The Sad State of Teaching Thinking in Our Nation’s Schools

[Note: This article is a response to Harry Keller’s “Need More Software Engineers? Teach Thinking Skills Better” (ETCJ 11.29.12). -Editor]

I usually do not disagree with Harry. But I can tell him that he has no idea of the weaknesses of math and science in the grades where students begin to think about careers, hobbies and joining clubs. Education is a voyage of discovery. Some people never invest out of boredom or inadequate opportunity. They may be seduced by the media, but for things other than education and learning.

We also live in a world that supports entertainment and sports over academic performances for the most part. We glorify sports at all levels and also the entertainment industry most of which is very shallow. The news hardly reflects anything of importance of a thinking nature.

Education is like fashion. It depends on the whim of the politicians in Washington and the local school leaders. And there is no punishment for mistakes like those of the No Child Left Behind era when those of us who were teaching thinking-based learning were pushed into using test-based evaluation and modifying anything innovative, creative or science-based.

I went to Catholic schools where we were tested in the beginning of the year and the end of the year so the legacy of who was teaching well or not teaching well stopped at the source, the teachers from grades 1-to-8 who did the work and did the teaching.We did not have PE or science. I hate it that I missed the opportunity to grow into loving science until after my formal training. Thank god for museums and museum educators and courses for teachers. I had the Smithsonian as a learning playground.

We have in the US this testing that purports to measure a whole year and it starts in midyear, February in many instances, when in fact there are chapters and levels of knowledge still to be taught. I have been told that the statistics make up for the fact that we have not taught subject x, but I do not believe it. 

I don’t believe that academics are in the culture of most of our children unless there is parent advocacy, an after school group advocacy, or some community or church support. That kind of support is hard to come by in rural, distant, and poor areas and in areas of educational incompetence. I say areas of educational incompetence because I talk to people and sometimes attend the school board gatherings that are national. Some come to the well to find out how to be a school board member and some bring their expertise to share with the members, but there is not a level playing field in many places.

There are rural areas where doing something after school would be based on the busing system and access to people in the community if broadband is not available, and sadly it is often these areas that do not have broadband.

Urban example? I will choose Washington, DC, where the school board is overseen by the Congress and where there have been some extreme efforts to change the face of education in the nation. I will mention Michelle Rhee. I will also mention that white lawmakers, politicians, and educational lobbyists do not ruffle the reality of the dire education in DC. Yet there are indicators of the extremes. More money is spent on students in education in the nation’s capital than in any other place in the US. Yes it is not a state, but that is not the fault of the residents.

There has been a prolonged battle for charter schools here, and most of them fail or are inadequate. It does not matter for politicians because their children do not go to the schools. Charter schools do not have to do the same accreditation and testing as the “normal” schools. They do have nicer buildings. I have tried to work with a charter school in DC. Don’t ask. But you may want to google the statistics on the DC Charter Schools. There are two exceptional ones.

One fifth of the people in DC put their children in schools outside of the system as an investment in their children’s future, for stability, for an education that will make a difference. Parents with children in schools that are doing OK point to the fact that they get national favoritism in the amount of tuition they are required to pay when they go to college. No one talks about the kids who enroll in charter schools that fail and what happens to them.

You may not know that 59 percent of DC school students drop out. So how am I speaking to Harry’s argument? There are other states that need to take a look as well. I will post the statistics and introduce you to ways in which we can solve the dropout problem nationally. Perhaps children are unwilling participants in the teaching and learning process and vote with their feet when they can exit the system.

Schools need not be deadly boring and awful. There are ways to infuse technology, and to combine F2F with the most incredible teaching and learning if the people teaching have supported professional development and partners. Now it is possible to partner via online access and digital media tools with anyone in almost any place in the country that has broadband — and where the schools have the tools. Have you ever seen Science on a Sphere? There are those of us who have children who don’t want to leave the classroom because, with resources and partners like The Jason Project or ESRI, it’s exciting to be there.

Harry says, ”Thinking never goes out of date. It may be even more important than it was 50 years ago or even 5,000 years ago. It was very important at those times too, incidentally. You sure wouldn’t know it to look at how we teach and measure our youth with cookie cutter high-stakes tests.”

That I agree with. Yes, yes, yes.

Sadly Ms. Spelling never had the pleasure of finding out that every class, every level, is a mixture of students with individual personalities and learning styles. Oh well.

Seymour Papert would ask an audience to sort itself into age groups and then, as the confusion mounted, he would say, “But this is what we do to children. What is the problem?”

I guess, since I was taught by Seymour and Chris Dede, I think of the “habits of mind” that are developed when teaching is done right. So thinking in subject areas is important to me. Not memory regurgitation. You need it in some instances, but there are ways to get that memory, that learning — so many wonderful ways.

Regurgitative thinking is what our students are exposed to. So no wonder they would rather be dancing with the stars, singing with GLEE, be on the voice, or plunked down watching sports if they are not able to be a sports person. We have to think of a way to bring kids to the love of knowledge and thinking. Sadly, those of us who do it are often pushed out of teaching and learning as if we were soothsayers.

STEM was SMET when I started and we who taught it were ridiculed. Science and real math are hardly taught well in many instances as for a long time the reliance was on the book, and the test. We are not just talking about a one time test. Testing in the elementary schools is constant. There are classroom tests, school focused tests (if your school board supports them), national tests, and then the pretests for the tests. Did I say there are lots of tests? Yes. What are they testing?
You tell me. But I think you know.

Did you see the recent article on the costs of testing?

I loved ESSC and Jason and the way of learning that created thinking and learning. That made me chopped liver.

Basic science, real math that is problem solving and tests computational thinking, needs to be taught. There are educational silos who accept our children who pass the test, never looking at the way in which they got to be acceptable. In our two Americas situation, we throw away those children who could have been nurtured because of many factors. Teacher incompetence? Have you looked at the factors behind that allegation? If you visit the pages of the Office of Safe and Healthy Students, you will find that there are people who realize that there are factors beyond the teachers’ control. But that is a conversation for people who read below the inverted V and that would not be reporters who write stories about teacher competency.

In the presentation ”Celebration of Teaching and Learning” during the George Bush administration, Ms. Summers said that science was not important. Yes she made a turn around in the last year of the administration, but a decade of children had been crippled by the emphasis on everything but science, geography, and thinking skills.

Everyone has conveniently forgotten that.

The math her Department of Education advocated was of my mother’s generation. Have you ever looked at the way in which our teachers are educated to teach math? Sadly, I have had the distinct experience. Fortunately there was NASA, fortunately there was ESRI, fortunately there was The National Geographic, and fortunately there was a program that bridged disciplines. Back in the day it was Kidsnetwork. Using thinking skills we explored, applied real math, learned geography and went in-depth into topics that brought many kids to science, thinking science.

There now is a project entitled Citizen Science, and it is not costly. There are many ways to involve thinking. There is the work on understanding the environment and engineering change in “My Wonderful World,” and there is applied science through Earthwatch, though many educators are not allowed to use these types of resources.

Standing in a field in Deia, Majorca, Spain, I learned about the beaker people , the Carthagenians, and how to do archaeology with a Mac plotting our findings, sorting the finds, and archiving and sharing the information with others. Wow! It was hard work but…

Vendors get to pick in many instances what the teacher is allowed to use. Not the NOAA courses on imaging the ocean and understanding the estuaries and salinity, which is middle school level, or the astrophysics of NASA that is so exciting and deep and with so many accessible resources. Instead, lobbyists are talking about Big Brain or My Big Campus without thinking. I heard a noted educator lobbyist praise the Brain Pop people for their programs.

There are engineering programs that are mid and elementary level. Who knows about them? I am sure they are not featured on Brain Pop. There is a program in which students build an airplane and fly it. There is a program in which you design a playground for your school with funding. There are groups that help you design a city, but a lot of this is done with partnering.

I have nothing against vendors, but I trust NOAA, NASA, ESRI, Earthwatch, AAAS and NSTA to share programs that really make a difference.

Pat Phillips or Microsoft and Google have some remarkable ways to help us understand why we need to have thinking, computational thinking, and reasoning not just for students but for those of us who use the tools of computational thinking and STEM without knowing anything about them. Thinking is a good place for middle schools to get on board.

2 Responses

  1. I’m not sure that we have any substantive disagreement. It can be an uphill battle to get students unused to it to think, but it’s worth the struggle. Students who learn to think, IMO, are less likely to drop out for two reasons. Classes that involve thinking are more engaging and even enjoyable. If you think, really think, about dropping out of school, you realize what a poor decision that is even though leaving a dysfunctional school may seem like a good choice.

    I do have a problem with STEM. It used to be just math and science. Now that T & E have been added, what is happening to M & S? I have a set of middle school textbooks on project-based science. Wow, thought I, this is cool. Then, I read them. Remember that commercial, “Where’s the beef?” Well, my response was, “Where’s the science?”

    Consider an entire set of middle school science textbooks without any science in them. I was flabbergasted!

    My concern with STEM is that it becomes an excuse for dropping all real science in favor of building airplanes and the like. A really talented science teacher can develop an airplane building exercise into science lessons, but most will not. They’ll just spoon-feed the stuff about lift, drag, buoyancy, and Newton’s Laws. They’ll focus on the mechanics of getting the airplane built, tested, and working.

    Note that engineering thinking is a valid thing for young people to learn, just as are mathematical and scientific thinking. However, the way too many educators are interpreting STEM (and there are many, many interpretations) puts engineering front and center and lets science slip far to the rear.

    As a scientist, I may be very biased, but I really don’t like this trend.

  2. […] I will post the statistics and introduce you to ways in which we can solve the dropout problem nationally. Perhaps … Basic science, real math that is problem solving and tests computational thinking, needs to be taught.  […]

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