kitchen table math, the sequel: Terrific discussion of "critical thinking" at Cost of College

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Terrific discussion of "critical thinking" at Cost of College

Trying to teach the enigmatic and increasingly popular skill of critical thinking 

(I'm posting from my iPad -- will clean this up later.)

Hopscotching through the comments, I was struck by two things:

1. "Critical thinking" probably means different things in different disciplines.

2. Writers are always specialists. I can write about education and the brain; I can't write about sports. 

The reason I can write about education and the brain is that I know a good deal about both. 

As a corollary to that statement, I'm only now beginning to be able to write about Common Core because until now I haven't known enough about it to have any thoughts worth writing down. I've wanted for the obsessive, driven focus it would take to actually read CC documents & follow CC developments -- read CC documents and remember what I've read. (My allotment of obsessive, driven reading focus has been directed to macro and grammar/linguistics/writing instruction.)

When I do write about CC, I write about aspects of CC I know: mostly its implementation in my district, but also the top-down & undemocratic nature of its creation and "roll out." 

Or I post snippets from the work of writers who **are** knowledgeable about it.

Nonfiction writers are the ultimate exemplars of the fact that knowledge comes first.

Critical thinking and writing come second.


momof4 said...

Robin Eubanks at has that driven focus. The website and her book Credentialed to Destroy; How and Why Education Became a Weapon (I haven't read it yet), trace CC's philosophical underpinnings and its adoption process. The website articles have tons of links to original sources.

SteveH said...

Why analyze critical thinking when educators don't define it and when it's driven by a wrong understanding of rote knowledge. The argument is only used to justify a top-down, student-driven discovery process where the teacher is the guide on the side. The teacher as guide on the side is their real goal because they never talk about homework problem set discovery or individual critical thinking. Why argue critical thinking when many think it's about having and voicing strong opinions in class. They want an educational process that works automatically - "trust the spiral"; one that makes full inclusion seem like you can turn less into more. And differentiated instruction is not based on critical thinking. It's based on pedagogy first and justification second.

This is about educators who want claim their own content expertise that is primary; one that is independent of any other content. This is not about convincing educators that critical thinking means something else. They're not going to say: "Oh, you're right." and then stop using discovery and inquiry in class.

Barry Garelick said...

When educationists use the term "critical thinking", they think of it as something that can be taught independent of content. I.e., if a student knows how to think critically, they are "learning how to learn" and can apply it to math, English, languages, science, etc. They think of it as a "schema" rather than as something that comes from knowledge, facts, and mastery, just as "finding patterns in math" comes from working with the tools of math in order to better see, describe and work with said patterns. It is similar to the belief that students can be taught "to problem-solve" by giving them many problems out of their ZPD in the belief that such activity creates a problem-solving schema.

Robin said...

I do indeed really understand the actual implementation of the Common Core. That would be Chapter 7, with cites to sources that the Next Generation Learning initiative confirmed a few months ago would also be guiding the next stage of Competency-Based Education.

I had already recognized the Competency-based aspect and its links to both Outcomes Based Education from the 90s as well as polytechism. The National Governors Association has now confirmed that it sees the remaking of the traditional high school in a polytech direction as a principal purpose of CCSS.

So whenever anyone decides they want to know what is really going on and why, the book has the details. is a blog post explaining what critical thinking means as it is now used as a requisite 21st Century Skill. As the post explains critical thinking is quite tied to the real world problem solving emphasis that is a crucial component of the new 3Rs--rigor, relevance, and relationships.

Which is unfortunately regarded as far more important than math facts since those are not likely to prompt a desire to take action.

381 footnotes is a great deal f sourcing of what is really being changed.

Doug Sundseth said...

"Nonfiction writers are the ultimate exemplars of the fact that knowledge comes first."

The knowledge is a necessary precondition. But having the knowledge does not automatically mean that critical thinking will follow. There are certainly people who have a great deal of knowledge that they never really examine critically.

Now, does this mean that critical thinking can be taught even when that knowledge is present? Beats me. I'm going through that exercise at work right now with very limited success.

Certainly won't work without the knowledge, though.

SATVerbalTutor. said...

Now, does this mean that critical thinking can be taught even when that knowledge is present?

I don't think so. Every watched a kid try to write an argumentative essay when they know next to nothing about the subject? It ends up as a jumbled, repetitive mishmash.

Having a lot of knowledge doesn't automatically ensure that a person will be able to "think critically" about that knowledge; it only raises the chances that such thinking will be possible.

On the flip side, there's no way to think critically about knowledge you don't have.

When schools focus on teaching content knowledge, with the understanding that not all students will eventually be able to make the leap to thinking critically with that knowledge, then you would end up with a lot of people knowing a lot of things, with some of them being able to do a lot with that knowledge and others very little.

When schools neglect content knowledge in favor of "critical thinking" skills, you end up with with only a minuscule portion of them having both content knowledge (having obtained it outside of school) and an understanding of how to use that knowledge. You also end up with a huge number of people having neither factual knowledge nor critical thinking skills.

Anonymous said...

I know it's a losing battle, but maybe we could stop using the word "knowledge" as it if meant "collection of disjoint facts" (Did it ever really meant that?) and go back to using it as a synonym for "understanding". We don't have to accept that "knowledge" is the lowest step on the scale. And though I have admitted that I don't know what "critical thinking" means, I suspect that it is hard to attain "understanding" about anything without thinking about it in a detailed and analytic way.

SteveH said...

"..stop using the word "knowledge" as it if meant "collection of disjoint facts" "

This is a fundamental problem. However, it's virtually impossible to get K-12 educational pedagogues to accept this fact, and to accept the fact that rote skills are never just rote. Skills are tied to understanding just like "mere facts" are tied to knowledge and understanding. Nobody ever passes math with some sort of robotic rote knowledge. And there is no understanding without proof of skills. Words can never show mathematical understanding. This can only be done by proofs and showing that you can do any problem variation. Words fail with problem variations, but not actually showing that you can do the problems.

Explaining all of this won't work because their goal is not really understanding and knowledge. They are only words to justify mixed ability group work in class with the teacher as the guide on the side. It's a way to make full inclusion sound like it's something more. It's a way to define an educational process that works by definition. They want to trust the spiral. That's the only way full inclusion can work. Fairy dust.

Magically, all of that changes in high school (for many schools) because high schools have to deal with the reality of what happens after college and teachers actually know some content. K-8 schools get to live in their own reality. I find that parents pay more attention in high school, but don't fight the fuzziness so much in K-6.

We can't get caught up in a battle of definitions when educators care so little about them. If we play this game, then we miss what they are actually doing. We are forced into a vague argument that can't be won. It's just like when my son's school had a parent/teacher meeting when he was in fifth grade because of Everyday Math. They talked of "balance" without defining and calibrating exactly what it meant. Everyone loves balance of skills and understanding. Meeting over. They argue with generalities to make parents go away, but then get to define all of the details. Understanding, critical thinking, and 21st Century Skills are ways to keep the discussion in the "perfect plane". This keeps parents and others away from the dirty details. They talk about different learning styles, but the reality is that they assume that it means extrovert art work in a group.

I never argued with my son's school or teachers because I would have to tell them that I think they are fundamentally wrong, and they made it perfectly clear that they are the experts. This is their turf. No amount of parental mathematical content knowledge and understanding can change the beliefs in their own mathematical understandings. It's was quite astounding to me - to be lectured on math understanding by my son's Kindergarten teacher. I thought she would call DCYF when I told her that I had my son do math worksheets - and that he loved to do them.

I keep forgetting KTM's motto: "They do what they do."

There is no fixing K-6 schools. They do what they do because that's all they know. They did not discover this in ed school, they were directly taught.