Popular Posts

Friday, May 18, 2012

21st Century Skills--Critical Thinking

Recently, a US Federal District Judge, Sam Haddon in Helena, MT threw out a case brought by four readers of Greg Mortenson’s famed Three Cups of Tea.  The plaintiffs claimed that Mortenson had distorted the truth in order to build his reputation and sell more books.  For this they charged him with “fraud and racketeering.”
Judge Haddon dismissed these charges as “flimsy and speculative. . .” claiming that their racketeering charges “are fraught with shortcomings.”
My first response was delight that Mortenson, who is responsible for bringing education to thousands of Afghanis and Pakistanis, was relieved of yet another burden.  (If you have yet to read his books, please do so.)
A second response was Hurray! for critical thinking.  Judge Haddon found no credible evidence to support plaintiffs charges.
Too often we find people in the public eye making claims they just cannot support with reliable evidence.  That’s what the Common Core Standards in Language Arts repeatedly call for students to be able to do, support claims with good evidence.  
This is one aspect of critical thinking.
How often do we hear “The economy (or my economic plan) will do this or that” without any supporting documentation, given nor asked for?  
Another aspect of critical thinking is too often seen by its absence: asking good questions about claims.
Recently, on one of the cable news channels, I watched as five people discussed and debated the merits of this claim: “The war on terror is over.”
During the discussion about effects of this claim no one bothered to raise any of the following essential questions:
Who said it?  To whom? When? Under what circumstances?
And, why was it said?  What  was the speaker’s or writer’s motivation?
These would seem to be quite basic questions.  The claim was made that this assertion came from “an administration spokesperson.”  But who?  A fifth ranked member of a branch of the State Department or Director of Central Intelligence?  Was it said the day before the program or in a leaked memo  directly after the killing of Osama bin Laden?
Other questions would include this one: What was said directly before this claim and after?  Even the Bible says, “There is no God.”  But we know that what precedes this claim is “The fool has said in his heart.” (Psalm 14: 1-3)   Context can be king.
How to foster critical thinking in humanities ought to be obvious.  We present students with challenges to analyze and evaluate actions and ideas in literature and history.  Students arrive at conclusions with supporting evidence.  We begin educating for logical thinking at a very young age.
For example, John Selkirk teaches first grade in Ottawa and one of his goals is to challenge students to think critically by  interpreting human emotions in pictures.  “How’s she feeling?”  Sad.   Students quickly learn to ask their friends, “What makes you say that?” What’s the evidence in the picture telling you she feels sad?
Pat Burrows in Catalina Foothills (AZ) challenges her students to think analogically about Napoleon in Orwell’s Animal Farm: compare him to other historical figures and support your conclusions.  We do the same when we claim “This conflict is just like---”  Again, what are the reasons with what kinds of evidence?
In math, we can strive for students always getting the right answer.  Or, we could educate them to think analytically by asking good, critical questions: “What am I asked to do?  What’s the key information?  How is this problem like others?  Can I draw a picture?  What are important assumptions?  Can I break it into smaller parts?” and once solved “How might I have solved it another way?”
We can foster critical thinking in sciences where we inquire, suggest testable hypotheses, analyze data, draw conclusions and provide evidence.  We can also ask good questions about problematic situations and claims.  A good way to diagnose students’ scientific reasoning is to present them with a complex problem in September and record the kinds of questions they can ask about it.  Then compare this throughout the year.
As Jacob Bronowski, noted scientist and poet observed, “That is the essence of science: ask an impertinent question and you are on the way to a pertinent answer.”
Critical thinking is analyzing situations, and using available evidence to arrive at conclusions.  It also means possessing that certain skepticism that leads to asking impertinent questions.  Skeptics are not negative. 
As Thomas Merton noted in his Secular Journal (1969): “. . . the true skeptic doubts in order that he may know.”

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

21st Century Skills--Imagination

21st Century Skills--Imagination
The Pulitzer Prize committee chose not to bestow an award for fiction this year.
Novelist Ann Patchett (Bel Canto and Run) wrote about this decision:
"Reading fiction is important.  It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings."  
She continues to note that “following  complex story lines stretches our brains beyond the 140 characters of sound-bite thinking. . .” and allows us to be “quiet and alone, two skills that are disappearing faster than the polar icecaps.”  (NY Times, 4/17/12)
Patchett’s thoughts on imagination took me to a book I’ve just completed, Katherine Boo’s behind the beautiful forevers--Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (2012).  Boo is such a graphic writer that it doesn’t require much to visualize the real lives of Abdul, Sunil, and Zehrunisa, some of the 3,000 residents of Anawandi, a collection of 335 slum dwellings in the shadows of the airport.  From the trash heaps you could see “how crazy-lopsided all the huts were against the straight lines of the Hyatt and Meridien hotels that rose up behind them.”
Abdul, for example, is a young man whose skill is being able very rapidly to categorize purchased or stolen paper, plastic, metal waste “in order to sell it.”  (Categorization/classification fosters cognitive development.)  Others in the slum break into the Air India facilities and take apart new construction for the nuts and bolts--again to sell.
What’s amazing about their stories is that there is hope.  They go to school; they strive to graduate and move on to become nurses,  professionals, even politicians. Manju’s goal was to become Anawandi’s first college graduate. 
 As one boy said, “Educate ourselves and we’ll be making as much money as there is garbage!”  
There was, indeed, hope for the future, for better lives, but it did take intense imagining to place yourself in the skins of these folks struggling toward the light, for freedom from the crippling corruption that riddled every level of civic life.
What we have here is a tale of human aspirations, the same kinds of aspirations we see in page after page of Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools.  When his schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan had been damaged by storms  or by the Taliban, parents became insistent that he and others fix them, do what they could to return their children to the world of books and learning.  In one community struck by disaster, education was being conducted in tents until Mortenson delivered the chairs with writing arms with which we are all so familiar.

A better life for our children is what can all imagine and strive for.

The life of the imagination is one of our overlooked basic capacities.  It is the fountain of our curiosity about the world.  From our imaginations spring forth those alternative worlds that we grow to live within.  We become better persons by being able to create pictures in our minds, move them around in the past, project them purposefully into the future and then take actions toward self-actualizing them. 
In every classroom we should be fostering the life of our imagination.
“Imagining a life other than our own” is what we do while reading books in every classroom and we can foster this important capacity by challenging students with questions such as:
“What do the characters look like?
Where do you see them?
What do you think they would do under these/different circumstances?
How are you like them?
What would you do in these situations?”
In history, we must engage our imaginations if we are to understand how George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and other founding fathers felt during the first days of our new republic:
What were they thinking/feeling during these early days?
What were their aspirations?
Why did they advocate the ideas and actions they did?
How do you imagine they would deal with failure/frustration?
What if you had been at the Constitutional Convention how would you have handled representation among states/any issue?
How would any one of them want to change government today?”
In science we invoke our imaginations as the greats have done:
For Richard Feynman scientific thinking  “was a process of putting oneself in nature:  in an imagined beam of light, in a relativistic electron. (Gleick, 1922, p. 244)  He once asked,  “How would I behave were I an electron?”  
We know of Einstein’s imagining “thought problems” (gedanken) such as “What if I rode along a ray of light? What would I observe?”
These “What if?” questions require using our imaginations to go beyond givens into areas where physical laws do not apply.
And, in math, where do we use our imaginations?
In turning all those SAT figures topsy turvy in the theaters of our minds in order to demonstrate to somebody in college that we have this capacity. . . 
In posing our own “What if?” questions that challenge us to take the data and imagine alternative solutions, problems:
What if I try this approach?
Suppose I draw it out?
What can I compare this to?  (“Factoring is like. . .”)
Imagine being the tangent to a circle.  What is my goal?
How would I graphically describe myself as a math student.
These questions, if they become part of our ways of seeing problems, put us more in control of our own thinking.  We manifest what psychologists have called a sense of “agency,” being in command of our own thinking.
As Patchett said, reading and imagining make us more “empathetic beings” and thereby better able to work and live within our several communities.  
Our imaginations are gateways to those unexplored territories where we will make discoveries:
“Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”