Teaching Your Students to Think

Dear Teacher,
            You want your students to think for themselves. Try this:

Student actionRequired thinkingExample
Find a question in the world.Engages observation and pattern recognition“Why are so many cooks and bus-people in Minneapolis Latino?”[1]
Consider why it needs an answer?Engages contextualizing[2]“To determine if Minneapolis restaurant hiring practices are discriminatory”
Refine the question.Requires research skills and actions[3]“What is the usual ethnic makeup of Minneapolis restaurant staffs?”
Formalize the question.
(the research question)
Engages observation and pattern recognition. Engages contextualizing and analysis[4]“What are the characteristics of jobs dominantly held by each ethnic group in a variety of Minneapolis Restaurants?”
Answer the “Why ask” question.
(the thesis of the report)
Engages analysis and evaluation[5]“Depending on how one defines discrimination, one may or may not see the ethnic imbalance in Minneapolis restaurant jobs as discriminatory.”
Defining all terms and using the evidence collected, state and explain a “thesis.”Engages composition skillsCarefully and clearly explain the above statement, i.e., write a research report

The examples given in this chart work well with upper class (juniors and seniors) high school students and above, where I have used them, but the process can be adapted to earlier grades. I have used something along these lines with students in what was then junior high school (7 and 8). I can fairly easily imagine it being adapted to younger students, but it would need major reform to be used with students who had only begin using abstract thinking – probably about 8 or 9 years of age. It is the thinking process that is the focus, not the inputs or outputs, which we are usually expected to score as a measure of the students’ learning. Using pre-writing work, we can assess the amount and depth of the thinking, and design activities to strengthen shortcomings.

If one internalizes thoughtful processes in early and frequent use, one may find good thinking becomes automatic. For that reason, it is helpful to begin building students’ thinking-framework early. Thinking may seem threatening to some in a conformist world, but it is necessary, if uncomfortable, to innovation, and that generates forward movement in all fields, as it has in the technical fields. Economic, social, governance, even math and science fields can all benefit from the ideas of those who see, question and postulate change. We must teach the whole person for life in the whole world.

[1] This is by far the hardest part. One must always be observing what is going on around them, noticing and recognizing patterns. In this table, for instance, a pattern is defined by the header row of terms. Look for some more patterns.

[2] Contexts may be wide ranging – economic, ethical, legal, success based, etc.

[3] This will require a range of question situations, in this case restaurants, possibly involving first hand visits, phone calls and letters. Cover different ranges of situations – location, economic, variety – such as cuisine, and other possibly impactful variations. There may be organizations that have already collected some or even all of the information you are seeking. Search the question on the Web.

[4] Keep accurate records of from whom, about what, where, and/or when information was found. These references should be cited in any writing that calls on any of this information. This may be the longest and most complex part of the process. Good research is work. It comes with asking a good research question, and then constantly asking yourself, “am I really getting answers to my research question?”

[5] Analysis is non-judgmental. Evaluation is the comparison of substantiated conclusions with some set of standards. Analysis must be included in a research report, but a value-based conclusion may be included or left clearly open-ended.

Follow-up footnote

It has come to my attention that there is more to the process that I have laid out here. Two areas, in particular, that are not detailed here are process assessment and research journaling have been noted and I would love to discuss them with anyone interested. I realize there are other things to apply here too, action research being but one of them. Action research is a teaching process that parallels this observation-relevance learning process.

I can be emailed at Jay@jaezz.org. For those looking to advance the process, we can talk about how to customize for specific foci. For those who find this process too overwhelming for their students, we can talk about how one might step into the process rather than taking it on whole right out of the box. And I would be more than interested in hearing your ideas to make this more adaptable and richer. My goal is to do something to staunch the bleeding of critical and creative thought from the American educational system.

Entertain versus Educate

In my email this morning was an update from the National Council of Teachers of English on LinkedIn. A group member from Australia had posted under the heading “Are You Trying To Engage Your Students Or Entertain Them? ” with these questions: “Should we use entertainment to engage our students? If you are using entertainment to engage your students, is this a less effective way to teach?”

I remember this debate from decades ago as Entertain versus Educate. Now after years of realizing that getting attention was a challenge, but that underestimating kids was a trap too easy to fall into, I have to wonder why the debate continues. The questions in themselves suggest a limited and simplistic perspective of teaching and learning. I use the terms ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ purposefully here, because they are but two, albeit significant, pieces of the human development process, of which education itself is a shared set. Education is a major part of human development, but it extends to other areas of our existence too. It helps to sustain as well as develop us. The reason this matters is that the member’s questions trap us in a decontextualized viewed of a single teacher activity—frontal performance. And disconnected from the greater whole of assisting human development, the questions lead nowhere; whether the frantic pup chasing her tail catches it or no means little, except perhaps to the pup—at the moment.
Yet the questions are legitimate enough in the arena in which they are offered. For many decades—I would say since John Dewey—educators have been reticent about asserting what they understand—when they do—about what happens in successful learning environments. For me, it was an epiphany that classroom success is what the kids do, as in learning, not what I do, as in teaching. And while this would suggest that what the teacher does to achieve engagement is important to that learning, it is not to say that entertainment is equivalent or necessary to engagement. That notion, I believe, comes from the influence of marketing in the age of television.
When education policy is so dominated by the American competitive business model, is it any wonder that we see teachers asking questions which might easily be rephrased as, “Should we use entertainment to entice our students? If you are using entertainment to entice your students, is this a less effective way to sell?” I viewed the British Arrow Awards at the Walker Art Center; entertainment sells and selling entertains. I have concluded that the question isn’t whether or not it teaches, however. That question only arises in a culture wherein the teacher can be seen as the manipulator and the student as the manipulated. Marketing is about deception, misdirection, generating needs, and satisfying immediate gratification. Yes, it informs about products and opportunities, but it does not invite thoughtfully making decisions based on holistic or long-term needs and goals.
I suggest we try to move the messages beyond entertainment in the classroom toward how we can help students in “thoughtfully making decisions based on holistic or long-term needs and goals.” Does entertainment have a place in this? I think so. Our students, in the over-developed countries, are awash in the catch-phrase culture of commerce, the sound bite polemic of politics and car crash nuance of news. In this era of super-superlatives, it may not be necessary to be the very most entertaining absolutely all the time to get the very best from your outstanding students. My students, and I would bet yours too, are better than that. Kids are good and they want to be and do better. What’s more is that they are reasonable.
Entertainment is fine for keeping it a little lighter, breaking the ice and dealing with failures. Learning will happen when kids see something in it for them. If you do anything well for your students, it should be to help them see the long view. Help them visualize goals for their lives and plans for how to reach those goals. Help them understand how to tell shit from Shinola, how to make decisions informed by the realities of their lives and futures. In short, help them take control of their lives; do not try to control them. Show them the power of thinking. Thinking is a highly desirable form of engagement.
Teaching is nothing by itself. Teaching and learning on the other hand form a partnership vital to the success of all. Teaching empowers learning. And if you teach for the adulation, you will get nothing like the letters I get now from students, whom I tried, apparently with some success, to empower twenty and more years ago when they were 12, 13, and 14—the “unteachable” ages.
Try this little experiment: challenge your students to entertain you in your subject area. Perhaps they should start by working in groups to create the most entertaining lesson on a new concept, formula or experiment. Check what you learn, and use it as a teaching strategy later. Or have them teach you about what’s important to them in an entertaining way. Maybe teachers should think in terms of engaging in learning with their students, and get beyond entertainment as an end or a means.

Assume Nothing?

We make assumptions. Some of these assumptions are so deeply embedded in our minds that we are unaware of them, but our world view is profoundly shaped by them. These assumptions define our reality and much of our identity. Fundamental fact: we are made of assumptions. Fundamental, unrealistic rule of living: assume nothing. Hypothesis: knowing and accepting those deeply embedded assumptions is knowing and accepting who we are.

As a teacher, I have used a simple exercise with small group of adult and adolescent students that helps them confront some of their assumptions, and with sufficient reflection, may have helped them more or less consistently confront assumptions in general. Each group of three to five is given two or three pennies. They all know what the penny is, of course, even though Visa and Square may be leading to penny obsolescence. The groups are then given these instructions:

You are an extra-terrestrial archeological team. You have arrived at a lifeless planet in a remote corner of space. The only evidence you have found that life existed here in some distant past are the objects you see before you. You may conclude from their material and general evenness of shape that they were fashioned, and not naturally occurring. All the rules of physics as we know then apply. We know they are copper, which is easily smelted from copper ore in a hot fire, for example.

What certain conclusions can you draw about their maker or makers from this archeological evidence? What speculations can you make about the makers of these objects? Conclusions require verifiable fact, what is known; assume nothing. Speculation combines fact and justifiable assumptions; make these very carefully.

The teams generally draw similar conclusions, which are really only speculations, and even then, flawed by supposition. They almost always make mention of Lincoln’s head on one side. This is a great place to start the conversation around the question: How do you know that? The embedded assumption, of course, is that the extra-terrestrials are sufficiently anthropomorphic to recognize a bas-relief figure on a disk as a “head” and all that goes with that. Big assumption?

Huge! We, as any science fiction writer will tell you, are desperately chauvinistic. Notice that the common language of the universe, with or without translators, is English, as in the Star Trek series and films. We accept that vocalization is the universal standard of communications; the use of English, because of the audience, has a better foundation. And sentient beings therefore have heads. It is simply how we can accept the vast possibilities of the universe, defining to the limits of what is known.

Science is at work to undo the two inconceivabilities we have been told about the universe: that there is empty space in it and that there is nothing beyond it—it goes infinitely on. The universe is finite, so must everything within it be finite and comprehensible. Nothingness and infinity are not humanly comprehendible. We can only comprehend through our senses. Try comprehending before and after time, by comparison. Our senses and our experiences are our assumptive limits, and only our imaginations can take us beyond. Yet, even the language of imagination must struggle mightily to get beyond the known, having simply been reordered. Imagination at its fullest power must enter the unknown; it must “go where no man has gone before.” A very courageous journey, but loaded with potential discovery.

Embarking on that journey requires the abandonment of those assumptions that shackle us, while at the same time using those assumptions to define our point of departure. Hence the penny exercise starts us on the process of identifying our embedded assumptions by simply forcing us to recognize their existence, subliminal to how our eyes and ears construct reality from reflected light and vibrating air molecules. The penny exercise can be the starting point of other enlightening pursuits as well.

Not only does the exercise force us to confront our limitations as imaginative beings, it also reveals to us the essence of who we are. Since our embedded assumptions are formed of experience, we can expect a more coherent and functional set of assumptions to arise from a more coherent and well-functioning set of experiences, given psycho-physical predispositions and freedom from traumas. Hence an early, on-going, rich set of experiences will position one better than a delayed, sporadic, diminished set. If the latter situation has occurred, the development of a solid personal identity could be doomed.

In any event, the embedded assumptions are essential to our identity. These are assumptions about how the world is or should be, and define how we are situated in that world. The world, reality, appears as it does because of our vantage point. Our experiences create a set of sensory inputs which have relationship to one another, and to us the observers. Those relationships define where we are in that cosmos, and where we are is who we are. We look out from a platform of assumptions about what the world is to see if things are more or less “like me” or “as I expect them to be” or not. That which is “not” can range from the familiarly different to the totally unknown, the incomprehensible. This perception of what the world is our provinces of reality, our crib, our family, our community, and so on as we develop.

As individuals move beyond their familiar provinces, they discover the world is largely not like them or what they expect. How one deals with that increasing assortment of otherness, is beyond this discussion, but in the absence of a fairly secure sense of self, managing life in a world of others is going to be a little tricky. What should one expect and what accept? When should one ask and when tell? Where should one be and where not? Needing to successfully manage this reality makes my argument for the formation of an clear and even strong individual identity. To manage in a world of others, we need a secure personal identity.

I think it also points us toward an argument for the sharing with and ultimately accepting of others as individual identities who are different but of equal essential value. Grasping the idea of one’s own unique identity and accepting that others also have a unique identity avoids the walls of categorical assumptions that have disabled constructive conversation. Thus we may begin the conversations between people that bind them into communities, sharing commonalities and understanding, often empathizing with their individual differences.

Beyond exercises like the penny archeology one, we should move toward deeper and more directed personal identity and community building activities—activities that are challenging, revealing, safe and rewarding. Such activities will require an environment where there are rewards without penalties for risk-taking, respect without attack in the presence of vulnerability, and where there is shelter without shame in any case. On the part of the teacher, there must be courage and faith, and, if it works, there must be Kleenex.

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