A Pure Nugget of Truth

Most Educators Do Not Understand Importance Of Critical Thinking, Author Says. The Des Moines Register (5/15) features an interview with Tony Wagner, the co-director of the Change in Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of the book, The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach The New Survival Skills Our Children Need – And What We Can Do About It. In the book, Wagner asserts that “the seven survival skills…all students should master are critical thinking and problem solving; collaboration across networks and leading by influence; agility and adaptability; initiative and entrepreneurship; effective oral and written communication; accessing and analyzing information; and curiosity and imagination.” Those skills, he says will help teach “students how to think.” When asked why the push to teach critical-thinking skills has not “taken hold” in schools, Wagner said, that “most teachers, parents, and employers don’t understand the importance of critical thinking.” Some contend “that critical thinking is too fuzzy. Therefore, it’s not tested. If it’s not tested, it’s not going to be taught.”

Most educators with professional expertise/credentials recognize ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’.   Unfortunately, as wonderful as Mr. Bloom was in pointing out the obvious, most teachers are not ‘allowed’ (I am using this term loosely as allowing some one to do something, according to Merriam-Webster means everything from “to give consideration to circumstances or contingencies” to “forbear or neglect to restrain or prevent”) to reach out to students and expect the top levels of the taxonomy as, indeed, as noted above – it is not tested, or more clearly, not easy to test in a multiple choice version of a test.  Due to the labor hours required to correct written out, thoughtful and dynamic answers, this methodololgy of instruction is rarely used in classrooms, well up to AP classes and sometimes in college.

It is not that long ago I remember  different principals telling me there was this ‘test producing software’ I could use to make my life easier and it is also easier to score/grade.  The questions are in a bank of questions from various sources (often, the same people who put poorly worded garbage in text books) and you pick out the ones you want to use, ‘align’ the questions to the standards at hand and viola’, a quiz, test, etc. that is scientifically proven.  I usually shrugged my shoulders, said thank you for the advice and went back to creating quizzes and tests where students had to not only answer the questions at hand but use justification or reasoning as to why they selected their answer. It took forever to grade, however, I was sure at the end if a student did or did not understand something.

The problem with what I was doing was a  triple-fold threat: (1) It was difficult to explain to parents in a conference why their child did not understand concept X or Y (the parents themselves were often not educated enough to understand the concept – anywhere from soccer mom without college degree to people of extreme poverty and equally lacking in formal education) when the teacher across the hall could show similar students understood concept X or Y on a multiple choice test. I became the horrible teacher because I would not settle for the ease of multiple choice tests or the symbolism of a 1/4 right answer just by luck (25% of the time a student randomly penciling in a,b,c,d would ‘get’ the right answer) and expected students to THINK.  (2) I was the exhausted teacher as I made it a personal goal to myself to grade quizzes/tests the day they were taken for quick  and appropriate feed back. This often meant staying up well through the early morning hours with coffee to grade upwards of 90-120 papers to turn them back to students the next day if I was so unfortunate as to have not given a test on a Friday.  (3)   I was the shamed teacher because other teachers did not want to put in the effort so the best they could do was bully me (typical in a school setting where tenured and/or teachers with more longevity set the expectations, not the new, young upstarts) and make me feel bad about actually sticking to Bloom’s Taxonomy and the value of critical thinking. I became the teacher few principals would  support as I also made their lives difficult expecting more of myself, my students and in effect competing with my colleagues.  I was the teacher others valued and feard for I would do what I knew was correct, without shortcuts or excuses (KIPP schools should value this, however, they use the multiple choice testing software also – not sure the excuse….convenience?).

While I asserted in my own way that children needed in -depth learning, I was chastised by the very people that should have supported me. In a few situations I ran across like minded teachers, we banded together and spent many, many hours after school perfecting our craft by sharing lesson planning ideas, strategizing creative ways for students to express their knowledge, improving/scripting/writing out better lessons, sharing material resources and grading – using rubrics to make sure we as individuals were grading our students fairly (we sometimes graded each others student work we had personal misgivings about our own grading).  This created horrific problems with the union as we were ‘breaking’ rank and making other teachers look bad. We were ‘ruining the data’ at non-union charter schools because how on earth could you compare a multiple choice test result to a written out test result. We were ‘insulting’ our students by expecting the appropriate, grade level work out of them and being willing to help every step of the way.

Teaching was a labor of love – it was about having all the awesome  aha! moments along with the magic of seeing a student take an idea to the next level. 

It was the reason I left teaching.   After being told indirectly (so know one would get caught knowing it was actually what we did) to teach to the test so the scores could go up, being denied the time within a subject for depth instead of  merely breadth of concepts on the test, being asked to ‘follow’ what the other teachers were doing and most of all, being exhausted to the point of not being able to even enjoy what little vacation time I had (charter schools go almost all year – by professional development expectations and teaching days), I decided the best I could do was walk away proudly and know in my heart, one day the tide would change.

I keep seeing this word innovation bantered about.  I have found in Judy Estrin’s book Closing The Innovation Gap a common thread with what I have believed all these years.  I want to hug her for saying there is truth to what I have thought and practiced.  Most of all I want to thank her for planting the seed that will hopefully grown to a beautiful tree which will change the way education is ‘performed’ in America.