In the early 1990s a number of corporations in the USA made public complaints that while schools were sending them workers who could read and write, most of their workforce could not think. What they meant was that, for example, when a problem arose in their work they had no idea what to do to try to solve it – they were just jumping at the first idea that came into their heads that often did not work without thinking things through first. Pretty soon these complaints brought about shifts that made teaching thinking a school priority. It didn’t take long for this to become a worldwide concern.
It’s been 25 years since then. Have schools responded to this plea?
Commercial educational publishers initially jumped in here. The majority produced a number of new self-contained programs on thinking, thinking skills, and critical thinking, especially for the primary grades, usually carrying their own sets of books and materials, and requiring a special and separate place in the regular school curriculum. In some of these students learn how to identify patterns by connecting dots in intricate puzzles, and some, following the lead of many universities that introduced new critical thinking courses, focused on logic and argument, though simplified for pre-university students, and sometimes delivered using cartoons and games.
Many schools purchased these. They now sit collecting dust on the back shelves of the libraries in these schools.
What many schools found was that while some of these were fun and engaging they had no impact on the thinking that students did when learning the other things in the curriculum — mathematics, science, social studies, etc. And their lives outside school? Problem solving and decision making seemed to get worse. As they got older many students were just jumping at the first thing that come into their heads when they had to decide things or solve problems. “Smoke that cigarette? Yes, give me one!” Parents were pleading: “Please, think about the consequences of what you are doing before you do it.” This fell on deaf ears.
This has now also been borne out in significant educational research. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, well, we kept on hearing the same complaints from many businesses, though, paradoxically, it was obvious that one of the great powers of commercial advertising produced by these same businesses was to stop people from thinking! At the same time teachers were, more and more, beginning to realize that the methods of teaching they were employing across the curriculum were missing the target: what students were learning was divorced from anything in their lives because they were learning just by memorizing things, something that left them without much sense of the importance of what they were memorizing. It was just a vehicle for getting a grade that would mean that they passed the test, getting them closer to getting out of school and entering “the real world”.
Well, teaching thinking did not sink beneath the waves altogether. Researchers like Edward DeBono introduced us to many short and brisk, but thought-provoking, strategies that generated some richer thinking episodes. In his CORT program he formulated strategies for students to practice in everyday situations, and these usually prompted some rich thinking in which students brought out responses based on their past experiences and background knowledge, and when practiced in a group, led to a variety of comments often reflecting different points of view.
Where can these richer projects fit in a school curriculum? Well, maybe from 9:00 to 9:50 am on Friday morning. That’s when students learn thinking. The rest of the time they learn science, math, social studies. Through the 1990s and early 2000s I despaired as I saw thinking get squeezed into a smaller and smaller compartment. And everything else went on as usual.
For me, though, it is in the classrooms of regular teachers who infuse thinking into their content teaching that we should look. My first experience of a teacher who infused teaching skillful thinking into his content instruction was when I observed a high school teacher give his students two history text books that had contradictory accounts of the same historical event. He asked them to stand back from what they were reading and make up their own minds which was likely to be giving them the most accurate account – or if neither maybe they can do better. They had to do this by thinking carefully together about what they needed to find out to determine which is the more reliable source. They listed things to find out about the author, the text book company, where the author got his or her information, any biases, what do others say… Wow, I thought, what a great approach to judging the reliability of a source. It could be used to think about any piece of writing like this in newspapers, even in encyclopedias, and today, in Wikipedia. This is real critical thinking in the classroom. What I saw in these students was the stirring of liberation from the tyranny of having to accept what someone tells you in a text book to the freedom of deciding for themselves what they should accept based on good sound and responsible thinking.
In Spain now this model has been spread to teachers from Colegios Lope de Vega in Benidorm, Carmelitas and NCLIC in Vitoria, Erain in Irun, La Asuncion in Carceres, Salzillo in Molina, and the teachers of Colegio Montserrat in Barcelona, just to mention a few. And they have broadened their emphases to include not just critical thinking skills like in the history example, but skill at creative and innovative thinking, at analysis for deep understanding, and at decision making and problem solving. Their classrooms contain the seeds that can blossom into a great country-wide tree of deep learning based on good thinking.
Will this do what was requested of us 25 years ago? We can only find out if we keep trying like these schools do.
That’s why I move from school to school when a school wants to try the same thing, and I smile when I pass those libraries and see those early commercially produced materials “designed to make students better thinkers” collecting dust on the shelves.
Wrote by Robert Swartz.