Critical Thinking for a Sustainable World

Introduction

To teach others to think critically, we must start by thinking about their thinking—and to do that, we start by thinking about our own thinking.

Teaching critical thinking is teaching to improve, enlarge, enhance thinking. Students must therefore become as completely aware of their thinking as they can be, just as they will have to know something of how their body works to be able to manage its healthy development. To think critically, as we shall see, we must consciously control how we think: When and what do we ask? What ideas can be put together to work and what cannot? And so on. Notice I have shifted to “we” over “they.” We teachers must be or become consciously aware of our thinking and practice critical thinking skills in order to teach it. Critical thinking is what we teach and the path by which we teach it. We need to be able to play basketball to teach others to play, to read to teach reading, to do the math to teach math. We need to know how to think critically in order to teach critical thinking.

This takes the ‘us’ and ‘them’ out of our classrooms, as it should. Step back for a minute. We have had it drummed into our heads that we are teaching so that students can do well on standardized tests. Okay. These tests are indicators of our educational health, especially as compared with other nations in the global market place. This is something of a leap, but it is a fairly clear assumption. If test scores are assumed to correlate to our economic standing in the world, they don’t. Zero-growth France (July 2011) scored better one tests than thriving (0.1% growth) Germany. and the U.S., having score lower than both grew more (0.9% growth) in the same period, while none of these approached China’s 9.0% growth. Now, guess who isn’t taking the tests?

In fact, our students and ourselves need to be learning in preparation for a much more important global crisis looming on the horizon. We are expending our host planet. We are already suffering millions of avoidable deaths through weather conditions, natural disasters and seemingly insatiable violence. In education, this situation is both a mandate for action and an opportunity for success. By addressing our educational systems to these crises, and ignoring the cries of the gored ox of corporate America, we not only make a start on solving the biggest problems we will have faced, we also have an authentic arena for teaching and learning – an imperiled world.

Teaching critical thinking and using authentic instruction may often seem to be subversive activities. Meeting standards and classroom evaluation is not only possible, but may even be better achieved when lessons include conscious teaching and learning of critical thinking mind-sets and skills. As you work through this class, try to be intentional of serving both masters. The motivation to learn what is needed to accomplish authentic tasks will overcome the learners’ reluctance we see directed at empty lessons seemingly taught for their own sake. The foundation skills of reading, writing and math are among the tools used for mastering the more engaging skills of making decisions, solving problems and planning real change. The learning in school not only carries over into students’ lives, it becomes a directing force in those lives. And your students will be those to whom others look as leaders.

We have so far succeeded in disconnecting learning in American schools from virtually everything in the lives of the students and the world around them. American education has become an end. It needs to be reestablished as the means to the best life we can make for ourselves and our future and our world. Educators and their students must always be thinking about what’s next and where we are taking ourselves. So, as you started out thinking about your own thinking, think about your role in creating a world sustainable into and beyond the 21st century.

Definitions

Cognition is a term referring to the mental processes involved in gaining knowledge and comprehension, including thinking, knowing, remembering, judging and problem-solving. These are higher-level functions of the brain and encompass language, imagination, perception and planning.

Mets-cognition is often simply defined as “thinking about thinking.” In actuality, defining metacognition is not that simple. Although the term has been part of the vocabulary of educational psychologists for the last few decades, and the concept for as long as humans have been able to reflect on their cognitive experiences, there is much debate over exactly what metacognition is. One reason for this confusion is the fact that there are several terms currently used to describe the same basic phenomenon (e.g., self-regulation, executive control), or an aspect of that phenomenon (e.g., meta-memory), and these terms are often used interchangeably in the literature. While there are some distinctions between definitions, all emphasize the role of executive processes in the overseeing and regulation of cognitive processes.

Critical Thinking “What is critical thinking and how to improve it.” Fisher, A. (2001) Critical Thinking: An Introduction, from chapter 1. Cambridge University Press.

Authentic Instruction is a model for high-quality instruction developed by Fred Newmann (1993). It lists five major components of the teaching process:

  1. Higher-order thinking. Higher-order thinking requires students to “manipulate information and ideas in ways that transform their meaning and implications, such as when students combine facts and ideas in order to synthesize, generalize, explain, hypothesize, or arrive at some conclusion or interpretation.” When students engage in higher-order thinking, they must solve problems and develop new meanings for themselves. There is an element of uncertainty and unpredictability in the process.
  2. Depth of knowledge. Depth of knowledge means that students deal with the significant concepts or central ideas of a discipline. Students use knowledge to understand arguments, solve problems, or construct explanations.
  3. Connectedness to the world beyond the classroom. This third feature of authentic instruction connects the classroom to some “real world public problem” or personal experiences that the student can relate to.
  4. Substantive conversation. This feature involves considerable discussion and interaction about the ideas of a topic that develop and build on ideas presented by others in the conversation. It involves the sharing of ideas and multiple exchanges in which students and other participants develop shared understanding of a theme or topic.
  5. Social support for student achievement. This last feature involves the development of “high expectations, respect, and inclusion of all students in the learning process.” Social support is more than token acknowledgement or praise for participation. It occurs when teachers convey high expectations for all students and encourage all students to participate in the learning experience.

Sustainability “As Nancy Tierney writes …, for the purposes of this journal, sustainable activities are those that meet contemporary needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. This definition derives from the Brundt land Commission (1987) report and has been accepted by many as the root meaning of sustainability. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (1993), the word ‘sustainability’ as an adjective to describe that which is “capable of being maintained at a certain rate or level,’ seems to appear first in 1972. To put this in context, Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, a collection of essays on a land ethic and conservation, was first published in 1949; Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a treatise on the unintended ills caused by the pesticide DDT and considered by many to be the catalyst for the environmental movement in many industrialized nations, was published in 1962; and the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970. Over the last 30 years, as scientists, environmentalists, and policy makers more closely examined the world’s ecological systems, the word “sustainability” has gathered force and turned into a movement. Reports from the field started coming back, raising our awareness of ecosystem degradation; air pollution; global climate change; depletion of freshwater stores; loss of biodiversity; major industrial accidents, such as Bhopal, resulting in thousands of deaths; and chronic industrial pollution, such as that found in Cancer Alley in Louisiana. It is doubtful that many of us would wish to turn the clock back to pre-Industrial Revolution times and suffer the miseries and uncomfortable conditions of those centuries. However, we can strive to improve and even radically alter the systems we’ve created over the last 200 years to acknowledge our burgeoning understanding of the role of contemporary human impacts on our planetary environment and our social relations with each other.”

(Kirk, Camille M. “Sustainability: Taking the Long View.” Planning for Higher Education, March-May 2003, p 9-12)

Editorial Note:

So we are working toward a world that provides the best achievable quality of life for the greatest numbers of people over the longest time. That may be our goal, but where are we starting?

It has been more than 40 years since the first Earth Day, when playing outside with a Frisbee was a gesture of oneness with our blue-green planet. What direction have things gone since? We see a world sickening with waste and resource abuse, while millions are seduced by the opiate of plastic geegaws and electronic gadgets, the very production and disposal of which contribute to the world’s ills. We have been conditioned to consume stuff at a great cost to the Earth. Is this the progress we anticipated? Can we have progress without a clear goal, thoughtful planning and the ability to think beyond our personal wants?

As long as we are focused on the material things of this world, and as long as we design our educational systems to create competitors in such a materially valued world, we will continue in the thoughtless consumption of our planet, seven billion bacteria consuming their host. To change this will require millions over decades at least. Some have taken the first steps. Steve Jobs will not be there at the end, nor will any of us, if only because there should be no ending in the plans. But what would have happened to Apple without the steps Jobs took? Or those that lead on from his foot steps? Each of us may only represent a few steps along the road, but it will take us all and those who follow on. Those others are our students.

Critical thinking can enable all of us to look at decisions and see where they may take us. It can help us make sound decisions ourselves. Critical thinking can help with solving problems rather than buying “solutions” that turn into problems. It can help us avoid creating problems for ourselves, while we can better solve the problems life throws at us. Critical thinking can help us plan a better course for ourselves and plan in concert with others. It can allow us to look ahead of today and know we have to plan for tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Critical thinking can help us to be reasonable. It can make our choices and actions understandable, and invite cooperation from other reasonable people. Critical thinking is simply living together thoughtfully and valuing the idea that thought and creativity are our greatest human qualities.

We teach critical thinking then because it enables students to become their best selves, fully actualized human beings, something more than components in a board game of global economy. We will not be able to do enough alone, but if we don’t try, if we don’t start, we must bear the criticism of the adage: If you are part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. We may never reach our ideal, but the goal of moving in the right direction may be achievable.

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.

Dear Senator Klobuchar (9 May ’09)

The following are the notes I delivered on 9 May 2009 to Sen. Amy Klobuchar, via two of her aides, at recent hearings here in Minneapolis on upcoming changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, plagiaristically known as No Child Left Behind.

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Too much emphasis on data and numbers as though they had meaning, when they can be made to mean what ever we want them to mean.

Too much emphasis on what these numbers mean to the image of Minneapolis, or Minnesota or America.

Too much emphasis on what scores are produced in school, scores that turn education into a game of Space Invaders, where bigger numbers are all that counts.

Too little emphasis to the actual lives of the students and their families. Too little emphasis on what happens for the rest of the lives of those who have been played for the scores they produce. Little or no data exists on the correlation between their scores and the next five, ten or twenty years of their lives. The numbers as just numbers.

Too much emphasis on lock-step processes geared toward locked in goals. No two children are the same. Demanding that they all leave school the same turns egalitarianism into dehumanization. No one is a failure because they are not like everyone else.

Too much emphasis on failure; too little emphasis on how much gain has been made. Declaring students failures, declaring teachers failures and declaring schools failures solves no problems, makes no progress, leaves millions of people behind and does not make America a better place to live.

Too much dependence on decision making about public education by powerful interests who have no direct connection with teaching and learning in public schools now and never have had.

Too few meetings like this to begin to find out what’s working and rewarding and celebrating 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.

Feedback?

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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