Is school too shallow?
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Basic recall and reasoning skills will not be enough to help today's students to thrive in a future job market, say some educators.
ROCHESTER, N.H. —There's an essential skill not being taught enough in classrooms today, say a growing number of American educators. That skill is thinking.
“Most teachers never really ask students to think very deeply…. Most of what is assigned and tested are things we ask students to memorize,” writes Karin Hess, president of Educational Research in Action in Underhill, Vt., and an expert on assessment, in an email to the Monitor.
As people fret about politicians unwilling to compromise or business owners unable to find qualified workers, a common underlying problem is this “dearth of critical thinking skills,” says William Gormley, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University and author of “The Critical Advantage: Developing Critical Thinking Skills in School.”
The purpose of schooling is undergoing a significant shift. With growing agreement that students need more than basic recall and reasoning skills, efforts are under way to infuse what’s sometimes referred to as “deeper learning” – mindsets and skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and problem-solving.
Anecdotes abound about class projects that get kids thinking on their feet and working together. But education researchers and business leaders say deeper learning is still relatively rare in schools, and they’d like to see the pace accelerate.
Some school districts are consciously working to teach in ways that promote more open-mindedness and independent thinking.
One seventh-grade teacher in Arlington, Va., that Professor Gormley observed gave her students six colored hats known as De Bonos hats. Each color represents a type of thinking: black means you are skeptical or critical, white means looking for evidence to solve a problem, green means creativity or thinking outside the box, etc.
After the students spent some time reflecting on what they gravitated toward, they talked about how they’d respond to a specific question depending on which hat they wore. That promoted some key elements of critical thinking, such as being open to doubt and seeking evidence to analyze something.
Not only did they learn that people think differently from one another, but also that they themselves can think in multiple ways about a situation.
One boy said he was black sometimes but also green at times, “so you can think of me as a dark green,” Gormley recalls him saying. “He had transcended the categories and invented his own category.”
At high schools trying to promote deeper learning, some promising outcomes for students have been documented. A 2016 study of a network of such schools found that students were more likely to graduate on time, by about 7 percentage points (65 percent versus 58 percent at non-network high schools).
The idea is catching on. About half of American teachers reported in a 2016 national survey that they were putting more emphasis on critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and communication.
Testing has shown progress as well. In 2010, an estimated three to 10 percent of US students were being assessed on deeper learning skills (based on a sample of 17 state standardized tests), according to a study funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
By 2015, that had grown to about 15 percent.
After decades of strong emphasis on standardized test scores, there’s some evidence that disadvantaged students have less access to various forms of deeper learning, Gormley says.
But even in schools making a conscious effort, implementation can be spotty, says Jal Mehta, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
In visits to 30 such schools, he and a colleague found that students were given work reflecting higher-order thinking (another description of the deeper end of the scale) in roughly 1 out of 5 classes. Students generally get “a lot of practice in assimilating knowledge created by other people…. but less opportunity to create knowledge or find out how the knowledge was created,” he says.
On the other hand, in extracurricular activities like drama or the student newspaper, he observed rich dialogues among teens as they created products and tackled problems together.
Schools considered good by traditional rankings aren’t necessarily promoting as much deeper learning as they could be, Mehta says. Where families are strongly focused on good grades and brand-name colleges, there is sometimes less willingness to step back and encourage students to take risks and develop intrinsic motivation.
Overall, only a small number of public schools in the US build a focus on deeper thinking into their curricula. One common scale for measuring deeper thought is called Depth of Knowledge (DOK). A simplified version is shown in the graphic below, with examples of what would be required of a student in reading at each of its four levels, which get progressively “deeper.” It’s paired with the percentage of the curriculum at each level, for third-graders in about 200 Nevada and Oklahoma public schools (based on 2008 data analyzed by Ms. Hess).
The Rochester, N.H., school district has been working to shift education to the deeper end of the scale for several years. For one project, Sara Cantrell, a third- and fourth-grade teacher at Maple Street Magnet School here, wanted to help students counter the down-and-out narrative about their working-class hometown.
The students researched the town and interviewed local business owners about the good things going on. They presented findings to a local reporter and went downtown to ask stores for permission to put out sandwich boards promoting these positive elements. Instead of just reading a textbook version of local history or a current-events article, the students demonstrated several hallmarks of deeper learning – researching their questions, collaborating to create the boards, and talking or writing persuasively to communicate with adults outside of school.
“Who can imagine what it will be like when [a fourth-grader] is out of high school?” says Rochester superintendent Mike Hopkins. “We want to make sure they know how to learn and can apply whatever they’re learning. Parents understand that, because they’ve either had to adapt in their work or they’re struggling to do well.”
This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.