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.

Be True to Your School?

28 December 2009

Members of the Minneapolis Board of Education,

I live in Minneapolis Park Board District 6, as do some of the Board members. I attend caucuses and I support candidates who are trustworthy and work for the people of this city where I have lived for 33 years and taught for 28. I have dedicated my life to the young people of this city. In the past few years, I have been sadly disappointed in the decisions of the Minneapolis School Board to ignore promises it has made to its citizens and its employees. Has this board taken its lead from the Wall Street scammers, to promise great things it never intended to honor? How does this help the children? What is your word worth?

I struggle every day to improve the chances and lives of some of the city’s most neglected students at Edison High School. Mine are students who need hours of individual help and small group, interactive time to get caught up with their age-mates elsewhere. Yet day after day, I lose the time to meet individually with students or parents, because I am in meetings intended to improve my performance. The meetings are keeping me from performing at all. And while my performance scores are more than proficient, I am denied the pay increases my good work was contracted to earn through TAP and ATPPS, pay structures for which the district receives millions of additional state dollars.

“The School Board now refuses to pay teachers what was rightfully earned through traditional means as well as the through the ATPPS MOA and supported through the continuing contract language in Article I, Section C.1 of the MFT 2007-09 Teachers Contract which states ‘This Agreement shall remain in full force and effect. . . until a new agreement is reached,’”  states a recent teachers’ union petition.  Business as usual? Promises never meant?

A similar conflict between teachers’ learning and students’ learning surrounds the time spent learning AVID—the same skills but with different names, the adoption of which brings more money to the school. This conflict hobbles us with the days we are pulled out of class to learn the very same skills again in IB training, and again in IFL Disciplinary Literacy training. Small wonder the students leave. They see what’s happening. For many whole days, students are deprived of their teachers. Their education suffers because the District pays millions of dollars to hire reserve teachers, while “training” the regular teachers to be better educators in a vacated school building.

Students do not learn in the absence of their regular teachers. Meetings, training and testing pull me away from my students more than ten percent of the time. MPS policy is depriving its students by “improving” its teachers.

Yet the focused training teachers get on their own, often at their own expense, that meets the real and everyday needs of teaching the students in their rooms –students who may be the first in their family to graduate high school, students who are taking college prep classes with three and four years of English experience—this training that we know helps goes unrewarded, in fact uncompensated.

If you see no need to compensate me for improvement, I see no need to improve, especially since the MPS model of improvement hinders our teaching and our students learning. Are your interests politics and public finance, or Minneapolis children and their education?

Break with the past; be true to your word.

Jay Ritterson
Edison High School, English Dept.
Minneapolis, Minnesota

Dead End Standards (28 May ’09)

For years I have contended that the standards movement was ingrown and self-serving. Standards and their even less connected assessments claim to measure what should be taught. Instead they have simply distorted what is being taught. The over emphasis on reading and math at the expense of the arts or technical courses is one example. The failure of the departments of education to fully examine the correlation or lack of it between standards assessments and college or workplace success is another.

The Times article of 27 May 2009, “New Push Seeks to End Need for Pre-College Remedial Classes”  appears a beginning toward addressing this disparity. At the very least, schools and their legislated programs need to consider the purpose of education beyond the schoolroom walls. In reading through the comments on this article, however, I found a sad, though varied, set of perspectives that often limited themselves to defensive positions. True; some were dismissive, but I assume avoidance as defense. We cannot be defensive about what we are creating for our future. Aligning standards to college is a teeny step in the right direction. Can we build on it? Can we solve this problem? Can we first find the problem?

Perhaps the issue has a more fundamental root. This, I suggest, is the data-driven connection. If everything we value must be defined by data, we are without much hope for a very deep or broad set a values to live and work by. As a world view, this offers little. Art and music, by example, have done much in recent years to get on the data train by linking themselves to math and writing proficiency scores. …gives musical score a bit of a different meaning. The truly tough things to assess, those that philosophy has been going after and even trying to codify for millennia, are not easy to measure even when there is agreement on what is or is not good. And herein lies a clue perhaps. Is there just one good? Am I too stupid to know good without a label?

The answer it seems to me is to get back to teaching thinking as the standard and much of the rest as the scaffolding within which good thinking can occur. Thinking can be much richer and deeper than we generally assume, but it is often shunned as hard work. So are all academic skills as well, if one has no training in them. Yes, students leaving high school need to be able to read, write and do math at some level, dependent upon what they intend to pursue, but they need ideas and visions for themselves much more so. A well written paper ought to say something worth reading. From a book or poem should be gleaned as much as can be gleaned, especially those troubling, lingering questions. A well engineered bridge requires not just strength and safety, but beauty and a place in its surroundings.

The work we do in the world cannot just be the product of our labor; it must also be the meaningful response it elicits from all those who witness it.

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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