Critical Thinking About Critical Thinking

by Robert Pondiscio
February 18th, 2008

The Washington PostThere are two types of people in education: those who know the work of University of Virginia psychology professor Daniel T. Willingham, and those who should. A piece by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post examines education’s fixation on teaching critical thinking skills. Willingham has a different view:

“There is no such thing,” he tells the Post.

Willingham and other cognitive psychologists say critical thinking skills are developed in relation to the content area in which they are acquired. They are not skills that can be acquired—or taught—in the abstract.

“You may have these fabulous critical-thinking skills, but you don’t know when they are appropriate,” Willingham says. “If you think of thought as having two components, you have factual knowledge that you know and the processes that manipulate those facts,” he added. “Everyone understands that half is no good when that half is knowledge. People don’t seem to understand that it works the other way. Having processes alone doesn’t work, either. You can’t acquire these processes in the absence of facts.”

Willingham questions the value of educational programs that offer a way to teach critical thinking — sometimes through exercises and brainteasers — that are not rooted in any particular subject. “To understand the structure and the nature of poetry, you need to read a lot of poems,” he tells the Post. “It’s the same thing with mathematics and science.”

Willingham, who is Core Knowledge board member, stole the show at EdTrust last November with his presentation “Teaching Content Is Teaching Reading” (If there’s a better rallying cry for curriculum reform, I haven’t heard it). And his regular columns in the AFT’s American Educator are required reading for the kinds of teachers who prefer research to the pedagogy du jour.

He is also the subject of a “myth busters” piece in the Post on teaching to kids “learning styles” — visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc. According to Willingham, “There is no evidence that the idea holds water.”

E.D. Hirsch on “Educational Incoherence”

by Robert Pondiscio
February 18th, 2008

ednews.orgA coherent curriculum trumps school choice in promoting student achievement, says Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr. in an interview with Michael F. Shaughnessy of EdNews.org. The interview was conducted in response to the Sol Stern/school choice dust-up. Hirsch and Shaughnessy delve deeply into curriculum and Hirsch’s concept of “educational incoherence.”

“Children go to school for more than a decade because learning is gradual, and there is a great deal to be learned — especially in matters relating to general knowledge and the build up of vocabulary,” Hirsch observes. “If the specific content for each grade level does not build on what went before and prepare for what will come after, there will be big gaps, and boring repetitions. Those are the conditions that now prevail in charter schools and regular schools. A great deal of school time is being used unproductively, and the hardest hit by this incoherence are disadvantaged children.”

Hirsch also takes issue with those who claim content knowledge must take a back seat to problem solving and critical thinking. “Critical thinking skills cannot be learned in the abstract,” he retorts. “They always pertain to concrete knowledge of subject matter. I review the scientific literature on this in The Schools We Need. Writing skills are obverse of reading skills. They both depend more on knowledge of the unspoken within the language community than on knowledge of the spoken. The main, somewhat revolutionary point I have been making is that teaching content is teaching skills, where as teaching formal processes is, in the end, teaching neither content nor skills. This is not only clear in the scientific literature, it is also clear from comparative results. Students who have had been taught coherent knowledge are more highly skilled than those who have been taught “skills.” See the (unfortunately repressed) book by the late Jeanne Chall: The Academic Achievement Challenge.”

A Contract Hit

by Robert Pondiscio
February 18th, 2008

Fordham FoundationA new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation looks at the ostensibly black and white world of accountability vs. union contracts, and finds a surprising amount of grey area. The ultimate responsibility for student achievement tends to fall to principals. But do they have the power to run their buildings like true managers? The Leadership Limbo: Teacher Labor Agreements in America’s Fifty Largest School Districts looked at labor contracts in three areas—compensation, personnel policies, and work rules—and concluded that more than half of the districts studied have labor contracts that are ambiguous. “The collective bargaining agreements and the formal board policies in these districts appear to grant leaders substantial leeway to manage assertively, should they so choose,” the report concludes. Only 15 of the 50 contracts studied are deemed “restrictive or highly restrictive.”

“Districts with high concentrations of poor and minority students tend to have more restrictive contracts than other districts, the report notes. “Another alarming indication of inequity along racial and class lines.”

In Fordham’s Education Gadfly, Checker Finn and Michael Petrilli opine that they tend to see the situation “as more good than bad, for it means, at least in the short run, that aggressive superintendents and principals could push the envelope and claim authority for any management prerogative not barred outright by the labor agreements. And it means that, for a majority of big districts, the depiction of The Contract as an all-powerful, insurmountable barrier to reform may be overstated.”

Stay tuned.