Why we have to be critical thinkers to teach critical thinking and why we have to teach critical thinking (May 2008)

This is something I’ve been playing with for some time. I keep coming back to it. It’s one of those writings that started with a clear kernel and morphed into something different. It began about a year ago when the upper administration of the Minneapolis Schools decided to “fresh start” two schools including the one I was in. It was a highly political and in some ways person decision by the powers. It was not reasonably defensible for any of the reasons given. It had the effect in part akin to demolishing slums to eliminate poverty.


Why we have to be critical thinkers to teach critical thinking and why we have to teach critical thinking.

Critical thinking is a set of strategies for processing toward a goal. In developing learners, the process of learning is as much a goal as any tested outcome. AS teachers, we set the got both for the outcomes of our students and for the acquisition of the critical thinking process that lets them reach those outcomes. We want our students to be critical thinkers who know and can do things. We want them to know what a hypotenuse is and how to calculate one, but we also want them to be able to decide when this is the problem that needs to be solved, and what use to make of the solution. Our goal is, or should be, to develop knowledgeable critical thinkers.

To do this, we need to assess their entry status as they come to us, determine about how far along their developmental continuum we can help them to move, given the time they will be with us, and the amount of our work load we can dedicate to them individually and as members of the whole group. In other words, we need to be critical thinkers in assessing the problem presented to us, finding a solution and deciding how best to implement what process knowledge we have to move students along as much as we can. Teachers need to be critical thinkers too, a faculty greatly complicated by the current state of American education.

Currently, many of our goals as teachers are set by entities without, state departments of education, school district administrations, principals. The goals are set for our students, but the teachers are held accountable for the students’ results. This doesn’t work well, and sometimes, not at all. Here’s part of the reason why.

The process needed to successfully reach a goal is tied to the motivation and subsequently the volition of the person or group trying to reach the goal. When a person sets both the goal and the process they will perform for reaching that goal, success is more likely. It may happen that an externally imposed goal, a demand from above for higher scores and fewer failures for example, may align with part of or even the entire goal of those being held responsible for the outcomes, but this is seldom the case. Where things go wrong is that the higher-ups have their own motivation to achieve their own goals, aligned or not, and they attempt to impose strategies on those charged with getting the desired result. Goals and often the process strategies for achieving the goals are now imposed on the performer, but not the motivation to achieve the imposed goals or to perform the imposed process strategies. While the goals may align, the process for working through to that goal seldom does. What gets undermined is the motivation of the performers who then lack the volitional energy to persevere in accomplishing that imposed goal. Why? Simple. The performers are no longer working to their own goal; they are now working toward someone else’s goal, and more importantly, not a goal set, in the case of schools, for the students, but a goal set for the teacher. The teacher may have student success as a goal, but when that ‘success’ becomes a demand from above, the demand sets the goal, not the student success.

The demand goal placed on the teacher for student success is not the same thing as the goal the teacher places on herself for her students’ success. There are two reasons for that: 1) imposed goals—goals that redirect the determination of success away from the intended goal target to some other place—lack ownership by the performer, since they are ‘owned’ by the demander, and 2) the success assessment is almost always invalid because it measures a reality that is isolated in time and no longer exists.

In the first case, a goal that is imposed on someone else ceases to be the goal the performer is acting on. If the goal of student success becomes the goal of an administrator to the extent that there is a direct demand for the teacher to achieve that goal, the goal for the teacher becomes just that—the demand by an administrator to reach his goal, not the teacher’s. Student success is no longer the ‘goal’ of the teacher; it’s the goal of the administrator. Student success has become the ‘score’ of the teacher. The teachers assessment ‘tool’ is the standardized test, the report card or the referral form, and without even considering the lack of a standard for measurements in these tools, “How many?” determines the teacher’s score. ‘Student success’ in any meaningful sense—how much they have grown academically or behaviorally, what they are prepared to take on next or how they feel about learning and its place in their lives—is no longer the teacher’s goal; the teacher’s goal is now the “How many?” test score by which they are being measured.

Okay, so we now have teachers developing strategies for meeting administrative performance goals, goals defining how the teacher should be performing based on what student data can be gathered. The luckiest students will be placed with teachers that will get them to mastery in that standardized data set. The rest will probably get short changed with one teacher and then get a new, less tested teacher who may or of course may not measure up as well. Whether this new industrial model of throwing out and replacing a presumably non-repairable mechanism with a possibly equally poor one will increase the percentage of teachers who meet who meet administrative goals, or if such a policy can keep place with attritions from teaching is not the subject of this document. What is the subject is the problem of how much the making of administrative decisions about teacher performance goals hobbles student learning and ultimately real student success because of its dependence on assessing teachers based on glimpses of artifacts of functionality in students—reading, writing and math skills primarily.

This does all relate to critical thinking by way of a sort of reversal. To bring students to their individual successes, a teacher must of course be motivated and possess the volitional resources to follow through to achieve these very difficult goals. Ideally, teachers have the motivation and volition and the skills necessary to be successful in reaching their goals for student success. No one disputes the reality that this is not always the case, but there is considerable dispute, if often not verbalized, in how to improve this shortcoming. Teachers lacking motivation and volition, which are very much personal energy reserves, may need to be helped out—perhaps out the door, but teachers with motivation and volition often may need to be helped out with the necessary skills—tools if you please—to carry out the process of mobilizing and supporting students along the course of their development. These skills beyond content knowledge and pedagogy prominently include critical thinking skills. Each child is a problem to be solved, as is each classroom, each school calendar, each testing schedule and so on. Teachers need to make critical judgments, plan critical interventions, interpret critical assessments, and so on. This critical thinking process is intense, difficult and demanding. A teacher must be fully motivated, usually by a genuine dedication to and love for the students, their individual histories and their future lives. This is the level of motivation required to set out the effort of volition to carry the work forward with an eye to the true success of the students, not a score but a life. Motivation, volition and goal are inseparably tied.

When the goal is separated from the process, the process collapses. So when administration separates out the student success goal and replaces it with the “How many?” teacher success goal, the need for critical thinking to achieve student success collapses. It is not longer relevant, but the capacity for critical thinking can shift to the new goal for the teachers, meeting the administratively demand goal. This goal is much easier to reach in fact. It will probably result in less development of students as human beings however, and it favors unmotivated teachers who will lack the volitional energy to persevere. In fact, it has in a few cases led to cheating even on a broad scale. Teachers can teach to the test, inflate grades and keep disruptive students in increasingly non-functional classrooms. Result? Higher scores, better grades with fewer failures and reduced behavioral referrals.

The administrative intervention to avoid such practices becomes imposition of mandated practices—one size fits all—standardizing curriculum and policing. Do all teachers teach the same way, start in the same place and work at the same pace? Does this not have a familiar sound? It of course ignores many of the things we’ve learned about student learning in the past fifty years. It further ignores everything we’ve learned about adult learning. Yet the bitter irony is that decision makers, often in senior offices at the state level, demand that schools remain unchanged in a changed and changing world and intensify their efforts in doing all the things that didn’t work for those decision makers themselves. Just do it harder.

Can we never allow ourselves to learn? Imposing student success goals and mandating a classroom processes is in itself unlikely to be successful, and shifts the best critical thinking strengths of teachers into job preservation strategies. And we know who the big losers are—the voiceless victims of 21st century education, the students. What are the students left with? A test score so irrelevant that even its inventors don’t bother to relate it to anything in the lives of the students. Standardized benchmark test scores are worse than a snapshot or slice in time; they are pulled out of time all together. They bear no reference to all what has gone before. They indicate nothing as regards what future options there are. And it tells next to nothing about the slice it is supposed to represent. Not so much a snapshot as a corner of one frame pulled from a life-long movie. Yes, reading, writing and math skills are critical for success in modern life, but so are food, shelter and clothing. These are all artifacts when pulled out from a life and even all together do not approach a whole life or a whole story of success. The tests stand as stark evidence of the lack of critical thinking by their creators and developers. If it is not this lack, and these decision makers really are capable of assessing and solving problems and implementing solutions, then these powerful people are knowingly subverting America’s children and our future.

The inadequacies of standardized testing provide a significant insight into what needs to happen in education. We need to teach students how to critically assess and act on each and every frame of the movie of their own lives. For each of them, education must be adapted, relevant and forwardly focused. Who are they, what do they need to get where they want to go and how do they know where that might be and when they have gotten there? They need the knowledge and skills, but they need to be critically processing their needs and goals as well as acquiring knowledge and skills. Teaching needs to inspire goals and encourage the motivation and support the volition to carry them forward. Supporting the volition means providing them with the critical processing skills, strategies and concepts from which to choose in striving toward their goals. Critical thinking is the tool kit people need to have successful lives. Critical thinking is a dynamic; it cannot be assessed in a snapshot; it can be assessed, perhaps, at the end of a life by casting back over the whole life. Formative assessment is part of critical thinking, but cannot very effectively be used to assess progress toward the process that surrounds it. It’s a bit like thinking about how one’s own brain is thinking about itself.

Others speak eloquently and in detail about why students need to be critical thinkers. Here, I want to point to what may be obvious to some already. Teachers need to be critical thinkers too. They must first get back the goals they are working toward. Teachers and students and their families need to be able to determine toward what goals students are working. Those goals define toward what goals the teacher must work to empower the students. Administration’s goals should not define teacher goals; teacher goals must define administration goals.

Administrators must work toward empowering teachers in defining and reaching there goals. Administrators and teachers, just as students, need the dynamic of critical thinking to analyze, assess and plan as part of the solutions for the problems of teaching and learning. Meaningless standardized ‘scores’ for schools and school districts are ultimately counter productive to good education and real student success. It forces every level of that school system to focus on external goals while corrupting the true education process through data manipulation and reactionary management—teaching to the test, grade inflation, keeping disruptive students in dysfunctional classrooms—disciplinary discharge for teachers with dysfunctional classrooms or teachers with high failure rates—closing and restarting schools, setting school against school in competition for ‘good’ students—withholding funding from underperforming districts, restricting funding for the highest-needs students. None of these actions, currently taking place in our schools, does anything to empower students to reach their own life goals. All of these actions, currently taking place in our schools, result from imposing goals from above, a manic hierarchy of puppet master and puppets, puppet master and puppets, puppet master and puppets.

Unless somewhere in the chain there is the courage to cut the strings, our education system is doomed to settle to it lowest potential for learning. There are two characteristics of critical thinkers that are conspicuously absent in public education: academic or professional humility and risk-taking. Without the humility to say, “I don’t know,” we give in to a failed system. Face it; we don’t have the answer. We need to ask more questions and look harder, at more things and with more eyes. Then we need be willing to step into the dark. Failure following from effort is part of learning, unless that failure becomes a failure to try. We have to risk failure to have success. How else will we learn? We do not know everything. How can we stop trying to learn? We cannot simply cut off our learning in the name of better education. Yes, let every flower bloom. Let the hybridizing happen. Reap the rewards of discovery and even chance. Without this, we ossify education and our future world. Fossils in our own time.

Successful students are the explorers, the risk-takers. They are the critical thinkers. This is the way they learn, if they can, and they must be able to if we help them be those critical thinkers. They have no way to prepare for a world that doesn’t exist yet except by taking a foundation of knowledge, a tool box of skills and a predisposition not only to learn from their future world, but create that future world with things new and as yet untested. Is it so hard to understand that to teach critical thinking students we must be critical thinkers ourselves? The whole educational community needs to be doing that, thinking critically about teaching and teaching and modeling critical thinking as a process for success in life. A success we can determine for ourselves and our students.

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