. These subjects, it was thought, develop the mind, much as physical activity develops the muscles. John Dewey (1933/1971) rejected this view, writing, "It is desirable to expel … the notion that some subjects are inherently 'intellectual,' and hence possessed of an almost magical power to train the faculty of thought" (p. 46). Dewey argued, on the contrary, that
any subject, from Greek to cooking, and from drawing to mathematics, is intellectual, if intellectual at all, not in its fixed inner structure, but in its function—in its power to start and direct significant inquiry and reflection. What geometry does for one, the manipulation of laboratory apparatus, the mastery of a musical composition, or the conduct of a business affair, may do for another. (pp. 46–47)
More recently, Mike Rose has shown convincingly not only that thinking is required in physical work (2005), but also that nonacademic subjects can be taught in intellectually challenging ways (1995). We do our students and society a disservice when we suppose that there is no intellectual worth in such subjects as homemaking, parenting, getting along with others, living with plants and animals, and understanding advertising and propaganda (Noddings, 2005, 2006). The point is to appreciate the topics that matter in real life and encourage thinking in each area. This is not accomplished by first teaching everyone algebra—thus developing mental muscle—and then applying that muscle to everyday matters.
Nor is it accomplished by simply adding thinking to the set of objectives for each disciplinary course. More than 20 years ago, educators and policymakers advocated greater emphasis on thinking as an aim of education. Commenting on this popular demand, Matthew Lipman (1991), one of the founders of the modern Philosophy for Children movement, remarked,
School administrators are calling for ways of "infusing thinking into the curriculum," apparently on the understanding that thinking can be added to the existing courses of studies as easily as we add vitamins to our diet. (p. 2)
But thinking cannot be formulated as a lesson objective—as something to teach, learn, and evaluate on Thursday morning. How, then, do we go about it?
Learning as Exploration
A few years ago, I watched a teenager whom I'll call Margie struggle with courses that discouraged thinking. In her U.S. history course, students were required to learn a list of facts for each unit of study. Margie had to memorize a set of 40 responses (names, places, and dates) for the unit on the American Revolutionary War and the postwar period. Conscientiously, she memorized the material and got a good grade on the test. When I talked with her, however, it was clear that she had not been asked to think and would soon forget the memorized facts. None of it meant anything to her; passing the test was her only objective.
Suppose, instead, that the teacher had asked students to consider such questions as these:
What happened to the Tories during and after the war?Why was Thomas Paine honored as a hero for his tract Common Sense but reviled for his book The Age of Reason?Why might we be surprised (and dismayed) that John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts?
Such questions would encourage students to read, write, argue, and consider the implications for current political life—all important aims of education. How many Tories left the United States? Where did they go? Where do refugees go today? Discussing the question on Thomas Paine could lead to a critical discussion of both nationalism and religion centered on Paine's statement, "My country is the world; my religion is to do good." Who reviled Paine and why? After reading biographical material on John Adams, students might indeed be amazed that he signed the Alien and Sedition Acts. What lesson might we take from this story about the effects of fear and distrust on even highly intelligent people?
Algebra for Some
When I first met with Margie, she was taking algebra. Looking through her textbook, I thought the course would be wonderful. The textbook was loaded with real-world applications and exercises that invited genuine thinking. But the teacher did not assign even one of these exercises. Not one! The following year, in geometry, Margie was never asked to do a proof. These algebra and geometry classes were composed of kids who, had they had a choice in the matter, would not have chosen courses in academic mathematics. Today, in the name of equality of opportunity, we force nearly all students into courses called Algebra and Geometry, but the courses often do not deserve their names because they lack genuine intellectual content. This practice is little short of pedagogical fraud. Many of Margie's classmates (and Margie, too) would have been better served by good career and technical education courses that would challenge them to think about the world of work for which they were preparing.
I am not suggesting that we go back to a system in which students are tested, sorted, and assigned either to academic courses or dead-end tracks in which they are treated with neglect, sometimes even with contempt. But the present practice of forcing everyone into academic courses is not working well. We would do better to design excellent career and technical education courses—very like the job-oriented programs provided in two-year colleges—and allow students to choose their own course of study. Students should not be forced into or excluded from academic courses, but they should be able to choose a nonacademic program with pride and confidence. Such programs are available in many Western countries, such as Germany and the Scandinavian countries. Programs like these might offer courses to prepare machinists, film technicians, office managers, retail salespersons, food preparation and service workers, mechanics, and other skilled workers. Recent studies have shown that the United States actually has an oversupply of engineers and scientists but badly needs workers with high technical skills (Monastersky, 2007).
We can give students opportunities to think well in any course we offer, provided the students are interested in the subjects discussed. Algebra can be taught thoughtfully or stupidly. So can drafting, cooking, or parenting. The key is to give students opportunities to think and to make an effort to connect one subject area to other subject areas in the curriculum and to everyday life.
Consider the ongoing debate over popular science versus "real science." Many critics scorn popular science courses (for a powerful criticism of the critics, see Windschitl, 2006). They would prefer to enroll all students in science courses that would prepare them—through emphasis on vocabulary and abstract concepts—for the next science course. According to this view, practical or popular science has little value and should certainly not carry credits toward college preparation. But intelligent, well-educated nonscientists depend on popular (or popularized) science for a lifetime of essential information. Nonscientists like myself cannot run our own experiments and verify everything that comes through the science pipeline. Instead, we read widely and consider the credentials of those making various claims. High school courses should prepare not only future specialists but also all students for membership in this circle of thoughtful readers.
Deference to the formal disciplines sometimes actually impedes student thinking. A few years ago, it was recommended that math courses should teach students how to think like a mathematician. In science courses, they were to think like a scientist; in history, like a historian, and so on. But aside from the possibility that there may be more than one way to think like a mathematician, education efforts might better be aimed at showing students how to use mathematics to think about their own purposes. For example, carpenters don't need to think like mathematicians, but they do need to think about and use mathematics in their work.
Modeling Open-Ended Thinking
It may be useful, however, for students to see and hear their teachers thinking as mathematicians, historians, or artists. When I was studying for my master's degree in mathematics, I had one professor who frequently came to class unprepared. His fumbling about was often annoying; he wasted time. But sometimes his lack of preparedness led to eye-opening episodes. He would share aloud his thinking, working his way through a problem. Sometimes he would stop short and say, "This isn't going to work," and he'd explain why it wouldn't work. At other times, he'd say, "Ah, look, we're going great! What should we do next?" He modeled mathematical thinking for us, and I found it quite wonderful. The process was messy, uneven, time-consuming, and thrilling. That's the way real thinking is.
I am not recommending that teachers come to class unprepared, but we should at least occasionally tackle problems or ideas that we have not worked out beforehand. In doing so, we model thinking and demonstrate both the obstacles that we encounter and our successes.
Too often, we state beforehand exactly what we will teach and exactly what our students should know or do as a result. This is the right approach for some objectives. There is a place for automatic response in student learning; we do want students to carry out some operations automatically, without thinking. That sort of skill frees us to think about the real problems on which we should concentrate.
In today's schools, however, too much of what we teach is cast in terms of specific objectives or standards. Margie was told the 40 things she was expected to know about the American Revolutionary War. Some educators even argue that it is only fair to tell students exactly what they must know or do. But such full disclosure may foreclose learning to think. Thinking involves planning, ordering, creating structural outlines, deciding what is important, and reflecting on one's own activity. If all this is done for students—Cliffs Notes for everything—they may pass tests on material they have memorized, but they will not learn to think, and they will quickly forget most of the memorized material.
Encouraging Teachers to Think
Our focus thus far has been on students. But what about teachers? Are they encouraged to think? Unfortunately, many teachers are told what topics to teach and how to teach them. In too many cases, they are even compelled to use scripted lessons. Ready-made lessons should be available for teachers who want to use them or for special purposes, but professional teachers should be allowed—even encouraged—to use their professional judgment in planning lessons and sequences of lessons.
If teachers want to teach students to think, they must think about what they themselves are doing. Critics both inside and outside the United States have characterized the U.S. curriculum as "a mile wide and an inch deep." The pressure to cover mandated material can lead to hasty and superficial instruction that favors correct responses to multiple-choice questions over thinking. Countless teachers have told me that they can't spend time on real-life applications of mathematics or the kinds of questions I suggested for Margie's history class. If they were to do so, they tell me, they wouldn't get through the required curriculum. But what is the point of getting through a huge body of material if students will soon forget it? How can we claim to educate our students if they do not acquire the intellectual habits of mind associated with thinking?
Teachers should also be willing to think critically about education theory and about what we might call education propaganda. Slogans are mouthed freely in education circles, and too few teachers challenge them (Noddings, 2007). For example, it is easy and politically correct to say, "All children can learn," but what does that mean? Can all children learn, say, algebra? If we answer a qualified no to this, are we demeaning the ability of some children (perhaps many), or might our answer be a respectful recognition that children differ and exhibit a wide range of talents and needs?
What Competing Really Means
Even if we believe that all children can learn algebra, we too seldom ask the question, Why should they? When we do ask it, the answer is usually that we live in an information age and that if students (and the United States) are to compete in a worldwide economy, they must know far more mathematics than previous generations did. We need, they say, more college-educated citizens.
Is this true? The information world is certainly growing, but in addition to its own growth, it has generated an enormous service world, and people in this world should also learn to think. The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides charts showing that, of the 10 occupations with the most openings in the next decade, only one or two require a college education. Occupations such as food preparation and service worker, retail salesperson, customer service representative, cashier, office clerk, and laborer and material mover will employ about five times more people than the computer/high-tech fields requiring a college education (see www.bls.gov/emp/home.htm for employment projections). No matter what we do in schools, most of our high school graduates will work at such jobs.
We live in an interdependent society, and one of our education aims is to prepare students for democratic citizenship. As part of that task, we should help students develop an appreciation for the wide range of essential work that must be done in our complex society. In the future, not everyone will need to have a traditional college education to experience occupational success, although postsecondary education or training will frequently enhance that success. Rather, occupational success will require flexibility, a willingness to continue learning, an ability to work in teams, patience and skill in problem solving, intellectual and personal honesty, and a well-developed capacity to think. Success in personal life requires many of the same qualities.
Even for those who go on to college and postgraduate education, the intellectual demands of the future are moving away from a narrow disciplinary emphasis. The biologist E. O. Wilson (2006) has commented on the new demands:
The trajectory of world events suggests that educated people should be far better able than before to address the great issues courageously and analytically by undertaking a traverse of disciplines. We are into the age of synthesis, with a real empirical bite to it. Therefore, sapere aude. Dare to think on your own. (p. 137)
That's good advice for both teachers and students.
Dewey, J. (1933/1971). How we think. Chicago: Henry Regnery. (Original work published 1933)
Lipman, M. (1991). Thinking in education. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Monastersky, R. (2007, November 16). Researchers dispute notion that America lacks scientists and engineers. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 54(12), A14–15.
Noddings, N. (2005). The challenge to care in schools (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.
Noddings, N. (2006). Critical lessons: What our schools should teach. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Noddings, N. (2007). When school reform goes wrong. New York: Teachers College Press.
Rose, M. (1995). Possible lives: The promise of public education in America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Rose, M. (2005). The mind at work: Valuing the intelligence of the American worker. New York: Penguin.
Wilson, E. O. (2006). The creation: An appeal to save life on earth. New York: Norton.
Windschitl, M. (2006). Why we can't talk to one another about science education reform. Phi Delta Kappan, 87(5),