Thinking Skills Matter

I obsess about the learning dynamic. My journey covers the seven seas of learning theory, testimonials, conventions, seminars, and exhaustive training under recognized gurus. I separate meat from bones in my field. Believe me, there are too many bones. But why do I continue the pursuit? How can I cast off broken promises and false hope? I know the power of a teacher to affect someone’s life. I know the power of an administrator to compound that potential exponentially.

Dr. Adam Falk, president of Williams College, addressed potential incoming freshmen in the spring of 2015. He highlighted a central theme. “We are not here to create vessels of information. We are here to develop your minds. Exercise and reinforce the habits of mind. Think, feel, analyze – let your mind express itself. Strengthen the higher capacities.” Williams College is no joke. These eighteen year-olds are the academic cream of high schools around the world. Dr. Falk implies a reality these kids may not fully comprehend. Your critical thinking skills, highly developed for a high school senior, must be honed and elevated, indeed these skills can and will be elevated during your four years at Williams College. Teachers will encourage, push, and prod to make it happen.

Dr. Nate Kornell, a cognitive psychologist and professor at Williams College, amplifies this reality in his blog piece, Stop Worrying About Starting Grad School.

“The bottom line: your knowledge and skills on the first day are almost irrelevant four years later. What matters more is how much your skills are going to improve. That depends on your talent, attitude, and work ethic.

Graduate school is exactly the same. You aren’t prepared. No one is. You’re a flailing newborn spitting up all over and crying a lot (or at least I was).

What actually matters is whether you’re smart, ready to work hard, ready to get deeply interested and invested in whatever’s coming, and ready to do what you have to do to learn and improve.

You are running a marathon. The real question is how much better are you prepared to get?”

The learning dynamic demands more and more of our critical thinking skills. Those skills develop our inherent talent. Kornell said it best, “How much better are you prepared to get?”

If development of “the higher capacities” is critical at the college and graduate level, how important are they at the K-12 level? A cursory study of demographics and economics screams, “Life will not end well for those who cannot think for themselves and determine their futures.” Of those who don’t graduate from high school, only a smattering of outliers rise to productive careers. For better, for worse, we affect the lives of children. That is a fact and a choice.

We know for a fact, thinking skills taught and reinforced increases student achievement. Further, we know we have capacity to push IQ up as much as five points over the ages of six to ten. Trust me, five points of talent can make a significant difference in choices for an emerging adult. Men, would you rather have a 12 volt cordless drill or an 18 volt? Why the 18 volt? The 18 volt cordless drill has more power and greater endurance. That drill solves a greater range of problems. The mind is no different. Greater capacity, greater efficiency enhances skills which apply themselves to a greater range of problems. In sum, we possess the power to adapt and learn.

The newborn baby flails helplessly, its cry the only tool to express its needs and desires. Mom and Dad mediate a new relationship. We call it bonding but we are our baby’s first teachers. That developing mind will be nurtured by many others. Cognitive development builds biologically and environmentally, an inevitable exponential march toward independence. In the world, we call it life. In the classroom, we call it mediation. The teacher plays a dominant role at the K-12 level, a dominant but lesser role at the collegiate level, and a peer coach role at the graduate level. Greater and greater self-teaching occurs as the student progresses. His/her habits of mind, his/her powers of critical thinking, enable the individual to shape their environment. He/she emerges a fully functioning adult.

My three sons flew from the nest a decade ago. My first grandchild greets us in June. It matters little to me or you what they do for a living. Here is the critical point of their journey, the hard earned fruits of collaborative labors in their lives. Each works at a profession they chose for themselves. Each of them loves and is loved with dignity, and each invests in the welfare of others outside of family. Isn’t this what we are really about? Aren’t we a part of the universal question posited in each individual, “Who am I?” Don’t we have a responsibility to elevate the life of each child we intersect? I obsess about learning, about teaching, about caring for children because it matters more than any one person can ever comprehend.