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Education; Critical Thinking vs Rote Memory in American Education

January 28, 2011 6 comments

"Imagination is more important than knowledge." Albert Einstein

We have an American educational system that languishes under the premise that if a student repeats something many times he will learn it. He may not understand it, but he will learn how to repeat it so he sounds knowledgeable. Our primary classroom teaching methods use Rote Learning, defined as, “…a learning technique which avoids understanding of a subject and instead focuses on memorization. The major practice involved in rote learning is learning by repetition. The idea is that one will be able to quickly recall the meaning of the material the more one repeats it.” Wikipedia

This is how teachers continue to process your children in grades K–12 and our students in colleges and universities throughout America in the 2011 Global Knowledge Economy, which is driven by information and technology. This is a time and age when students have to be able to deal with changes quickly and effectively. This new economy places increasing demands on flexible intellectual skills, and the ability to analyze information and integrate diverse sources of knowledge in solving problems. NO ONE will advance in this new information age with rote memory skills. Those are the skills of mindless workers who put this gidget with that gadget for eight hours a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year, for 30 years. That age is over in America. It left for China and India more than10 years ago.

Why do our teachers and educators continue to use a mode of education that consigns our children to a life of irrelevancy? Why do they resist change, flexibility, and new thinking techniques?

I believe it is because it threatens their lifelong Rote learning habits. Technology threatens them; teachers are artifacts from a time where they were taught they had to know all the answers. They believe in authoritarianism in an age when large groups are sharing information every day in a world without Ethernet boundaries; this is how teachers were taught to teach. They see technology as a threat rather than a challenge. Their students know more than they do in this Knowledge Economy and so they avoid the embarrassment of having to admit they are fallible by demanding safe Rote answers to safe standardized  test questions.

Educators have forgotten that one of the most exciting teaching moments is when the student teaches the teacher. Information exchange between teachers and students allows everyone to participate in the exciting adventure of Critical and Creative thinking. The teacher becomes the guide who helps channel student energy, creativity, intellect, and critical thinking into new solutions that awaken enormous possibilities for all. Teachers do not have to have all the answers; they need to ask the right questions! Their students will find the answers.

There is a serious relationship between Critical thinking and Creative thinking. They are like a hand in a glove. Creative solutions to problems involve not just having new ideas. New creative ideas must also be useful and relevant to the task at hand. Critical thinking plays a crucial role in evaluating new ideas, selecting the best ones, and modifying them if necessary.

Now what is Critical Thinking? The list of core critical thinking skills includes observation, interpretation, analysis, inference, evaluation, and explanation. There is a reasonable level of consensus among experts that an individual or group engaged in strong critical thinking gives due consideration to:

•    Evidence through observation
•    Context of judgment
•    Relevant criteria for making the judgment well
•    Applicable methods or techniques for forming the judgment
•    Applicable theoretical constructs for understanding the problem and the question at hand

Critical thinking employs not only logic, but also broad intellectual criteria such as clarity, credibility, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, significance, and fairness. A teacher or student disposed toward critical thinking includes a courageous desire to follow reason and evidence wherever it may lead. They are open-minded, display attention to the possible consequences of choices, have a systematic approach to problem solving, inquisitiveness, fair-mindedness and maturity of judgment, and a confidence in reasoning.

To be fair, the real question is, do our educators possess this kind of thinking? Are they able to develop critical thinking in their teaching methods so their students have a future in the fast moving, ever changing world of the Global Knowledge Economy? If our educators cannot make this transition between Rote Memory and Critical Thinking then our student population is doomed to languishing in Industrial Age thinking while the rest of the world, i.e., China, India, and others leap forward, above, through, and beyond them.

It is NOT about money. Socrates taught under a tree.

It is about questioning old assumptions, creating group think in classrooms, exciting students and challenging them to question everything they are told, and requiring them to develop their own solutions to problems, which may or may not agree with ours. It is about trust and belief in our ability to learn along with our students as they learn along with us.

Finally, the student must be taught not how to know the answer, but how to ask the question. Teachers and students must first embrace what they do not know and Critical thinking is a primary tool in approaching this. Spend some time with any 3, 4, 5 or 6 year old and count how many times they ask you, “Why?” Watch them play and watch how they solve problems and disputes. They have it! Then we turn them over to government schools that Drill and Kill it out of them.


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Education; The Lost Art of Engaging Students in Public Education and Universities

January 26, 2011 1 comment

“No one is thinking if everyone is thinking alike.”
General George S. Patten, Jr.

There is a high school in a poor section of the Bronx called the Theater Arts Production Company School. Report card grades were released in the fall for New York City’s 455 high schools, and the highest grade went to this school. It is a school that believes that no one should fail!

The principal’s instructions as codified in the teacher’s handbook states that all teachers should grade their classes in the same way: 30% of students should earn a grade of A, 40% should earn B’s, 25% should earn C’s, and no more than 5 % should earn D’s. As long as they show up, they should not fail. According to a New York Times article on January 19, 2011, “…even students who missed most of the school days earned credits. They also said students were promoted with over 100 absences a year; the principal, rather than a teacher, granted class credits needed for graduation; and credit was awarded for classes the school does not even offer.”

One teacher discussed a student who was absent 98 days in one year. This student was promoted to the next grade, earning credits for classes including cooking, yoga, and independent study. The school does not offer a cooking class. The principal, Lynn Passarella, created an independent study course called cooking, which was given after school. “I don’t know how they think they are raising these kids to think that they can do what they want with no consequences and still get good grades,” said a teacher who left due to an illness. “It’s just so wrong on so many levels.”

The city is opening an inquiry into the practices of this school.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, ACTA, confirms that many students aren’t learning very much in their first two years of college. As troubling as it is, it comes as no surprise to ACTA. Their study of more than 700 top colleges and universities, which enroll more than 6 million students, documents that, “…students can graduate from college without ever having exposure to composition, literature, foreign language, or American history.

“To be specific, our study found that less than five percent of schools require economics and less than a quarter have a solid requirement of literature. Of the more than 700 schools, sixty percent received a “C” or worse for requiring three or fewer subjects.”

Is it any wonder that students learn little and do little, when colleges today expect little of them?

So what is to be done?  The goal is not simply to have more students with diplomas, but rather to graduate students who have a rich and rigorous education that prepares them to think CRITICALLY. The ACTA is reaching out to 10,000 of these colleges and universities to address this national scandal.

Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, asks, “Why is anyone surprised to find that standards and expectations in our colleges are too low? High school graduates, a rapidly dwindling elite, come to college entirely unaccustomed to close reading, habits of disciplined analysis, skills in writing reasoned arguments and a basic grasp of the conduct, methods and purposes of science.”

Can there be any question why America increasingly finds itself at a competitive disadvantage when our K–12 public education and higher educational institutions are failing to do their job? By the way this failure from a post secondary system costs more than twice as much per pupil as the average expenditure in other industrialized nations. We outspend and we underachieve.

President Obama in his State of the Union Address last night wants to “invest” in education. He and the Department of Education can pour billions, even trillions of dollars into the public education system, but nothing will change because MONEY IS NOT THE PROBLEM. We have Industrial Age educational institutions at the K-12 and college levels. We do not have a Technological Age educational system. We continue to educate as if our population will be working in factories, or as bank clerks, or manufacturing zombies.

Our teachers/professors are secure in their chalkboards and books, notes and standardized tests, lectures and authority. As a matter of fact, most of the instructors in the first 2 years of college are NOT PhD professors. They are graduate students, who are making little money teaching while they work on their higher degrees. Research and graduate education dominate American higher education, placing undergraduate education at the margins.

As a result of our perpetuating the past in our teaching methods and material, our students only know rote learning and how to respond to mediocre, standardized tests to receive grades. There is no vital connection made in the classroom between learning and life, much less any affection for voluntarily using one’s mind in the rigorous, sustained, and frequently counter intuitive way that leads to innovation and the advancement of knowledge.

This is the century of innovation! This is the century of technology! Our children have daily access to worldwide communication, to instant knowledge via Twitter, Google, Facebook, iPhones, iPads, etc. They know when someone in the world is assassinated the moment after it happens. They are exposed to worldwide events on a daily basis! This generation is smart, inquisitive, hip, curious, and able. They DO NOT like being bored by someone holding a piece of chalk in their hand.  Most of their learning occurs outside of school. What a comment on Education in this country.

This is the generation who invented a whole new language; Mouse, Apps, Email, Domain, Emoticon, Firewall, Flash Drive, Gigabyte, Hyperlink, Icon, jpg, JavaScript, LOL, Adware, Avatar, Bitmap, Blog, Bluetooth, Malware, Browser, Cache, Megapixel, codec, Cookie, Desktop, Motherboard…You get the picture!

These are not idiots! This is a generation trying to sprint into the New Age while being anchored in the Industrial Age by their Industrial Age teachers, buildings, and thinking. Let’s catch up and then lead them forward into a life of rigorous and sustained Lateral and Critical Thinking.

It’s NOT about money. It’s not about billions and trillions of “invested” dollars!

“I skate where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”
Wayne Gretsky

Education; Vertical Thinking – Lateral Thinking

January 23, 2011 1 comment

“You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.”

Edward DeBono

In the last post “Race to NOwhere – NOWhere” our students are falling asleep in their one dimensional learning rooms. What the chalkboards and rows of desks lack is creativity and excitement in thinking and problem solving. We are a nation whose public school system is churning out vertical thinkers in an age of 21 year old internet multi-millionaires, who are thinking laterally, way ‘outside the box’. These lateral thinkers are changing the millennium. Some have dropped out of prestigious Ivy League schools and their rows of desks and chalkboards  to create and implement their extraordinary ideas and solutions to problems, i.e., Facebook, SCVNGR, Microsoft, and others.

Vertical thinking, which is the primary thinking method practiced in the American public school system, is a method of the Industrial Age, not the High Tech Age. It destroys creativity in children by forcing them to seek the one “correct” solution to a problem while working within defined boundaries. Lateral thinkers use techniques for changing concepts and perceptions, and generating new ones. They explore multiple possibilities and approaches instead of pursuing a single approach. Lateral thinking was developed by a major force in British creative thinking, Edward DeBono, who has doctorates from both Oxford and Cambridge and is most famous for this term in his 1967 book, ‘The Use of Lateral Thinking’.

A way of understanding lateral thinking is through its opposite, vertical thinking. A vertical thinker is analytical, careful and precise, taking the data around a problem and analyzing it with defined methodologies to find logical solutions. A lateral thinker understands vertical thinking, but chooses to deliberately look outside of this bounded thought process. It requires digging in many other places because creativity is like a joke; you don’t get it until the punch-line at the end. It is not an easy concept to teach in a vertical thinking society and a good way to learn is through examples. A good example of lateral thinking is:

You are driving down the road in your car on a wild, stormy night, when you pass by a bus stop and you see three people waiting for the bus; An old lady who looks as if she is about to die; An old friend who once saved your life; The perfect partner you have been dreaming about.

Knowing that there can only be one passenger in your car, whom would you choose?
Click here for The Solution.

Lateral thinking is thus very much about standing back, looking at the big picture and understanding concepts. It also requires that you focus in on the parts that have perhaps been overlooked, challenging assumptions, and seeking alternatives. To be more simplistic:

•    vertical thinkers – CHOOSE
•    lateral thinkers – CHANGE
•    vertical – LOOKS FOR WHAT IS RIGHT
•    lateral – LOOKS FOR WHAT IS DIFFERENT
•    vertical – ONE THING MUST FOLLOW DIRECTLY FROM ANOTHER
•    lateral – MAKES DELIBERATE JUMPS
•    vertical – CONCENTRATES ON RELEVANCE
•    lateral – WELCOMES CHANCE INTRUSIONS
•    vertical – MOVES IN MOST LIKELY DIRECTIONS
•    lateral – EXPLORES LEAST LIKELY DIRECTIONS

Vertical thinking is mostly an individual process, solitary. Lateral thinking involves not only individual thinking, but also group thinking. Many large corporations use group lateral thinking to solve difficult problems by creating new solutions through brainstorming and close collaboration.

We desperately need to reorganize our classroom structure so that children may explore, share, and brainstorm for new ideas and new solutions outside the vertical path. There was a time in American education of the one room school. The teacher taught all grade levels, oftentimes with the help of her older students who looked after and help teach the youngest. The group dynamics of that generation, who had the opportunity to explore the best and most compelling ideas and solutions, led us into the Industrial Revolution.

The Volkswagen Company sponsored an initiative called  Thefuntheory. They invited people to invent a new structure for a mundane, already existent idea. Their challenge was to make this mundane, every day experience FUN for people to experience. They believe that “Fun can change people for the better!” The initiative produced the most extraordinary results and was held in Odenplan, Stockholm. One of the most intriguing ideas dealt with changing people’s behavior in taking either an escalator or the stairs. This is an amazing video of lateral, individual and group thinking! You will smile…

What would happen to our American educational system and our students if we unleashed this kind of fun, exploration, creativity, excitement, and learning in our classrooms? I suspect that every building, every classroom would be a beehive of energy and engaged participation. I would love to try this out somewhere! It’s not about not enough money. It’s not about better buildings. It’s about teachers letting go of their preconceived notions of education they bring into our classrooms from the Industrial Age. It’s about teachers challenging their students to come up with more than one solution to a problem. It is their obligation as professionals to explode the creative energy within their students, not destroy or inhibit it.

Learning to read together, all ages in creative Group Learning.

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