Monday, January 21, 2013

Defining “critical thinking” down

In my Q&A with our school district’s central administrators, when I questioned whether the kids were learning to think critically, the administrators said that our science and math curricula are particularly strong on teaching critical thinking. One assistant superintendent said:
And math – I was going to say, our science and math curriculum definitely. Fewer, you know – those two are, you know, more problem-based type of curriculum. Almost, our math to the point where we get criticized for it.
Well, my daughter’s junior high math textbook, part of Holt’s Mathematics series, does regularly include questions purporting to develop critical thinking. Here are a few, picked pretty much at random:

I don’t object to these as math questions, but in what sense do they conceivably involve “critical thinking”? Does “critical thinking” now mean “any thinking whatsoever”? Or “anything beyond straightforward computation”? If “critical thinking” is to mean anything at all, shouldn’t it at least involve critiquing something?

The book does sometimes ask questions labeled “What’s the error?” Here’s an example:

This at least involves critiquing someone else’s reasoning. But since the book tells the students in advance that there’s an error, it isn’t much different from simply asking the students to solve the problem themselves.

It takes a big leap of faith to think that any amount of questions like these will help kids develop the skill—and inclination—to question received notions and critique the world around them. Real critical thinking always involves challenging someone’s authority—not an easy skill to teach when you’re otherwise busy sending the constant message of “do as we say and don’t talk back.”


Another Chris said...

Much of what passes for critical thinking in education today derives from "research" done in the "90/90/90" schools. These are schools that have 90% minority students, 90% free/reduced lunch, and 90% passing rate on standardized tests.

A few enterprising individuals went into this very small group of schools and observed classes, gathering simple data (what can easily be measured and shown with statistics) and compiled that data into what is now considered the law books of school "success". The conventional wisdom is this: See, these few schools were able to succeed on standardized test by writing an essential question on the board, having students analyze errors, etc., etc., therefore you MUST do these things also in order to succeed.

The textbook companies follow the lead of what is in vogue with the reform movement. Many people, including Max Thompson (Learning Focused) and Robert Marzano (Marzano Research Laboratory) have made large fortunes by compiling these lists of things that the 90/90/90 schools have in common and they produced a methodology of "successful" education based upon their observations. These lists then are sold to superintendents and principals and used as checklists for walk-throughs and teacher evaluations and are the basis of school "reform".

Entire charter school companies are based on nothing but these theories and the hope that somehow by mimicking what others have done somewhere else with different groups of children in different situations and different resources, schools will easily replicate their "success". Somehow, the replication doesn't come as easily as implied and the 90/90/90 model has not produced the miraculous results promised. Lack of critical thinking, perhaps?

It is very difficult to measure and record true critical thinking in classrooms using simple data points, which is what the reformers value most, so when Marzano says that error analysis is one of the highest forms of critical thinking observed in 90/90/90 schools and other high flying educational settings the textbook publishers produce questions such as those in your daughter's textbook.

No one in the corporate-sponsored reform movement wants true critical thinking taught and practiced in schools. It would be seemly for workers to question their employers, political leaders, bankers, etc. and could lead to social unrest. So we have simple problem solving presented as critical thinking and that's where it stops.

Chris said...

Another Chris -- Thanks for the comment!

Yet these schools invariably consider themselves "college prep" schools. I wonder how students raised on test-driven education actually fare in a college classroom. (Maybe I am overestimating the degree to which college is different. I hope not.)

EduShyster has an interesting post here on the lack of data on college graduation rates of students who attended "No Excuses" K-12 schools.