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Jack’s Dream School

June 20, 2010

I had the opportunity to talk to a group of undergraduate education majors at St. Lawrence University a month or so ago. It was fun to share my opinions with a class of education majors who undoubtedly will become outstanding future educators. I of course shared the basics of constructivism and that constructivism is the theory and the SPEC approach is how it can look in practice.

I had a chance to share what my dream school might look like and how the topics would be radically different from today’s classroom, particularly at the high school level. In my school you wouldn’t see courses like math, science, social studies and English. It isn’t that those topics wouldn’t be taught but they would be taught through courses with titles like “decision making”, “critical thinking”, “creative thinking” and “leadership”. The course content would utilize the more traditional topics to teach these essential skills. Historically we have been told that the study of mathematics teaches good problem solving skills. I think the study of problem solving might teach good mathematics.

I find that in this day and age these skills are essential to success in life, even more so than the traditional topics. When we have people taking only black or white positions on so many topics that require thinking in shades of gray we have failed to teach critical thinking. When young people get in cars knowing that the driver is drunk, we have failed to teach decision making. When people can’t find solutions to life’s relatively simple challenges, we have failed to teach creative thinking. As you can imagine I gave the class an earful.

When asked what topic is most important to teach in today’s schools I struggle a bit. I’m not sure if it is decision making or critical thinking. The world that the traditional school model was designed for has changed radically since the industrial revolution. My guess is that we make more decisions in a day in today’s society than were made in a week at the turn of the 20th century. When you bought a model T in 1918 there wasn’t much decision making involved. As Henry Ford said “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”

A century or more ago information was finite and moved slowly. Today the challenge is different. Now I think it could be argued the challenge regarding “judgment” is not the lack of information but its abundance… too many choices & perspectives coming at us from too many directions – and all too fast for reflection.

As recently as 1970 the average grocery store had 7800 items. Today that number has increased to over 45,000. Considering which of those food items are not healthy for us and which ones are requires quite an increased need for decision making.

Many of our mothers or grandmothers thought they had only four options for careers; homemaker, nurse, secretary, or teacher…not very complex decision making there.

While there is a good argument that many of the decisions made by the average citizen of today are of less consequence than those of a century ago and that many, if not most, decisions of today are frequently based on preference (what clothes to eat, what food to buy, what music to listen to, what movie to go to, what phone plan to sign up for, the list goes on…) rather than consequence (If you put the crops in too early you might starve. If you forgot your rifle you might get eaten by a bear…)

I do think that the average person makes many more decisions today than a century ago but that the consequence of those decisions is frequently of less importance.

Okay, decision making is an incredibly important topic to teach and would be one of the top three topics in my dream school. It would not, however, be my number one topic. Critical thinking deserves that designation. I can think of no topic that is more important to teach in this day an age. When our society is as polarized as it is regarding so many topics and with the internet providing information to anyone regardless of its accuracy the need for a citizenry to be able to discriminate between the nuances of opinion is of the utmost importance. It is hard not to read a news item today and not see a lack of critical thinking. Twelve year old Alexa Gonzalez of New York City was recently handcuffed and dragged out of school for scribbling on her desk with an erasable marker. Now it could be argued that young Alexa did not use critical thinking skills in doodling on her desk but it pales in comparison to the lack of critical thinking used by the administrator that permitted that sort of treatment of her. Unfortunately we find way too many headlines that demonstrate a lack of critical thinking.

My current “critical thinking” lesson for students is to use the internet to research any controversial topic, gun control, abortion, immigration, the role of government in our lives, religious extremism, etc. The students’ task is to find a minimum of five websites, blogs, or other web-based opinions. They are to find two on opposite ends of the continuum of opinion and other sites representing other points on the spectrum. Their product is a presentation to the class explaining the general arguments of each site and why they put them where they did on the continuum. This activity helps learners think critically regarding the information they find on the internet and hopefully understand that they can’t accept information on the internet as fact without giving it some “critical thinking”.

I think I have found a fan of this lesson. Recently it was reported that President Obama cautioned against extremist rhetoric on both ends of the political spectrum. He encouraged those who regularly listen to Glenn Beck to read the Huffington Post and for those who read the New York Times editorial page to read the Wall Street Journal.

“It may make your blood boil. Your mind may not be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship,” he said.

I agree Mr. President, which is why I want to make critical thinking the most important subject in my dream school.

Getting back to my presentation at St. Lawrence University, I can’t help but think that our education system can be so much better than it is. I am not convinced however that we are heading in the correct direction. As long as virtually all public school education is taught around written test assessment I cannot be. After having taught for nearly forty years I am still idealistic. I believe that all teachers should be striving to provide “powerful learning experiences”. It is what I try to do. You’ll have to ask the St. Lawrence University students if I was successful.

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