The Feb 2008 issue of Educational Leadership features an article titled "Cover the Material - Or Teach Students to Think?," written by Marion Brady. The author questions the logic of adding "rigor" and high standards to the curriculum at the expense of teaching students to think. The author believes that old answers rarely fit in eras of rapid social change, and that adaptation to changing realities require higher-order thinking skills. Textbooks do not help develop higher-order thinking skills, because they represent the final conclusions of other people's thoughts and processes.
Traditional instruction is more concerned with the study of opinions about the real world than with the study of the real world itself. Internalizing others' views required just one thinking skill--recall. Trying to make sense of one's own day-to-day experience requires the use of every known thinking skill.
Education leaders can take a crucial step toward getting students to use higher-order thinking skills by drawing a sharp line between firsthand and secondhand knowledge. The best way to do this is to focus attention directly on some part of the real world.
Our students need to have opportunities to make their own inferences, hypotheses, generalizations, and value judgements. Gobal collaborative projects such as the Roadkill 2008 Project (sounds gross, but you need to look into it... I heard about it on EdTechTalk this week), projects such as Cheryl Lykowski's Global Explorers project, and Technospud Projects would fit the bill.
A few classrooms in Walled Lake are participating in The Oakland Schools Land Use Project, where students come up with a development idea that would improve their community. They collaborate with local experts who push them to think about concepts such as the impact on the environment and the people, and local zoning ordinances. The students survey their community to determine the need, calculate costs, and identify benefits and challenges. They present their idea to the county experts by videoconference. The project has meaning to the students and they are learning to think!
I agree with the author, who believes that a focus on real-world issues can alter the entire culture of a school or a school system. It is relevant. It shows respect for the students. Tim Tyson, former principal at Mabry Middle School (Georgia) gets it. His students all participate in a film festival where they create videos based on a current events issue. Scroll down to the bottom of this page to see some examples. Principal Tyson delivered the closing keynote address at last year's NECC Conference; it has been 8 months and it is still fresh in my mind. He brought students with him who talked about their experiences doing their research, creating their video, and their feelings about making the world a better place. It was highly motivating to them. There is no doubt in my mind that the skills developed as a result of that project are the kinds of skills that are needed in today's working world.
What can we do (and what needs to be done) to give more emphasis toward teaching students to think in a time when our country is so focused on standards and testing? I am doing what I can in my school district in Walled Lake, but I know that there is so much more to do. One of the things I'm excited about is an 8th grade social studies project that I'm developing right now. It will be one that ALL 8th graders (about 1,200) will complete, and it involves students collaborating to create projects that requires them to think! They will participate using Moodle, an on-line course management system. Pulling this off requires lots of time, teacher staff development, tech troubleshooting, and advanced planning. Hopefully the teachers will soon agree that time spent on a project like this is worth the time away from "covering the material." Only time will tell.