A Teaching Moment Missed, Part II

Part I told the (true) story of Daniel, a high school junior whose correct answer to a test question was marked wrong and whose teacher refused to consider his explanation of the thought process that led to his answer. The teacher thus missed an opportunity to teach her class a valuable lesson about critical thinking.

Sadly, innumerable opportunities for teaching critical thinking are missed, even in schools that claim to be dedicated to such teaching. The main reason for this is that may of the people who design curriculums and create teaching/testing materials, and many of the teachers, have erroneous notions about what it means to teach thinking.

For example, many science teachers believe they are teaching thinking by talking about scientific theories and experiments. Similarly, many English teachers believe they are teaching thinking by talking about the thoughts expressed in literature. And many social studies teachers believe they are teaching thinking by discussing the customs and traditions of various societies.

All three notions are mistaken, and for the same reason. Telling students what others have thought is very different from teaching them how to think. The error is similar to that of the coach who believes his team will become competent players by watching him play, the driver’s education instructor who believes his students will become competent drivers by watching him drive, or the piano teacher who believes her students will become competent pianists by watching her perform.

In reality, thinking is very much like playing a sport, driving a car, riding a bike, playing a musical instrument, and dancing. In other words, like those activities, it is a skill that is gained only through practice. Reading about an activity and watching others demonstrate their proficiency in it have value, but they are no substitute for performing the activity oneself again and again until it is mastered.

Am I denigrating reading in placing thinking above it in importance? Not at all, and quite the contrary. Almost 400 years ago, Francis Bacon wrote that the very purpose of reading is “not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.”

Bacon’s weighing and considering phrase is a near-synonym for critical thinking and can serve as a guide for teaching such thinking. Here are suggestions for how teachers can employ it:

First, they can stop regarding teaching solely as giving students information to remember for the exam. In addition, they must give students opportunities to raise questions about at least some of the information, questions like How much of this is fact and how much is opinion? How well reasoned is the opinion? What arguments have been, or could be, offered against it? Does this information have any implications beyond the obvious ones?

Teachers can also stop doing most of the talking in class and instead devote time to having students speak. For example, when they give students opportunities to ask questions about course information, they can let them compare and discuss their answers. Teachers can also introduce thought-provoking questions about course concepts or timely matters in public discourse. Here are two examples of such questions:

Have you ever heard the old saying, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” What does that mean? Think of an example of a situation in which the statement would apply? How would you explain the meaning of the saying to someone who doesn’t understand?

You’ve heard it said, “It is important to maintain high self-esteem—that is, thinking well of yourself at all times.” Do you believe that is entirely true, partly true, or true in certain circumstances? Think of one or more situations in which it would be true. Then think of one or more situations in which it might not be true. In light of the situations you considered, decide whether the saying should be revised. If it should, compose your revision.

In such situations, if student discussion bogs down or loses focus and the teacher is tempted to take over the conversation, she should remember that the goal is not to tell students what to think but to help them discover thoughts of their own. To that end, she might raise a question that will get the conversation back on track.

Another important step in transforming teaching from “giving information” to stimulating thought is to use examinations that help to develop students’ thinking. Unfortunately, most exams are designed to measure nothing more than students’ grasp of information presented in books and teachers’ commentary. With such exams, students’ answers reveal the choices they made but not the thinking that went into those choices. (For all the teacher can tell, students’ answers may be blind guesses.)

Such tests can easily be transformed. All that need be done is to ask students to choose among, let us say, answers A, B, C, or D, and then to explain briefly why they chose one answer rather than the others. In correcting the tests, the teacher can then see at a glance whether the students reasoned well, poorly, or not at all. Once the tests have been marked and returned, class discussion can focus not just on the right or wrong answers, but on the reasoning that led to them. Such discussion is especially helpful in improving thinking skills. Over time, it helps students develop more effective patterns of thought.

Copyright © 2017 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved