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Critical Thinking For The Rest Of Us

March 21st, 2011 jmathis No comments

“Critical thinking” is a buzz phrase in educational circles these days, and with good reason.

Critical thinking is a disciplined thought process that uses criteria to judge the validity of something. Teach a child to think, and you’ve prepared him for life. Not just test-taking, or grade-making. But life, and the countless decisions we make day after day.

So critical thinking is, well, critical.

But maybe we adults should practice what we preach. Because so many of us are quick to form strong opinions based on the strong opinion of one other person. Who may or may not be right, but is certainly confident. And loud.

Why are so many of us reluctant to take the time to evaluate evidence and come to thoughtful conclusions? Do they have too much to do that they have insufficient time to read and question? Are they getting most of their information from a biased news organization and accepting it without questioning?

It’s easy to sit back and listen to a right-leaning or left-leaning radio or television talk show and nod our heads with vigor. It all sounds so good! The speaker makes so much sense! “My sentiments exactly.”

The problem is, we often don’t hear the counter-point. So especially if we’re already inclined to agree with the speaker and his/her political slant, it’s too easy to swallow the next thing he’s handsomely paid to say.

Would we be gullible if we realized the need to dig deeply for evidence?

Critical thinking involves not only logic, but broad intellectual criteria such as clarity, credibility, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, significance and fairness, according to Wikipedia. Critical thinking skills includes observation, interpretation, analysis, inference, evaluation, explanation and meta-cognition.

Bottom line: It requires brain power. Feeling is easy. Thinking is work.

inDepthLearning in Ann Arbor has developed a science game for 7-10th graders that requires students to use their critical thinking skills to solve a puzzle. In the process, kids learn about drugs of abuse, and scientific methods, and how one clue plus another and another adds up to a reasonable hypothesis. The game is free. Check it out at NotABook will be publishing and marketing a commercial version of the game with school and teacher licensing starting Summer 2011.

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Let’s hear it for “techno-teaching”

March 18th, 2011 jmathis No comments

In their 2010 book Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting our Money and Failing Our Kids – and What we can do about it - authors Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus write that “a gripping performance on a screen may be preferable to a live teacher of doubtful competence. Unlike a textbook software can pose interactive questions, review answers, and tell students to try again, offering hints on where they may have gone wrong.” They also point out that computer programs can so such things as compare painting side by side and present aerial tours showing climate changes.”

We agree with the authors that new methods of instruction have a place in higher education. We’d go even further and say it’s a must. This is the way we live now. Students at progressive schools demand – and get – digital course packs. They have the option to buy access codes to e-texts rather than the heavy paper version. There’s no stopping the trend. Why not embrace it? Soon enough all faculty and students will be able to take advantage of the technology that brings a static subject to life. Progressive leaders are making it happen today.

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Academically Adrift

March 18th, 2011 jmathis No comments

My daughter has learned a whole lot during these past seven months as a college freshman.

SheÕs learned that itÕs all downhill after Welcome Week; that most kids think itÕs no big deal to be on facebook during lectures; that buying the required textbook is often a waste of money; and that she better get in the omlette line by 10 a.m. or sheÕll be stuck with cold scrambled eggs.

SheÕs learned which Nautilus equipment at the rec center is the fastest ticket to killer abs; that is not entirely accurate; and that she chose the wrong college if she wanted an active social life on the weekends.

What has she learned in her philosophy, biology, criminal justice and writing classes?

Hopefully a lot. Hopefully enough to pique her interest in the unfamiliar, think for herself, and É OK, I admit it É justify the cost of tuition.
But from what I can tell, sheÕs learned enough to pass the exams and get those credits.

ÒNobody likes gen ed classes,Ó she says. ÒThey have nothing to do with your major. WhatÕs the point?Ó

I have another daughter who is finishing her fourth year of nursing school SheÕs a serious student who understood from the start that getting a good education was her job those four years, and she might as well engage in at while she was there.

SheÕs learned a whole lot. And thatÕs a good thing, considering your life may be in her hands.

My daughters are very different creatures, and IÕm hoping the younger one takes a few tips from her sister. We want all college students to make the most of their education. And apparently thatÕs not as simple as it sounds.

An eye-opening book, ÒAcademically Adrift: Limited Learning on College CampusesÓ by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (University of Chicago Press, 2011) is an indictment of higher education at the undergraduate level.

The book points out that there are many reasons to worry about the state of undergraduate education. The authors show that at least least 45 percent of undergraduates demonstrated no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills in the first two years of college, and 36 percent showed no progress in four years.

Those numbers should frighten us all.

Students not only come to college unprepared for the demanding academic tasks ahead of them, but they often have attitudes and values at odds with academic commitment.

In other words, they just wanna have fun. Life is long and hard. Why not have a blast during those four brief years in college?

TodayÕs college students dedicate a very small proportion of their time to academic pursuits, on average 15 hours per week attending classes and labs. Twelve hours a week are spend studying, which means just 16 percent of their reported time each week are spent on academics.

About 85 hours a week is spent on socializing and recreation.

Perhaps surprisingly, this slacker mentality has not resulted in lower grade point averages or a greater drop-out rate. They simply have learned the fine art of Òcollege management,Ó in which they find success by Òshaping schedules, taming professors and limiting workload.Ó

So what can be done?

The authors suggest that in order to transform higher education, the federal government should insist on institutional transparency and accountability, perhaps forming something similar to No Child Left Behind.

Students must come to college better prepared Ð which ups the burdens on elementary and secondary schools. Students shouldnÕt passively absorb the information, but engage in the learning process by asking questions, making class presentations, working with classmates both in and outside of class; tutoring students; participating in community-based projects; and discussing ideas from class/readings.

Colleges need to develop a culture of leaning that requires strong leadership across the board.

Instructors need to communicate high expectations of their students, and make sure coursework is demanding and requires significant reading, writing and critical thinking.

The authors cite research by Harvard Project Zero that found student learning is facilitated by clearly stating course objectives; clearly presenting material; linking course content to course objectives; providing students with examples of what is expected; creating ample opportunities for students to apply what theyÕve learned and perform their knowledge publicly; and assessing learning frequently and adjusting teaching accordingly.

Our students should demand more of themselves. And we should demand more of the academics who have allowed the state of higher education to sink to its current level of mediocrity.

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