Teaching America's students to think

Johnny and Jenny may know a lot of facts about the Declaration of Independence, what with more emphasis being given in American classrooms to basics like history, math, and reading. But they are less able to ask significant questions about it than students were a generation ago, according to a number of educators. Today's students are not learning as well how to identify unstated assumptions. They know less about what it means to infer, to extrapolate, to build an argument, to form and defend an opinion, to see implications. They are, in short, not learning enough about thinking critically, these educators say.

Though it has built slowly over the past few years, the drive to teach ``critical thinking'' -- also referred to as ``creative,'' ``effective,'' or ``skillful'' thinking -- is beginning to be felt in the educational mainstream. Next week, for example, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, a national 80,000-member education leadership organization, will sponsor a four-day conference in San Francisco. The teaching of thinking skills is the conference theme.

``Many youngsters these days look at you blankly when you ask them to support a fact or an opinion,'' says Sydelle Seiger-Ehrenberg, a thinking-skills instructor at the Institute for Curriculum and Instruction, a 30-year-old Ohio firm that trains teachers in how to develop critical-thinking skills among students. She says students often feel that ``because something is called an opinion, it must have intrinsic merit.''

``In what is called an `information society,' '' says Jay McTighe of the Maryland Department of Education, students and citizens need to develop critical interpretive abilities so as not to be ``swamped by information'' or unduly swayed by misleading political arguments. ``Job fields are changing so quickly,'' he adds, ``that thinking is [also] the skill you bring to a job.''

There are dozens of approaches to teaching critical thinking. The basic need, educators say, is to get students to start questioning the statements made by teacher or textbook. A central tenet: Students should learn to engage in an internal dialogue with what they're studying -- analyze it from different points of view, make it their own.

Many of the thinking skills -- such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation -- are taken directly from standard logic and philosophy courses and are developed in a number of ways, including interactive group or class discussions, writing exercises, and techniques in self-questioning.

Ron Brandt, editor of Educational Leadership, says concern about critical thinking marks ``a shift in the notion of what education is.'' For several years, he says, schools have been providing an ``intellectual education'' for a minority and ``vocational skills for the rest of us.'' The teaching of critical thinking is starting to cut across such barriers.

In the past five years nearly 2,000 scholarly articles have been written about critical thinking and the ways it is being taught in kindergarten, elementary and secondary schools, and colleges throughout the United States. Schools in about 30 states now have critical-thinking skills programs. California now requires critical thinking to be taught from Grade 6 through college.

Learning what it takes to ask intelligent questions strikes some people as so obvious a skill that it hardly need be taught in school. It is simple, say the teachers of critical thinking courses. Good thinkers have done it throughout the ages. However, many current students aren't exercising this native ability.

Ken Ripp is in some ways typical of that current generation of students. Mr. Ripp says that when he was a freshman at Boston College, he was ``studying all the time but not getting anywhere.'' Now a junior, Ripp says in retrospect he wasn't ``reflecting'' on what he was reading. At the suggestion of a friend he signed up for a program at the college's Learning to Learn Center, where he was taught strategies designed to help him ``become more conscious'' of what he was learning. As a result, his grades went from a 2.0 average to 3.2, largely, he says, because he started ``interacting'' more with the course material. Why the decline in thinking skills?

There are a variety of reasons students aren't picking up thinking skills naturally, say educators. One of the causes is social. ``We don't talk as much to each other,'' says Ms. Seiger-Ehrenberg. ``Families don't talk around the table. Kids are off watching TV or taking karate lessons. It's not easy to establish thinking models under those conditions.''

But much of the blame has also been placed on the public schools. In ``A Place Called School,'' acknowledged to be one of the best of the recent studies on public education, author John Goodlad notes that, while parents perceive ``intellectual development'' to be the central purpose of schooling, the average school devotes less than 1 percent of class time to the interactive discussion that helps students hone such skills. It's impossible to do that, says one teacher, when in history, for example, you must get to the Civil War by January and the Vietnam war by June.

Ron Brandt says public schools have reached a place where they are inadvertantly ``opposed to natural curiosity.'' Writing ability reflects thinking skills

Students' writing ability -- long a testing ground for such thinking skills as rigor, clarity, and organization -- are also at a low ebb.

In 1960, for example, 80 percent of the freshmen at the University of California at Irvine passed a basic composition test. In 1984, 80 percent failed the same test. Carol Booth Olson, head of the Irvine program, says that students may be proficient at ``rote exercises'' and memorization -- but they have ``declined drastically in their ability to see the symbolic or universal.''

This is why Matthew Lipman at Montclair State College in New Jersey originated ``Philosophy for Children,'' a program used by more than 4,000 elementary schools around the country in which children are given a specially written novel and are asked to identify in it philosophical themes such as constancy and change, and authenticity and illusion.

``Kids will surprise you with what they are able to identify,'' Mr. Lipman says. It's only when they discover the social pressures of junior high, he says, that they clam up and stop contributing in class. Twelfth-graders, he notes, score only one point higher than sixth-graders in reasoning skills on the New Jersey Reasoning Test.

``If we are ever going to do anything but build monuments to the great books, kids are going to have to learn higher-order cognitive skills,'' says Eugene Garver, who holds a chair in critical thinking at St. John's University in Minnesota. Students, he says, need to go beyond the fact that in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Douglas was for slavery and Lincoln was against it. Both men used the Declaration of Independence to back their arguments. And it takes cultivated thinking skills to recognize the virtues and fallacies, he says. ``Understanding the Lincoln-Douglas debates is different from learning simplistic formulas for detecting phony advertising appeals.''

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