For all you teachers out there

by johnmccreery

Courtesy of Robert Paul on lit-ideas.

Excerpt from a comment in the daily

‘The so-called “No Child Left Behind” policies have given us a crop of students nearly incapable of drawing conclusions on their own–so to teach critical thinking, we have to teach what thinking is first.’


14 Comments to “For all you teachers out there”

  1. I teach college students in TX, and the vast majority of my students come from instate, so this is a real issue for us. Biggest concern among literary studies people is that teaching to the test tends to replace skill building or real curriculum. The reading students practice tends to be in personal essays, with little academic content. The writing similarly focuses on canned responses to canned readings, both heavily decontextualized, so time is taking away from real development or practice. Teachers in the sciences are acutely aware that teaching to the test, which is basically about passive, recall-based learning, is disastrous for their disciplines, because problem solving and critical thinking are not demanded of students throughout much of the curriculum or on these tests. And of course the solution offered by the Academically Adrift authors to poor college achievement has been another standardized test, the CLA. In TX, the test has become the curriculum.

  2. Gah. Same here. I guess my one concern would be not to do the sort of declension narrative where before there was a golden age of critical mass education that produced a general citizenry well versed in independent thought, but now those people have somehow gone nuts and sold out their own precious children to a life of dogmatic slumber. I think it’s more likely we’ve got old whine in new bottles. I also think it’s worth noting that neither the schools nor the crop are a homogeneous mass. Functionally, about as many kids are learning to think critically as ‘need to’ in schools devoted to that purpose. The question is always where leverage would come from to ‘waste’ that level of investment on kids destined for the more followy regions of the occupational pyramid.

  3. I share Carl’s concern and offer what may be an equally off the wall narrative.

    There was a time when higher education was a privilege reserved for the few, whose superior thinking and decision-making skills, combined with character traits like grit and dash, entitled them to run the world. Then came a time when, in the great spirit of Democracy, we decided that everyone should have a shot at that sort of elite status and role. Schools proliferated and opened their doors to all, ignoring the reality that elites are always minorities. It seemed to work for a while in a world where OECD economies were booming, unionized assembly lines provided high-wage work for those who were unable or unwilling to pursue upward mobility, and multitiered organizations had lots of jobs for white-collar clerks, also pretty well paid—certainly relative to the rest of the world. Now that time is past. The elite track is still there, but the comfortable alternatives are disappearing. Education is becoming like other economic sectors. There’s fast food and haute cuisine, Walmart and Saks, community colleges and Ivy League. As the GINI coefficient increases, those on the bottom of these divides get pre-packaged, mass-produced, distributed by temporary labor products that keep body if not soul together. Those at the top grow fiercer in defense of privilege and those close to the top impose ever steeper demands on their kids, trying to make sure that they make it into the schools that are still gateways to elite status. Educators who thought their jobs would be introducing students to critical thinking and the skills of the intellectual connoisseur find themselves, instead, shoveling out the equivalent of Happy Meals and feeling not at all happy about it. George Ritzer wrote a book about all this called The McDonaldization of America. What it’s about is the death of an American dream in which America was Lake Woebegone, “Where all the men are handsome, all the women are beautiful, and all the children above average.”

    Please, please, someone convince me that I’m wrong.

  4. About a year ago I wrote a post about Academically Adrift, which generated some fruitful discussion. Briefly, I thought that the difference in critical thinking between 1st- and 4th-year college students — 0.5 standard deviation on average, as measured on the SLA — was pretty good. Administrators and governments are using much weaker statistical results (<0.2 standard deviations) to weed out supposedly bad teachers.

    My interpretation at the time: Claiming the ability to distinguish effective from ineffective teachers gives school boards and governments justification for eliminating highly-paid teachers who score relatively poorly on their assessment tool. In contrast, claiming that higher education sucks adds support for a kind of “shock doctrine” call for dismantling the public educational system and rebuilding it on some other grounds — perhaps privatizing it. If one lets the numbers speak for themselves, the conclusions are reversed: university education in general has a pretty strong impact on student learning, whereas differences between individual teachers have a weak impact.

    Key findings: (1) Students tend to do better if they spend relatively more time studying by themselves rather than in study groups do better. (2) Teachers who assign more reading and writing tend to get better results than those imposing less rigorous requirements. (3) LIberal arts majors show the biggest gains. This was a cross-sectional study, looking at cohorts of students rather than tracking individual change, so no conclusions can be drawn about whether those kids deemed smarter or grittier at admission to college showed more or less improvement as they progressed through the four years. However, validation studies show that the CLA does not correlate very highly with either SAT scores or university GPA.

  5. I see I made another typing error — redundant “do better” in point 1 of the last paragraph. I’ve developed sloppy work habits on my own blog, posting first then proofing-correcting later. Clearly I should check my work before handing it in.

  6. JohnM, I don’t like your story. Therefore it is false. JohnD, how fine-grained are those stats? ‘College in general’ may be a two steps forward, one step back kind of thing in which case it really might make sense to try to identify where the steps forward and the steps back are coming from. (But as we’ve discussed before, student aptitude and disposition make a big dif. Some students teach themselves and find a way to learn from everything, including really dreadful teachers. Others require
    massive investments of attention to get momentary gains soon lost without constant reinforcement.)

    Along those lines I also wonder how much college improves on four years of any other life experience, and whether that improvement adds up to $100K or so of value. The usual move is to point to higher lifetime earning rates for college grads, but that’s true only up to the margin of jobs actually requiring a college degree.

  7. How fine-grained? I read only the summary (linked on my post), not the book, so I don’t know how many colleges/universities were included in the study nor how results varied based on public versus private and so on. Surely these drill-downs could be done, and probably have been done. With respect to the main finding — assigning more reading and writing yields higher gains on the CLA — the researchers made what I thought was a good point:

    “Arum acknowledged that the tough economy may be acting against reform, given that many professors report that increases in class size and course loads are leading them to cut down on the ambition of student assignments simply to keep up with grading. With fewer full-time positions, professors at many institutions “are overwhelmed,” he said. But Arum challenged faculty members to be creative in finding ways to assign more writing and reading to students.”

    The summary also says this: “The analysis in the book stresses that there is significant variation within institutions, not just among institutions, with students in some academic programs regularly outperforming others at the same campuses.” As I noted in earlier, the student’s major field of study was a significant source of variation: liberal arts majors showed the biggest jump from 1st to 4th year. Then there’s this: “Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the smallest gains.”

    “Student aptitude and disposition make a big dif” you say, to which I countered that “the CLA does not correlate very highly with either SAT scores or university GPA.”

    “I also wonder how much college improves on four years of any other life experience”

    I wonder that too. Do kids who go straight from high school into the workforce show comparable gains in critical thinking (as measured by CLA), or do they stagnate or even decline? Among the college students, is it college per se that leads to gains, or is it brain maturation? As they say, more research is needed — maybe some of it has already been done.

  8. “Student aptitude and disposition make a big dif” you say, to which I countered that “the CLA does not correlate very highly with either SAT scores or university GPA.”

    You’re assuming here that SAT scores and university GPAs correlate cleanly with the kinds of aptitude and disposition we’re talking about. However, if measured achievement via SAT and GPA can be or is decoupled from critical thinking, broadly speaking, a lack of correlation is structural but also unilluminating. Since the beef is precisely with an educational system that rewards memory and test-taking skills vs. critical thinking, we have to keep this question open pending a better metric.

  9. Aha, I see you have indeed covered a bunch of this in your previous post and conversation, which I therefore second in recommending.

  10. Thanks man. I was curious about Dave M’s complaint that he has to teach to the CLA test. From what you’ve said about your own teaching philosophy and techniques you would resonate with the CLA approach as I understand it from thumbnail descriptions: making and critiquing arguments, using evidence from source documents to buttress the case. If you teach this sort of ability is it teaching to the test? And what’s wrong with that if it is? I recall your saying that the AP history tests evaluate this critical thinking ability, and that many test-takers show no evidence of being up to the task. It’s possible that these kids just aren’t innately equipped with the requisite critical reasoning ability. Or it might be that their AP teachers aren’t helping them hone the right skills. If CLA ability doesn’t correlate highly with other usual indicators of academic aptitude like SAT, then maybe there’s greater hope that teaching could actually overcome students’ deficits. OTOH, if that Diesel jeans ad on the other thread is any indicator, then the cool kids would rather create than critique, so then you’re back to that dispositional thang.

  11. I’m not sure from the wording whether Dave’s actually teaching to the CLA itself or just identifying it as yet another procrustean bed like the ones they’re already stuck with in TX. You’re right though, I often say there’s nothing wrong with teaching to the test if it’s the right test. After all, in order to give students a grade in my classes I have to think about what I want them to get from it and then give them that and then think how to assess what they’ve gotten. So in that straightforward sense the CLA would not be evil. Now, in my case grades are just a byproduct of pedagogical process – I grade them with papers, but grading is not the primary purpose of papers. So if you gave me a test to teach to, even if it was actually a test of the sorts of things I’m trying to teach, it would be tangential to my purposes no matter what; not to mention that it would tend to discourage a process of experimentation in my classes that again, is only secondarily about finding ‘the right’ way to teach and much more about keeping my focus and enthusiasm up because I find that those are the method-independent variables that make the most difference.

    And herein we have maybe my biggest objection to the assessment/test/curriculum complex, which in every one of its parts might be just fine – the cybernetic/positivistic idea embedded in it that there is one right set of outcomes and one right way of achieving them.

    Btw Dave and Laura have been having an interesting conversation about all this at their blog too (e.g. here), well worth checking out.

  12. “If CLA ability doesn’t correlate highly with other usual indicators of academic aptitude like SAT, then maybe there’s greater hope that teaching could actually overcome students’ deficits.”

    Yeah. Otherwise we really are slinging Ritzer’s burgers.

  13. “I grade them with papers, but grading is not the primary purpose of papers.”

    Righto. On average, students who wrote more papers did better on the standardized critical thinking evaluation; no mention is made as to whether getting good grades on those papers translated into better CLA scores. If anything, the Academically Adrift guys present an indictment of an educational system that pushes test-taking over reading and writing. Teaching critical thinking in the classroom is tougher than lecturing; critiquing student papers is tougher than feeding the Scantron. So here again the underfunded, understaffed schools are going to have a harder time of it.

  14. Sorry I was misunderstood. The reading, writing, and critical thinking portions of the CLA are sufficiently generic that it would be difficult to “teach to the test” except by having students practice skills that hopefully are getting reinforced anyway. As Carl suggests, I think the CLA in this respect is benign in its impact (at least on the humanities), or perhaps reveals issues with the curricula in fields like education or business where students don’t seem to be developing those skills. My larger point, I suppose, is that accountabilty systems, to the extent that they are organized for the benefit of outside stakeholders, funnel a lot of precious time away from the instructors’ own teaching goals.

    Totally agree with the thought that “grading is not the primary purpose of papers,” which I think is a fundamental pedagogical principle, but there’s a problem when educational systems that manage this difficult principle are then judged by accountability “standards” that DO make the standardized test results the point of the whole enterprise. We don’t need more disconnect in these educational systems, we need more alignment, and the constant imposition of new outside accountability standards, no matter how benign or well-intended, have severely disruptive effects on underfunded, underorganized systems. Cf. Richard Elmore on this in relation to NCLB.

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