Common Core Standards – Bad Policy or Scapegoat?

One can hardly read a paper or click a link without seeing something about the Common Core Standards (CCS) and the standardized tests aligned with them. Many are usually quite negative. Some positive comments sneak in there, too, but those favoring the standards don’t seem to counteract the juggernaut of bad press: Schools want to opt out of testing, teachers rebel against the curriculum, parents complain the tests are too hard and use vocabulary way above grade level, and on and on. There are myriad issues tangled together here, not the least of which is the complaint that students are tested too often to the exclusion of solid teaching time. These complaints all deserve attention, but I want in this posting to look at the standards themselves and see how they intersect with critical thinking.

First off, I want to say I’m no fan of the government micromanaging educational institutions, as I have stated earlier on this blog. So when the CCS came out, I was dubious. Here’s another ham-fisted governmental attempt, I thought, at controlling schools by mandating rigid, watered-down standards that mean nothing.

I saw this kind of control in the extreme when I taught in Kazakhstan and Russia, both systems that were, and still are, under very tightly controlled, authoritarian Soviet and post-Soviet regimes, where most teachers are harassed into teaching the state-sanctioned curriculum. Instructors are forbidden to amend the curriculum to address their students’ needs and there is no hint of critical thinking going on, what with the copious amounts of memorization on the menu. Sadly, there is no shortage of similar situations in the U.S. either. But I do think the CCS got something right, which is the focus on critical thinking.

In a March 17th, 2015, article titled “What are the most challenging Common Core Standards?” (http://www.eschoolnews.com/2015/03/17/most-challenging-standards-870/2/), I found the following quote. (Note: The author, Rob Waldron, is the CEO of Curriculum Associates, which sells a program to help teachers deal with the new standards. But I think his points are still valid.)

Findings show that, among students whose data is included in the research, in reading, students need extra support with informational vs. literary text, as well as increasingly complex texts.

The most challenging standards are those that require synthesis skills, including those related to:
• Determining central ideas or themes and summarizing details
• Analyzing text structure
• Integrating and evaluating content in diverse media and formats
• Analyzing similar topics and themes across texts

Whamo. These skills of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation are right smack dab at the top of Bloom’s critical thinking hierarchy. (See previous post on this.) What’s not to like, then, about these standards?

Plenty, as many point out. But what’s behind these complaints? Here’s what I think. Teachers may have difficulty teaching to the CCS either because they are not critical thinkers themselves (maybe in some cases) or they have never been shown how to teach these skills (more likely). Next, students are frustrated because they have never been taught these skills and feel out of their depth being asked such questions on exams. Too, with a poor performance on the standardized tests, students fear they won’t get into a good college. So it makes sense to blame the test itself. Third, some parents may condemn the CCS because they may see them as a threat: “I don’t know how to help my kids with their homework” or “The way I learned was good enough for me. Let’s go back to the basics.” Finally, some may feel threatened by this approach to education because it would mean students are taught to think independently, and that is not good for those wanting to control others, such as highly authoritarian groups, governments, and educational systems mentioned above. They have a vested interest in keeping people busy with memorizing and eschewing critical thinking.

Here’s an excerpt from a paper I wrote titled “Teacher Education and Educational Lending: A Cautionary Tale” that gives one reason for maintaining status quo in highly authoritarian Russia:

According to Stephen Webber (2000) in his book School, Reform and Society in the New Russia, the Soviet teacher-education system remained remarkably constant from the 1930s to the 1980s and beyond, when the focus was on the lesson, not the child (Long & Long 1999). That way, lessons could be used in any school in any part of the country. This focus on the lesson led to teaching that was often “uninspired,” state Long and Long (1999), and led to an emphasis on memorization and repeating back on exams, often verbatim. This dull approach to education was intentional because “[i]nspired teaching could prompt young people to think in unpredictable ways” (p. 102).

Pretty depressing, huh? Some readers might be thinking, Hey, we’re not the USSR, never have been, and won’t ever be. I agree; however, if we don’t want to be the USSR, then let’s get going on critical thinking and stop trying to stuff those old standards down students’ throats. Let’s upgrade, which is what the CCS are trying to do.

In the end, we can hypothesize all we want about the reasons for any resistance to training in critical thinking and the Common Core Standards in the US, but the sad truth is that students are not getting the training they should in critical thinking. Consequently, if they are tested on those skills, they will do poorly and end up blaming the test and the CCS, when we should be providing proper teaching training. (To be clear, I’m emphatically not blaming teachers. I am one myself and I chafe at being the scapegoat for all the ills of the educational system.) While I think maintaining the status quo may be seductive to many, I think we are killing the messenger (i.e., the Common Core Standards) when we have not had enough time to build the infrastructure to support such a change in the cognitive development of our students.

Long, D., & Long, R. (1990). Education of teachers in Russia. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Press.

Webber, S. (2000). School, reform and society in the new Russia. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Combatting assumptions

We all make assumptions. Life wouldn’t go very smoothly if we didn’t. But we get in trouble when our assumptions lead us to incorrect conclusions, i.e., females cannot do hard, physical labor, or that guy is a dullard just because his expression is lifeless. But when my husband is watching a football game, I know from the School of Hard Knocks that he will not hear what I am saying. Making this assumption saves me time, frustration, and our marriage.

Assumptions come from habit or behavior verified by past experience. My Freshmen international students come with loads of assumptions about Americans, professors, and of course, their country and all the habits/beliefs they’ve learned there. Often these assumptions are regarded as The Truth and may not even register as an assumption until it’s challenged. For instance, my Saudi Arabian students were shocked when their Asian classmates showed disapproval at their custom of polygamy. Having several wives is just a fact of life in Saudi Arabia. It is neither good nor bad to them. It just is, and no one questions it.

To shake them out of that stupor, I use a technique from John Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (a super-duper book, by the way). This method works well when people assume they understand both sides of an issue, say, arranged marriages. I ask them to write a conversation between two people, Persons A and B, who hold opposing views. In that dialog, they must state what A thinks B believes and vice versa. This step is crucial because they need to be certain they can articulate what the other thinks. Each side then explains why the other is wrong. This technique helps them be more dispassionate, clear, and intellectually honest about the issue. Works every time.

Watch What You’re Thinking, or Others Will Do It for You

Worried that your government might be controlling your thoughts? News flash: it already is.

Schooling affects cognition. We all learn various ways of thinking no matter what kind of classroom we are in. The final product, that is, what cognitive skills we acquire, can vary widely depending on the classroom, state, even country—and (and here is my point) who is running the joint.

You might think teachers are the ones who “teach” us and that’s the end of the story, but you would be wrong. Yes, teachers deliver the “product,” so to say. But what that product (read: education) is, is also determined by the administration running the school. If the administration wants you to be one of many sheep and turn out to be just like your parents and grandparents (and the administrators themselves), then teachers teach you using rote learning and multiple-choice tests. If the school wants you to be an independent thinker, then it employs instructors and chooses books that accomplish that goal. Teachers teach how the institution expects (or tells) them to teach.

But we’re not done climbing that educational food chain to determine who controls your thinking. Many educational institutions can be centralized or decentralized. In the extreme, governmental control can be absolute. Examples of highly centralized systems include North Korea, Saudi Arabia, the (now defunct) Soviet Union, and Cuba; less centralized systems would include those of the U.S. and Finland. In the highly centralized systems, the government controls who gets government funding, what to teach, how and how often to test, which books to use, how to train teachers, whom to hire, and so forth. In the U.S. many of these decisions are left to states. This control happens not just at K-12 levels: state colleges and universities also have to dance to the tune of their government’s policies if they receive federal or state dollars. If those policies say you should memorize everything or paint by numbers or imitate the great writers by copying their work, then that’s what you learn to do. That is your cognitive training.

I call it the educational system that Jack built: governmental officials write policies that inform educational institutions, who train teachers, who in turn teach our students to memorize or critically think or whatever they are told to do. So, beware of your government officials because they’ve got their hands on your brain!

Jean Piaget quote

Tilling Our Children’s Mental Soil

One of the most mind-blowing ideas I learned in grad school was in a seminar on anthropology and education. We read about how societies educate their children in order to replicate their society, not to change it. Status quo, baby. This cultural tendency means we teach our children how we were taught.

This sounds like a benign problem until we consider cultures that teach memorizing and regurgitation of facts. We need facts, of course. However, unless we’re taught how to evaluate their veracity or how they fit into a larger context, we’re missing the boat—and a big one at that—for two reasons. First, even if we could keep pace with memorizing all the information stacking up at breakneck speed, it’s not a sustainable approach to education, because facts are, in a sense, history—they have already occurred—whereas critical thinking affords the ability to address the future.

Take technology, for instance. We already know how to build computer chips and solar panels. But how do we teach our children to take that information and create the next big idea in technology? That’s where critical and creative thinking come in. We need to give them those skills too. Do you think Steve Jobs would have come up with the Apple computer if he’d merely memorized how to make the kind of computers that already existed? Hardly. Yes, he was a genius, but he also grew up in a society that encourages critical and creative thinking. He was taught to ask open-ended questions and synthesize all the information about computers, consider what we want or need them to do, and then look at what is possible with today’s technology. He asked that all-important what-if question a lot.

The second reason that memorizing facts is a dead end has to do with what it does to a student’s cognition. If you are busy memorizing the fact that in fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, you are not learning the significance of that fact. For example, how did his landing affect Native Americans or change Spain’s maritime might or alter mapmaking? And if you’re not learning to ask those questions, you are not learning to think critically.

Memorizing is one way to train one’s brain. Bards of yore were masters at memorizing and recited poetry for hours. But is that what we want for our children? Do we want to till their mental soil, so to speak, to memorize facts and stay in the past, or do we want to launch them into the future by teaching them to analyze those facts, apply them to other situations, and think about them from various perspectives?

I’ll take the latter, please.

Getting in the Mood to Critically Think: The Seven Dispositions of a Critical Thinker

I just finished reading a very important article about critical thinking. It’s titled “Teaching thinking dispositions: from transmission to enculturation” by Shari Tishman, Eileen Jay and D.N. Perkins, a 1993 article still relevant today (Theory into Practice, 32(3), pp.147-53). I found an excerpt on Yahoo! Finance (http://finance.yahoo.com/news/harvard-says-best-thinkers-7-182227176.html?soc_src=mediacontentstory, published Oct. 10, 2014).

The Tishman et al. article is noteworthy because people don’t usually think of someone’s disposition – i.e., tendency to do something – as a part of critical thinking. But I believe it is a crucial aspect and easily overlooked. Here are the seven dispositions:

  1. The disposition to be broad and adventurous: The tendency to be open-minded, to explore alternative views; an alertness to narrow thinking; the ability to generate multiple options.
  2. The disposition toward sustained intellectual curiosity: The tendency to wonder, probe, find problems, a zest for inquiry; an alertness for anomalies; the ability to observe closely and formulate questions.
  3. The disposition to clarify and seek understanding: A desire to understand clearly, to seek connections and explanations; an alertness to unclarity and need for focus; an ability to build conceptualizations.
  4. The disposition to be planful and strategic: The drive to set goals, to make and execute plans, to envision outcomes; alertness to lack of direction; the ability to formulate goals and plans.
  5. The disposition to be intellectually careful: The urge for precision, organization, thoroughness; an alertness to possible error or inaccuracy; the ability to process information precisely.
  6. The disposition to seek and evaluate reasons: The tendency to question the given, to demand justification; an alertness to the need for evidence; the ability to weigh and assess reasons.
  7. The disposition be metacognitive: The tendency to be aware of and monitor the flow of one’s own thinking; alertness to complex thinking situations; the ability to exercise control of mental processes and to be reflective.

Interestingly, even if you have the ability to think critically but fail to do so, then you cannot rightly call yourself a critical thinker. That is because you don’t just turn them on and off. They should be used at all times in what are called “uncued conditions” (p. 5 of https://learnweb.harvard.edu/alps/thinking/docs/article2.html). This means you are a critical thinker not only at test time or during class but also when you read about a dangerous epidemic in the newspaper, hear a report about Afghanistan on TV, play a fun video game, listen to a sermon, or even read this article about dispositions – all the time and everywhere.

The authors also explain why dispositions cannot be taught through the transmission model, i.e., memorization. One cannot memorize one’s way into critical thinking. Critical thinking is a process that requires actively examining claims, scrutinizing support, and weighing data. We must never swallow anything whole, as is often the case when teachers lecture and students take notes. This teaching/learning model will not stand if a culture is to progress and make informed decisions.

I plan to write more about this, especially about cultures that may teach critical thinking but lack these critical dispositions.

Questioning Oneself

One of the best graduate school midterms I ever took was given by my mentor and dissertation advisor, Dr. Vera John-Steiner. She is one of four Vygotskian scholars who edited Mind in Society* (1978) and has written extensively about his sociocultural approach to education. In keeping with his philosophy – that acquiring knowledge is acquired through shared activities – she asked for pairs of students to develop a question for each other about anything they might have about Vygotsky’s work. We would then research our question and report the findings orally to each other and written (two pages max) for her perusal. It’s been 25 years since I took that exam, and I still remember my question and the answer. But that exam also taught me how powerful posing one’s own questions can be.

And even though I have superciliously tagged by blog the who, what, where, when, and why of critical thinking, I mean that I intend to seek answers to all those questions about critical thinking. So in that spirit, here are a few questions that have been rattling around in my brain:

  1.  How do the Common Core standards promote CT?
  2. How soon is too soon to start teaching CT and how should we do it?
  3. Do people from various educational traditions think critically in the same way?
  4. Why can’t we agree on a definition of CT?
  5. Do I have to accumulate a certain number of facts about a topic before I can critically think about it and if so, what is the tipping point?
  6. How can two intelligent people both be critical thinkers and yet come to different conclusions?
  7. Can everyone be a critical thinker regardless of IQ?
  8. Why is CT such a vague concept (“I think I know what it is, but I’m not sure”) and is there a better way or term we could use to explain and clarify its meaning?
  9. What are the best practices for teaching CT?
  10. Is there a textbook that teaches CT?
  11. What is Design Thinking and how does it comport with CT?

If you would like to add your own questions—and I hope you do!—or suggest resources to help answer them, I would be so grateful and will try my best to formulate a reply. Please post them on this blog or contact me at nancy . burkhalter @ live.com.

*Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, and E. Souberman (Eds.). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Great Resources

I am so impressed with these three websites, especially the first one. It is a Canadian organization that gives terrific ideas on how to teach, create, and share ideas on CT.

The Critical Thinking Consortium

Critical Thinking Consortium

Just today I received an email from them with this information about more resources at this URL (under Join heading):

tc2- Join

“If you are in a position to help implement critical thinking, here are three resources you might use to introduce the Tools for Thought to teachers during a short meeting. This online collection of ready to use lesson plans introduces students to a wide range of intellectual tools for effective thinking. “

There are lots of easy to use ideas for all levels, including lesson plans. What could be easier?

CriticalThinking.net (http://www.criticalthinking.net/howteach.html)

Written by one of the fathers of critical thinking, Robert Ennis provides “Twenty-One Strategies and Tactics for Teaching Critical Thinking.” Subheads include Underlying and Fundamental Strategies, Tactics, and Mid-Level Strategies. It’s a bit condensed, but it provides a great bird’s-eye view of what CT consists of and how to teach it.

Critical Thinking Pathways (Critical Thinking Pathways)

Edutopia, where this article appears, has a lot to recommend it on many issues educational, but this posting by blogger Todd Finley really sent me over the moon. It has everything from definitions of CT ideas for project-based learning to the formulation of questions. It’s a collection of resources (including Ennis’s from above) that you could spend a day looking over. Be sure to look at the other articles in the series.

 

 

Articles on Assessment of Critical Thinking 4

This is the last in this series of annotated bibs about articles on CT assessment, but I would like to revisit it soon. It is, after all, a huge topic and not at all settled. These last two items are by the same people, Richard Paul and Linda Elder. Please let me know if you find these postings helpful or would like me to add one of your choosing.

Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2007). Critical thinking competency standards: Standards, principles, performance indicators, and outcomes with a critical thinking master rubric. Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking Press.

This book is from a series about critical thinking that the Foundation for Critical Thinking writes and publishes. All of Paul and Elder’s books are based on eights elements of reasoning, nine intellectual standards, and eight intellectual traits.

Their rubric for assessing critical thinking is a combination of these 25 competencies. The authors recommend assigning 0-4 points per standard in their grading rubric. Each standard lists several outcomes. For instance, Standard Four: Inferences and Interpretations lists this as one of the nine outcomes: “Students distinguish between assumptions and inferences; they uncover and accurately assess the assumptions underlying inferences,” (p. 20). It doesn’t give any instructions on how to go about assessing assumptions and inferences, just that you should do it.

There is a wealth of information in this and all their booklets on different aspects of critical thinking, but many are not easily navigated without some instruction and practice. They are also fairly dense and somewhat repetitive from book to book, probably so one can read any of them as a stand-alone document. The Foundation has made a name for itself by identifying and expanding the elements of critical thinking, although it can be fairly said that Richard Paul brought a sterling reputation to the Foundation from his years as a philosopher. Their booklets are more informational than pedagogically suited. Useful for those wanting to appreciate how complex critical thinking can be, the information can be tailored to address individual teaching needs, albeit with some difficulty.

 

Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2006). The international critical thinking reading & writing test. Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking Press.

As with the other booklet annotated above, this one also draws upon seven “symbiotic skills” of disciplined thought: 1. Clarify purpose, 2. Formulate clear questions, 3. Distinguish accurate and relevant information from inaccurate and irrelevant information, 4. Reach logical inferences or conclusions, 5. Identify significant and deep concepts, 6. Distinguish justifiable from unjustifiable assumptions, and 7. Trace logical implications. Outcomes are provided.

The authors break down the processes of close reading and substantive writing into five levels: paraphrasing, explicating, analysis, evaluation, and role-playing. For each level, they provide very useful exercises as well as sample responses. They use fairly high level texts, e.g., Thoreau’s On Civil Disobedience and Fromm’s The Art of Loving. The method, however, is applicable to any text. This book is much more teacher-friendly because it goes carefully through the steps of close reading and substantive writing. [Much of the method is also covered in their booklet titled A Thinkers Guide to How to Read a Paragraph and Beyond: The Art of Close Reading (2003)]. Their method really shows how to put critical thinking into action and prevent students from zooming through readings with little understanding. It is the antidote to fast-food thinking, which is, of course, their point.

This booklet does not teach how to design or conduct the test but rather provides examples of how to examine a particular component of critical thinking. Grading, they caution, should be done only by someone who is familiar with the tenets of critical thinking if reliability is to be achieved.

While the efforts of the Foundation are admirable and an invaluable contribution to the field, I find their explanations dense and at times inaccessible, even to someone who has studied critical thinking a lot and even attended several of their conferences. For my money, critical thinking is already mysterious enough, and those who come to this and other booklets uninitiated in their canon may find them tough sledding but worth the effort for the trying.

 

Observation: The Earliest Critical Thinking Skill

This is another guest posting of a presentation given by Steve Coxon, Ph.D., assistant professor & director of Programs in Gifted Education at Maryville University in St. Louis, Missouri. He presented his talk at the 34th International Conference on Critical Thinking and Educational Reform sponsored by the Foundation for Critical Thinking (www.criticalthinking.org) in July this year. He has also generously offered to send his PowerPoint presentation that accompanied his talk. Below that is Dr. Coxon’s contact information and some websites pertinent to his talk.

Observation: The Earliest Critical Thinking Skill

Careful observation is fundamental to a fair-minded understanding of the world and is important to continue to develop in elementary students through increasingly challenging learning activities. In her book, Emergent Science, Johnston (2014, p. 8) refers to observation as the “first and most important scientific skill” and suggests it begins to develop in the womb as the fetus learns to recognize familiar voices. While preschool curricula often focus on improving observational skills in early childhood, researchers Eberback and Crowley (2009) note that elementary classrooms neglect further development in middle and late childhood. This is unfortunate as it takes increasingly challenging experiences to improve any skill and careful observation is needed for well-developed habits of mind including clarity, accuracy, precision, depth, and breadth. Moreover, strong observational skills underlie such critical thinking concepts as comparing and contrasting viewpoints, evaluating evidence, and noting the sometimes subtle differences between fact and opinion. This concurrent session will provide a background on the development of observational skills in early childhood, connections between observation and critical thinking, and challenging activities to improve observational skills in elementary school students.

 

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Using Social Media as an Access Point to Analyze Our Thinking

Dear readers:

Shira Cohen-Goldberg delivered a presentation at the 34th International Conference on Critical Thinking and Educational Reform (July 2014) for teachers and elementary school students. Shira is a lead facilitator at the HILL for Literacy, Inc. Below is an abstract of her talk. Slides and handouts can be located at

http://hillforliteracy.org/resources/presentations (at the top of the page).

The Common Core State Standards establish that teaching practices and related tasks that help students cultivate their thinking are to be prioritized in classroom instruction. This presentation is designed to help participants explore novel ways to bring the core concepts of critical thinking to elementary and middle school students. By nature, digital information (including social networking sites and YouTube) is continuously accessible, abundant, and often requires careful analysis. Social media is a timely and appropriate means to help young students analyze new information and is an engaging point of access for all students. Cohen-Goldberg uses digital media to help participants explore the concepts of information/inferences/assumptions, touch on paraphrasing and explication, and deeply engage in the analysis level by exploring the logic of an internet persona’s thinking. She offers methods and tools to help students move their thinking beyond digital media and into textual analysis.