The Most Revolutionary Act

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A Radical Alternative: Teaching Students to Think

Posted By on February 25, 2013

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Lakeside School Seattle

This is final in a series of guest posts by Dr Danny Weil from an article (World Class Standards: Whose World, Which Economic Classes and What Standards?) he originally published in Daily Censored.

In the ninth section, Dr Weil describes the alternative – namely critical thinking standards – to neo-liberal education standards. This post summarizes a discussion that is robust in the academic literature but totally absent from the corporate media.

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What Might Critical Thinking Standards Look Like and How Might We Link Them to Accountability

By Dr Danny Weil

“The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives.” - Robert Maynard Hutchins

There are no eternal facts as there are no absolute truths. - Friedrich Nietzsche

Although post-formalism is critical of the current conservative standards debate for the reasons discussed, post-formalists also recognize the need for authentic standards to assess and measure progress among students.  They too believe that teachers and students should be held accountable and responsible, but they also believe that society itself must be held accountable; that accountability must be shared between individuals and the social structures they live in and that both the objective and subjective conditions of society must be understood to create this shared accountability.

Post-formalism is interested in assessing how students think, not what they think, and they want standards and accountability tied to what it means to be a critical thinker.  Post-formalists are also committed to helping students develop the ability to assess themselves; the ability to develop and apply criteria to their thinking in the interest of self-improvement and continuous lifelong learning.  They begin with the human being—looking to define what it means to be human and intelligent and then develop “standards” to assess this humanness and intelligence.  Authentic standards, as they might be developed by post-formalists, don’t abandon the teaching of basic skills. On the contrary, they seek to teach basic skills within an environment of inquiry that enhances and assesses critical and creative thinking—not simply to teach basic skills in isolation as repetitive boring activities.  They are concerned that skills are best learned and internalized through their use in harmony with the construction of collaborative and individual projects.

Teachers who teach for critical thinking are interested in developing within their students their capacity to solve problems, develop empathy and humility; to make rational decisions and continuously assess their thinking to determine its strengths, weaknesses and limitations.  They seek to imbue in their students a sense of imagination and curiosity that calls on them to seek complex answers to complex questions in a world with others — to approach learning as an act of “figuring out what they don’t know.”  They are particularly interested in helping their students develop effective modes of thinking in the cognitive areas of abstract, systematic, evaluative, and collaborative thinking and they are aware of the affective dimension of emotional intelligence and its dialectical relationship to creative and critical thought.  They endeavor to create a curriculum that helps their students subject what they think they know to critical scrutiny in the interest of achieving the best results, the best decisions, the best thinking and the best solutions to human problems.   They understand that the real curriculum is life and they work with multiple intelligences and offer varied and interdisciplinary opportunities for students to develop these intelligences.  Finally, critical and creative teachers are concerned with all of the above as it affects good judgment, innovation, cooperative living, collaborative problem-solving, and a developing a more productive and happier life—not simply making better machines or consumer products.  The following are just some examples of what some critical and creative thinking standards might look like, but they are in no way meant to be definitive or universal.  As you will see, they are what we want our students to do and can be assessed only through performance or portfolio assessment.  They are not offered as a checklist or processes that must be taught in isolation, but as the type of mental processes that critical thinking might employ when solving problems and making decisions:

  • Evaluate data and evidence
  • Compare and contrast similarities and differences
  • Explore actions, decisions, and conclusions of oneself and others
  • Evaluate actions, decisions, and solutions of oneself and others
  • Clarify generalizations
  • Reason inductively, from the particular to the abstract
  • Avoid over-generalizations and oversimplifications
  • Recognize the logic of points of view
  • Recognize arguments, analyze them, and then evaluate them
  • Distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information and data
  • Identify sources of information and develop a criteria for determining reliability of these sources
  • Develop one’s own viewpoint, perspective and outlook
  • Think about one’s thinking in the interest of transformative metacogntion
  • Listen critically to others
  • Transfer abstract insights into everyday life
  • Reason interdisciplinary and synthesize subject-matter insights
  • Recognize decisions, analyze them, and evaluate them
  • Identify, develop, evaluate, and apply criteria to ideas, products, and performances of one’s self and others
  • Make informed decisions by examining options and anticipating consequences of actions
  • Recognize and describe systems and their interdependence
  • Work effectively in groups to accomplish goals
  • Reason historically, conceiving of places, times, and conditions different than one’s own
  • Recognize the influence of diverse cultural perspectives on human thought and behavior
  • Develop independent thinking and an investigative orientation
  • Develop intellectual empathy
  • Develop intellectual humility and an insight into egocentric thinking
  • Develop intellectual imagination and curiosity
  • Develop intellectual efficacy and confidence in their reasoning abilities
  • Develop a tolerance for ambiguity
  • Develop intellectual perseverance and discipline when confronting obstacles and problems
  • Develop intellectual courage
  • Develop intellectual civility when dialoguing
  • Develop intellectual integrity

Discussing, questioning, and dialoguing about these and other critical thinking standards would serve to recast the debate regarding teaching as simply the transmission of information and ideas.  It would embrace and call attention to the fact that the act of education is at once an act of communication and dialogue in search of significance and meaning.  Critical thinking standards would allow teachers to engage in teaching as an act of love and creativity—as opposed to instrumentality and technological control.  And of course, since critical thinking develops and build character, these standards would help students manage their lives as opposed to having them managed, author their existence in favor of having their existence authored, and govern their personal and social behavior as opposed to having their behavior governed.

These critical thinking processes (I use this term to differentiate between these ideas as processes and these ideas as skills), can be seen as distinctly different than basic skills.  Both are important and both should be tested.  Yet many teachers have never thought about the difference between basic skills and critical thinking processes.  Understanding that these processes are uniquely different from what we are told are basic skills, is the first step in understanding how they might be taught and assessed.  It affords us a starting place from which to dialogue, discuss, and question the development of more authentic standards and assessment.

Developing a Public Language of Literacy and Tools for Assessment

“In teaching for thinking, we are not only interested in how many answers students know, but also in knowing how to behave when they DON’T know.  Intelligent behavior is performed in response to questions and problems the answers to which are NOT immediately know.  We are interested in observing how students produce knowledge rather than how they merely reproduce knowledge.  The critical attribute of intelligent human beings is not only having information, but knowing how to act on it.” – Art Costa, What Human Beings do When They  Behave Intelligently 1994

Much has been written within the last ten years about authentic changes in critical thinking assessment tools and techniques— from the use of portfolio assessment to performance assessment.  And there is no doubt that some of the most exciting work in authentic assessment today is coming from those who will and are using it—classroom teachers.  Utilizing such authentic assessment tools as reading portfolios, video portfolios, journals, and thinking and listening portfolios to assess critical thinking, can all call upon students to assess their own thinking and the work they are doing while providing the classroom teacher with a documented method for authentic assessment that meets the needs of parents and the public who correctly search for some accountability in education.  This has both the dual benefit of allowing students to take responsibility for their learning while at the same time freeing the teacher to become a facilitator of thinking as opposed to a routinized clerk.  Teachers who utilize authentic assessment techniques to assess critical thinking, know that it is based upon authentic learning that asks students to probe the cognitive and affective dimensions of how they come to understand what they think they understand.  Furthermore, with authentic assessment, teachers, students, and parents can observe student performance and infer concepts about their literacy from these performances; thereby enabling them to work with students in the interest of continual self-improvement.  This can vary from the observing the range of reading and writing skills that students employ, to what these performances show us as teachers.  From observing students’ strategies and what they do when they read and write, for example, teachers can deduce their attitudes and dispositions and help them develop emotional and affective dimensions of intelligence.  Authentic also assessment allows educators to continually improve their own instructional techniques, to collaborate as intellectuals as they find out more about how students learn, integrate knowledge, and attempt to develop their capacity to think critically about their curriculum and how they might work with students to develop knowledge.

How we assess students and what we assess, virtually drives, shapes, and influences what happens within the classroom.   Assessment shapes the curriculum as much as the curriculum shapes assessment.  Understanding the underlying assumptions and inferences that guide the current conservative approach to assessment and contrasting this with an active literacy, or post-formalist approach to learning and teaching is essential for increasing our understanding of how students learn.  What’s more, we must make our post-formal positions on assessment understandable and accessible to parents and the community.  We must feel compelled to denude the mythology employed by the elite merchants of prevarication and work with parents to construct a vision of what it means to be actively literate and educated in today’s society—what it means to think critically.  This means that the education of children simultaneously develops as the education of parents and communities, as we collaboratively learn to forge a partnership and dialogue within our communities regarding intelligence and learning.  We must look for venues to discuss new ideas, whether it is in our unions, our churches, mosques, temples, at the grocery store or in the mall.  We can never allow the mythology of market driven forces to script educational theatre. Instead we must struggle to pierce the veil of social and political mendacity and proclaim the conservative standards debate for what it really is—a mythology, a prescription and recipe that is not in the interests of either ourselves or our children.

We also must document students’ performances and provide open, public meetings and forums where parents and students are invited to engage in a dialogue about learning and assessment with their children.  This will assist parents in understanding what it truly means to be intelligent and how to provide for their children’s intellectual growth outside of school.  All of this will be essential if we are to rupture the hegemony of the standard mythology and institutionalize authentic procedures for student assessment.

Finally, obviously one cannot assess what one does not understand.  We should not take for granted that teachers themselves have been exposed to progressive dialogues regarding intelligence, critical thinking, constructivism, multiple theories of education or post-formalist principles regarding learning, motivation and teaching.  In fact, in light of the disconsolate state of teacher education programs and the demagogic media driven debate regarding assessment, we probably should assume the opposite.

Similarly, as stated earlier, students must be taught how to assess their own thinking and the thinking of others so they can become life-long learners.  They must be motivated to see the logic of what they are studying and see the relevance of education to their daily lives.  Helping students find relevant significance and meaning within a community of learning will not only help them become life-long learners, but will equip them with an ability to monitor their thinking in the interests of self-correction and critical reflection.  Students and teachers must understand that assessing is learning and learning is assessing– that these are not separate and distinct activities as they have been characterized but life-long, ongoing activities.

 I have thought to use the chart below to compare and contrast what I refer to as  inauthentic standards assessment and authentic standards assessment:

INAUTHENTIC   STANDARDS AND ASSESSMENT AUTHENTIC STANDARDS AND ASSESSMENT
1.  BASED ON ISOLATING ITEMS OF   LEARNING THAT CAN BE COUNTED AND MEASURED 1.  IS BASED ON ORCHESTRATING   ITEMS OF LEARNING FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE OR GOAL, OR TO SOLVE A PARTICULAR   PROBLEM
2.  FOCUSES ON “GETTING THE   RIGHT ANSWER” 2.  FOCUSES ON NOT JUST GETTING THE RIGHT   ANSWER BUT ON UNCOVERING THE PROCESSES ONE GOES THROUGH TO GET ANSWERS
3.  PROVIDES A “QUICK FIX”   NUMERICAL UNDERSTANDING 3.  IS LONG TERM AND BASED ON INSIGHTS INTO   WHAT IT MEANS TO LEARN AND TEACH
4.  FOCUSES ON THE TRIVIAL ASPECTS OF LEARNING 4.  FOCUSES ON ASSESSING THE   BROAD ASPECTS OF LITERACY OR “THE WHOLE PERSON”
5.  IS SKILL DRIVEN 5.  IS BASED ON TESTING SKILLS IN THE CONTEXT   OF CRITICAL THINKING AND PROBLEM SOLVING
6.  LOOKS AT THE SURFACE FEATURES OF STUDENTS’   PERFORMANCES 6.  LOOKS AT THE TOTALITY OF STUDENTS’   PERFORMANCES AND SERVES AS A GUIDE FOR FUTURE GROWTH
7.  IS ABSTRACTED AND DIVORCED FROM THE REAL   LIVED LIVES OF STUDENTS 7.  IS RELEVANT AND STIMULATING, MOTIVATING   STUDENTS TO QUESTION AND DISCOVER
8.  PROVIDES MISLEADING INFORMATION AND   DIRECTION FOR FURTHER LEARNING AND TEACHING 8.  PROVIDES COMPLETE INFORMATION THAT HELPS TO   GUIDE AND STRENGTHEN THE CURRICULUM AND PROVIDE DIRECTION FOR BOTH TEACHERS   AND STUDENTS FOR FURTHER LEARNING AND TEACHING
9.  IS NON-INTERDISCIPLINARY AND FAILS TO HELP   STUDENTS TRANSFER INSIGHTS INTO THEIR OWN LIVES 9.  IS INTERDISCIPLINARY AND   HELPS STUDENTS TRANSFER SUBJECT INSIGHTS INTO THEIR OWN LIVES WHILE ENABLING   THEM TO SEE HOW DISCIPLINES, SUBJECTS AND WHAT THEY ARE LEARNING RELATE TO   EACH OTHER
10.  PROVIDES NO UNDERSTANDING FOR STUDENTS,   TEACHERS OR PARENTS AS TO WHAT IT MEANS TO BE INTELLIGENT OR EDUCATED IN   TODAY’S SOCIETY 10.  SERVES AS A GUIDE FOR PARENTS, TEACHERS AND   STUDENTS AS TO THE MEANING OF INTELLIGENCE AND HOW INTELLIGENCE CAN BE   CULTIVATED, FOSTERED AND LEARNED
11.  IS OF LITTLE USE TO STUDENTS AND PROVIDES   THEM WITH NO DIRECTION OR STANDARDS BY WHICH TO DEVELOP THE ART OF   SELF-ASSESSMENT 11.  UNDERSTANDS LITERACY AS SELF-ASSESSMENT AND   PROVIDES STUDENTS WITH A PROFILE OF THEIR WORK SO THAT THEY MIGHT DEVELOP   STANDARDS BY WHICH TO IMPROVE THEIR THINKING THROUGH TRANSFORMATIVE   METACOGNITION
12.  FAILS TO ACCOUNT FOR OR ASSESS EMOTIONAL   INTELLIGENCE OR ATTITUDES AND DISPOSITIONS OF LEARNING 12.  UNDERSTANDS THAT ATTITUDES AND DISPOSITIONS   OF LEARNING AND EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE ARE SYNERGISTICALLY RELATED TO WHAT IT   MEANS TO BE INTELLIGENT
13.  SERVES TO CONTROL TEACHERS AND STUDENTS,   WHAT THEY TEACH AND WHAT THEY THINK 13.  HELPS TEACHERS AND STUDENTS CONTROL   THEMSELVES, WHAT THEY TEACH AND WHAT THEY THINK
14.  TESTS DISCIPLINES 14.  TESTS DISCIPLINED THINKING
15.  FAILS TO ACCOUNT FOR DIFFERENCES IN RACE,   GENDER AND SOCIO-ECONOMIC CLASS AND REFUSES TO ACKNOWLEDGE THE SOCIAL   CONSTRUCTION OF KNOWLEDGE 15.  UNDERSTANDS THAT KNOWLEDGE IS SOCIALLY   CONSTRUCTED AND CONCEIVES OF DIFFERENCES AS POSITIVE
16.  IS NON-DIALOGICAL 16.  IS BASED ON COMMUNICATION AND DIALOGUE
17.  LOOKS AT STUDENTS AS OBJECTS OR RAW   MATERIALS TO BE PRODUCED AND WORKED ON 17.  LOOKS AT STUDENTS AS SUBJECTS IN THE   PROCESS OF IDENTITY FORMATION
18.  CONCEIVES OF EDUCATION AS A RESULT ONLY 18.  CONCEIVES OF EDUCATION AS A PROCESS THAT   PRODUCES RESULTS

The implications of these different theories of literacy on assessment, teaching, learning, curriculum development, and praxis are paramount and cannot be ignored. A reading and writing social studies classroom, for example, that labors under the paradigm of inauthentic assessment or passive literacy, mightask students to read short texts, answer simple questions, select from multiple choice answers, and supply missing words in cloze exercises.  The implications of passive literacy are explicit: teachers spend less time on subjects not tested, lecture to students rather than dialogue with them, and are unwilling to stray from the mandated curricula for fear of humiliation, penalization and ostracism.  As such, passive literacy builds on the model of teacher as all-knowing subject and student as spectator.

For those teachers laboring under a paradigm of authentic assessment or active literacy, students would be asked to read texts with depth and interest, thereby seeking to understand points of views, assumptions, and how people arrive at conclusions and decide to act in a world with others.   Students would be animated to problematize their learning and create and answer complex questions that call on multiple intelligences and a host of cognitive and affective abilities in the service of creatively accomplishing a project, or recognizing and solving relevant real-life problems; they learn to become participants in their learning.  Multiple choice, or limited response examinations might not be abandoned, but their use would be minimal and only applied to test students’ understanding of important basic skills; while performance and portfolio assessment would be recruited in the service of assessing the development of critical and creative thinking and communication processes, along with students’ actual application of knowledge and basic skills.

Conclusion

“A school should not be a preparation for life.  A school should be life.” – Elbert Hubbard

From a post-formal perspective, what all this means is clear: we must begin to concentrate our efforts on a public language of literacy, authentic standards, intellectual diversity, and critical thinking assessment that will enable us to provide a vision of what it means to be actively literate as opposed to passively literate.  We must speak to issues of accountability and responsibility in education, but from a post-formal point of view.  It is important to recognize that institutional and societal support must be cultivated and nurtured in order to create an environment for the achievement of learner outcomes and goals; the current universal standards debate must be seen as inauthentic and antithetical to human development.   Once again, this specifically means that we as educators must come to understand that the debate regarding assessment and standards as it is defined in popular media is mythological, jingoistic, propagandistic, and disingenuous; that it does little to foster a healthy critical discourse regarding student achievement—that it is political.  We must reform this debate with a new language of assessment and learning; one tied to what it means to be a human being in search of liberation and subjective emancipation.  The standards we adopt should help students become global citizens, not simply global producers and consumers.  They should have as their purpose the promotion of healthy individual and social growth through critical reflection.  And they must truly be opportunities offered to all students, regardless of class, race, culture, or gender.

Societal support and a realignment of economic and cultural priorities and reality, on the other hand, also would serve as a means for accomplishing educational goals and commitments.  This would mean that the debate regarding education would need to confront objective reality— issues of racial, sexual, educational, and socio-economic equity, directly and honestly— to embrace the necessity for an acute paradigm shift toward general societal humanistic values and changes—from the classroom to the workplace, from the family to the state.  It would be perfidious to propose that equity can exist within the institutions of education while economic and social inequality pervades major societal institutions as a whole.  For this reason, teachers as intellectuals must become teachers as social activists, collaborating and re-oxygenating their unions with vision and struggling for a commitment on the part of society to make children the top priority, to preserve and strengthen public education, to provide adequate nutrition and health care to families, to furnish safe schools and neighborhoods, to assure the development and distribution of fair and adequate funding for public education, to equalize opportunity, and to support local decision-making by governing bodies.  As society and its institutions forge a partnership for critical thinking and educational opportunities for all students, the primary indicator of our effectiveness will be our ability to achieve our greatest goal: the education of all our nation’s children and the creation of a loving world of authentic agency and caring human beings.

Dr Danny Weil is a public interest attorney who has practiced for more than twenty years and has been published in a case of first impression in California. He is no longer active as a lawyer but has written seven books on education, has taught second grade in South Central LA, PS 122, taught K-1 migrant children in Santa Maria, California and Guadalupe, California, taught in the California Youth Authority to first and second degree murderers and taught for seventeen years at Allan Hancock Junior College in Santa Maria, CA. in the philosophy department. Dr. Weil holds a BA in Political Economics and Philosophy, a multi-subject bilingual credential in education (he is fluent in Spanish) and has a PhD in Critical Thinking. He is a writer for the Truthout Intellectual Project.

 

 

photo credit: mcoughlin via photopin cc


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