Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Most Important Things

The most important things to teach children are critical thinking and problem solving skills, so that children can learn how to think.

No—the most important thing to teach children is academic content across the subject areas, so that children can have something concrete to think about.

No—the most important thing to teach children is how to take tests strategically and effectively, because, in the end, that’s how they’re going to be judged by the educational gatekeepers who hold children’s futures in their hands.

You would think, after teaching generations of children, we’d know which things were most important to focus on. But you’d be wrong. In fact, if I’ve learned anything in my years working in education (a debatable proposition), it’s that any sentence starting with “you would think,” is a sentence that’s going to end in tears.

So allow me to complicate the issue even further. I’m all for teaching skills and teaching content and even approaching tests strategically, but I’d like to offer another candidate for your consideration: the ordinary and often-overlooked skills of note-taking and studying.


Yes, seriously. The more I think about it, the more amazed I am that we obsess over what to teach, but spend so little time focusing on what students should do with what we teach them. I mean, obviously, we focus on “doing” when it comes to activities, assignments, and tests. We focus on final, summative products. But are we focusing enough on what students do in the earliest moments of learning? When we teach, through lecture or demonstration, what should they be doing? When they read, in groups or alone, what should they be doing? When they go home and reflect (we hope) on their day, what should they be doing? And when they are preparing to engage with upcoming activities, assignments, or tests, what should they be doing to ensure that their demonstrations will be successful? How should students receive the information and ideas we provide them with?

I have very clear memories of being taught, in 6th grade, how to take notes in outline form. We were learning about ancient Greek mythology, and our teacher showed us how to organize information by listing things in sequences of increasingly indented numbers and letters or bullet points. It worked perfectly for something as linear as the pantheon of Greek gods. It helped us capture the important information in an easy-to-read format, and more: it helped us see how some details related to and supported the main ideas, and how other details supported or illustrated those first details. 
I’m not saying that traditional outline note-taking is the only method, or the best method; I’m just saying that it was a method. It taught me that the catch was just as important as the pitch, and that where I put information in my notebook was as important as where I put my house-keys when I came home from school. In both cases, if I just threw stuff down randomly, it would create anxiety down the road, when I needed stuff and had no idea where it was.

And it did much more than that: learning how to take down information schematically helped me see how information worked, right from the start; it taught me that information had a structure and organization and purpose to it, and it taught me how to listen for that structure and organization. The way I wrote down notes actually helped me think about what the information meant.
And yet, so few of the teachers I know teach these skills explicitly. They have a variety of reasons for not touching note-taking or study skills, including:

  • They assume these things were taught in an earlier grade
  • They assume they’re just “picked up” in life, somehow
  • They feel like they don’t have time in their pacing plans
  • They don’t know an effective method for note-taking, themselves
  • It simply doesn’t occur to them that explicit teaching of note-taking is needed

These are all valid and understandable excuses, but think about the unfortunate results. We spend all our time preparing engaging and rigorous lessons, honing our instructional practice to a fine point—but the people on the receiving end have no tools with which to catch what we’re pitching. Day after day, we see students writing down nothing or trying to write down every word we say, verbatim, and we don’t do anything about it. Or, at best, we type up and photocopy some notes to help them prepare for an exam. But the exam isn’t the problem here—it’s the day-to-day, moment-to-moment understanding that we are failing to facilitate and support by helping students organize and visualize the information they’re trying to process. We assume they’re just “getting it,” and perhaps processing it later. We need to start looking at note-taking as a vital part of the learning process.

What’s Changing

The good news is that note-taking is starting to get a little more love, thanks to the Common Core State Standards and the focus, even in non-CCSS states, on close reading. Close reading is a technique used to help students read complex texts more deeply and analytically, instead of focusing solely on the usual, what-happens-next kinds of questions that can make class so deadly. In the close reading process, the teacher sets a clear purpose for reading, has students engage in multiple readings of the text, and then leads one or more rigorous, text-based discussions, perhaps culminating in a writing activity.

Critical to close reading—and to the instructional shifts inherent in the new standards—is the ability for students to cite evidence to support their claims when discussing or writing about text. I don’t know how students can even hope to do this if they haven’t taken some notes while reading, either marking up the text itself, making use of a graphic organizer, or having a note-taking method that allows them to identify selections of text that they think will come in handy in the upcoming discussion.

If students learn a clear and concrete method for taking notes on their reading, they should be able to participate in any text-based discussion in class—even if they’ve had trouble understanding a section of the text. Everyone should be able to come to the discussion ready to either answer a question or ask a question. No students should be penalized for being confused, if they have grappled with the text as best they can, and have come to class with something. Students who think note-taking is boring or unnecessary may change their minds after the first text-based discussion at which they find themselves unprepared to contribute.

What Could Be

If note-taking is as integral to learning as I suspect it is, it needs to be taken more seriously—not simply just at a classroom level, but across the entire school. Especially as students get older and deal with multiple teachers, it’s crazy-making to have to do things in completely different, often arbitrary ways. Why does your first-period teacher require your name to go in the upper left, followed by the date, when your second-period teacher requires your name to go in the upper right, after the date? Why does your science teacher post assignments on Blackboard, but your English teacher posts somewhere else that she likes better?  So much of what we do in school meets the individual needs and desires of the adults, and makes the world incoherent for students and their parents. Some of the individualization may be important to the way the content is taught, but a lot of it is probably personal preference.

Think how powerful it would be if schools did more than simply hand out a planner at the beginning of the year. Imagine if at an opening assembly, the principal taught all students how the school expected them to use the planner (after some collaborative decision-making among staff).  Here’s where you should write down your homework for each subject; here’s how we’d like to see you write it down, so that it’s the same across classes—easy for you to check (and easy for your parents to check).  And then: here’s our school-wide, recommended method of note-taking.  There are some basics we like to see across all subjects and grades. Your subject teachers may have tweaks and additions related to their subjects, and that’s fine: science teachers may need something extra, social studies teachers may, as well. But the core of note-taking is something we’d like to be consistent across grades and subjects.

Imagine how much easier it would be for teachers to check notes in class—and for mentors and coaches to see how students are doing during observations. Imagine how much easier it would be parents to help their children at home. Imagine how much easier it would be for students to use their notes.

Students don’t have a union representing their interests, but they definitely have a vote in how school is run. If they find a class boring or confusing, they can zone out, check out, or act up in protest. We often treat those things as student character flaws rather than pointed and deliberate commentaries on what we’re doing.

We need to pay attention to what the school day looks like and feels like to the student. We need to do whatever we can to decrease fragmentation and incoherence, to make school feel like a thoughtfully constructed community, where the parts reflect and comment on each other and on the whole. If we want students to be active participants in and shapers of their learning, not docile spectators, we need to care about—and think carefully about—how we want them to engage with that learning, minute by minute and day by day.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Teach the Tension

Two recent topics of discussion around my house have been the presidential election (obviously) and the challenges of teaching critical thinking (just as obviously, if you know my family). You will perhaps not be shocked to learn that I think the two topics are related.

There used to be a saying in politics that if you tried to fly a plane with only one wing, all you’d do is go in circles. And yet, we no longer seem to value having a left wing and a right wing in our country, to balance our flight and help us move forward. Discourse and compromise are seen as weakness at best, capitulation at worst. Only one side can be right. And it has to be 100% right, 100% of the time.

Part of this is just power politics. But part of it has to do with a dualistic view of the world. There are two (and only two) sides to every issue, and if one of those sides is Good, the other must be Evil. If you’re on the side of Good, why would you want to compromise with Evil? You wouldn’t.  And since no one thinks their own opinion or viewpoint is evil, everyone feels justified in building walls and fighting against what they see as the Army of Darkness. It is a medieval, even Manichaean, way of thinking, and it makes democracy, from town halls up to the halls of Congress, very challenging.

Our education system can fall victim to the same kind of thinking, in its own way. Within any subject, there are Basic Facts that have to be learned. They are true, and correct, which is why they’ve been written down in textbooks for students to learn. Some things are simply correct, and some things are simply incorrect. Students need to learn the difference between the two. That’s why we have tests. We grow up seeing each school day as a series of right and wrong answers, and it’s hard not to impose that view on the rest of the world. Even in English classes, where literature is supposed to be open to interpretation, students quickly learn that there are right interpretations (the textbook and the teacher’s) and wrong interpretations (theirs).

There are neurological reasons why we think this way—and end up teaching this way--and reasons why it’s difficult to stop thinking this way. Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, does a great job of explaining how our lazy brains fight against critical, analytical thinking whenever possible, replacing genuine thought with reflexive reaction. It’s not that we’re incapable of reason; it’s just that it’s hard work that our brains would rather not do. When faced with an array of political policy ideas from two or more candidates, our brains will defer to simpler, more visceral decision-making options, like a candidate’s party, or height, or hair, or smile, or the strength of his or her chin. If those characteristics have correlated (even somewhat) with strong leadership skills over the years, our brains will substitute the knee-jerk reaction to the hard work of reasoning. We “know” that one candidate is better than another, but how do we know that we know? What makes us so sure we’re right, and the other side is wrong?

It’s easy to say things like, “Question everything,” in response to the knee-jerk reaction, but how can we teach ourselves—and our children—how to question things effectively, in order to challenge our confirmation bias and think more critically about the issues in front of us?

I believe the first step is to remind ourselves that in most cases, the two sides of an issue are not separate from each other, at war with each other, and utterly irreconcilable. In fact, in most cases, the two sides of an issue live in dynamic tension with each other in a constant push-pull on our affections and desires. We believe strongly in equality, but we know that mandated, enforced equality, whether in school or in political systems, can kill initiative and creativity, and create a world of drab sameness. We believe strongly in freedom, but we know that unregulated, unrestricted freedom can lead to chaos and a world where physical or economic might makes right. Equality and freedom are both important aspects of American political thought and life. Their demands push and pull at us all the time. Sometimes we move more in the direction of equality at the expense of freedom; sometimes we do the opposite. We are always in search of the best middle-ground. The middle-ground isn’t capitulation to an enemy; it’s the attainment of balance.

You could have the same discussion about freedom versus security—whether it’s my freedom of speech versus your right to be safe from insult and offense, or my freedom to carry a gun versus your right to live without being afraid of me. Which is more important—freedom or security? It’s a false question; they’re both important. The question is how we balance our rights and needs.

What I’m saying is that, instead of spending all of our time teaching discrete things—things which, in themselves, are simply right or wrong—we should make sure kids have time to explore the tensions among things—because critical thinking is all about assessing how things interact, play off each other, and affect us. And when you understand that you are eternally caught in a tug-of-war between competing needs, you will stop seeing one side as God’s and other side as Satan’s—or, in school—one side as The Right Answer and one side as The Wrong Answer.

It’s not an easy thing to do. I’ve tried. When students are used to reading history textbooks, it’s very challenging to bring competing first-person accounts of an event to them. They don’t find the diversity of perspective and agenda fascinating; they find it annoying. They don’t relish the idea of evaluating resources, synthesizing arguments, and reaching their own conclusions. They slam their books shut, glare up and me, and say, “So, which is it? Which one is right?” Remember: we have lazy brains.
Reason is an amazing gift, but it’s not a gift we like to use. We think we like it—we fool ourselves into believing that we’re rational, reasoning creatures. But we’re not. Not if we can avoid it. If Position A is published in a glossy-looking, professional published book, and Position B is published as a third-generation photocopy, we will want to believe Position A.  If Position A is presented first, we will want to believe Position A—or, at the very least, our deference to it will color the way we read and think about Position B.

How do you know what you know? What makes you so sure what you know is true? What makes you so sure that what you don’t believe in is not true? What if you’re wrong?

Our history of thought goes back to Socrates, who badgered and annoyed people with questions that came at them from every angle, undermining every conclusion and assumption they had, so that people had to stop assuming and start reasoning. Who can provide that annoying but necessary service for us today, if not our teachers?