Critical thinking and the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus

There is no surer way to prove how dumb American students are than to out and out lie to them!

Hey … this is nothing new:  George Washington and the cherry tree, Newton and the apple … there were and in some cases continue to be a lot of lies shoveled down the throats of students.  I have no doubt that this is a strictly American phenomenon, but because a lot of other nations don’t bother fostering original thought in their public schools, I think it is more noticeable in America.

A text book company has released information about the horrible state of critical thinking in American schools, and points their finger squarely at the internets.  In this case, students were directed to look up information on the highly endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus.  The kids did this and reported back.  SUCKERS!  There are no tree octopi (Pacific Northwest or otherwise).  It should be noted that there was a wonderful website created for the study that kids could find that gave them lots of info about the fictitious arboreal cephalopod.

I won’t argue that critical thinking is not something that you see a lot of in schools.  I went to a good high school, and even there, critical thinking was not embraced a great deal.  It is easy to teach facts.  Teaching higher level thinking is much more difficult.

In my current teaching assignment, I have seen very few teachers that actively dissuade thinking outside the box.  There are some general problems that I have seen:

1.  Critical thinking is not something that top students generally embrace.  Most “top students” get to the “top” because they have learned the system (learn facts, learn skills, spit them back up, perform them on cue).  The system works!  They don’t like it when teachers change that system into something more chaotic and unpredictable.  If you think the “top” kids don’t like it, the people who like it even less are the parents of “top” students.  They really don’t like it when their student, 7 years of straight A’s to support their point, come home moaning about how this teacher doesn’t teach (teaching critical thinking often involves not teaching and becoming more of a guide).  These parents often have principals, superintendents, and school board members on speed dial.

At big schools, the complaints of 20 parents out of 2,000 are often filed in the crank file.  At schools with 200 students, 20 parents can get their way very easily.  Hence, at smaller schools, any attempts by any teachers to change the system are usually shot down.  This is why smaller public schools typically have students who get “A’s”, but don’t expect them to do much more than regurgitate and perform.

NCLB tried to be a system that took control of education away from such parents by replacing their power with the power of the dollar.  The problem was that it didn’t do that.  It proscribed states (read: local politicians) to come up with how they tested.  Some states make the test really easy.  Illinois uses the ACT and a test that was a compromise between down and upstate interests (the science section will never test on natural selection because a lot of downstate schools >>never<< teach that!)

2.  Students generally are not used to it.  Students are not used to an education that asks them to think.  As young kids, they are being taught the basics, which is basically factual information.  I think that Elementary Ed. preparation needs to start emphasizing this in their collegiate preparation.

3.  States need to start insisting on this.  NCLB does nothing (quite the opposite) in pushing more critical thinking in schools.  Smaller schools need to be better examined to make sure that kids are being taught how to think, and I am not talking about “how to think like everyone else in this town”.  I teach in a bastion of suburbia, and I think one of the things that our teachers pride themselves in is that we tend to push a more global vs. local perspective.

This in and of itself is difficult.  Multiple choice tests do not do a good job of assessing whether someone is a good thinker (maybe some exist, but if they do exist, they are not often used).  The only way to properly assess if a school is doing a good job at this is to do on site inspections, student interviews, and assessments of student portfolios of work.

Yeah, that sounds expensive, but if states would dump paying umteen millions to the College Board for their tests used for NCLB, they could free up some money to do this.

It sounds like I have been looking down my nose a bit at little town America here.  I talk to a lot of teachers and students from those places, and for all of the benefits of those places, until they start supporting really good education, their schools will not be worth a hill of beans.  I have no doubt there are some good schools in rural America … but my experience is that they are the exception, not the rule.

Urban America has its own problems, but they are a different.  Even if the schools have incredibly dedicated teachers, the attendance issues, the lack of parental support, and the bureaucratic red tape make for a situation where trying to teach original thinking is either not going to be supported (depending on your principal) or not going to matter (because the students aren’t there are don’t care).

Until then, students will continue to be more easily suckered as adults.  Politicians will be happy that their supporters will still be easily suckered into following them.


5 Responses to Critical thinking and the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus

  1. Beth says:

    Have I told you the story of Brian’s poor mother and “high altitude earthquakes”? I’ll just say that Brian and his father can be cruel…

  2. Beth says:

    One (of a very few) positive part of the ISATs, for which we have really had to prepare students is the extended response, in math, reading comprehension, and English writing. Elementary educators are getting better at having kids explain their thinking when solving math problems or when using text to support their opinions, or making connections b/w text and their own life experiences, and what started out as “necessary test prep” has now become more commonplace in the classroom. The problem truly comes in when school districts, some seemingly on a whim, up and change the entire curriculum (along with expectations for performance), and then two or three years later, change it back, or to something completely different.

    How can a HS seriously never teach/expect their students to know about natural selection?

    • teganx7 says:

      Hmmm … one of the battles we still fight at the high school is convincing students why defending an answer is so important. I have some very smart students come to me and say “the answer is obvious, why can’t I just write it down”. One way I have combatted this is to set the tone on the first day of school that the focus of the class is developing modes of communication vs. solving problems. That is: giving an answer communicates very little. Showing the work is similar to writing in language. I talk about how graphs and equations are ways that scientists communicate just like words and phrases are used by writers. I have found that this helps convince some students.

    • teganx7 says:

      How can HS seriously never teach/expect their students to know about natural selection? The local community (read: school board) can let it be known that teaching such material is frowned upon. New teachers who come along and teach it anyway are not rehired. Tenured teachers can have their lives made miserable in terms of teaching assignments/lack of support/lack of budget. Keep in mind: in small enough communities, many teachers will be in agreement with this policy as much as the parents/board/administration. If the administration and Board are smart enough to do this with subtlety, it is easy to prevent this from ever being taught in the classroom (this based on stories I have read from teachers in certain locales).

  3. Beth says:

    Another way to describe it is to say that they have to “pretend to teach it to someone else”, or better yet, actually have them teach a concept to a group.

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