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.




The Marketplace Speaks

“Where innovation comes in is figuring out the right problem to be solved, the right question to ask, and then figuring out a better way to solve the problem.  You can’t just come up with a solution for today’s problem.”

Rick Hassman, Director or Corporate Applications, Pella Corporation

What does the marketplace want from our college graduates?  Are they getting what they need from this fresh crop of entry level workers?  Grab your electronic device and search the web.  The news isn’t good.  Bosses sing a similar tune.  These kids are ill prepared to carry their weight on the team.  In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education American Public Media’s Marketplace survey of over 700 businesses, better than half of the employers polled had real difficulty finding qualified candidates for job openings.  All of this is happening in a period of high unemployment!  So what do these companies want that we aren’t delivering in education?

A survey published in January of 2015 by the Association of American Colleges and Universities interviewed employers and prospective graduates separately.  Each party evaluated graduates separately.  Both were asked to evaluate graduates on a wide range of skills.  The percentages in Table 1 below reflect those who believe graduates are adequately prepared in that particular skill.

Table 1

Proportions saying they/recent college graduates are well prepared in each area

Skill Employers Students
Working with others 37% 64%
Ethical judgment and decision making 30% 62%
Working with numbers/statistics 28% 55%
Oral communication 28% 62%
Written communication 27% 65%
Critical/analytical thinking 26% 66%
Being innovative/creative 25% 57%
Analyzing/solving complex problems 24% 59%
Applying knowledge/skills to real world 23% 59%

The obvious disconnect between employers’ needs and the readiness of college seniors shouts at us.  The bosses aren’t happy with the best we have to offer.  That fact cannot be overlooked.  These are our strongest academic achievers.  We can’t hide behind the crutch of low expectations.  Something is wrong with our teaching. And our college graduates are oblivious to their short-comings!  Nearly two-thirds believe they possess the goods.  “I’m ready for management,” they cry.  We haven’t even given them a clear picture of expectations in the real world.  We hang them out to dry.

David Boyes, president of a small tech company in Virginia said, “We find that a lot of people, and not just new college grads, people that are coming from a career aren’t getting that skills set.  How do you put an idea forward, and how do you support it, how do you build it, how do you put the facts behind it?  All of those things are critical.”  Our students lack experience.  This is an important implication I draw from the surveys and comments.  Lack of experience explains, in part, the ignorance of these prospective workers.  They don’t miss what they never had because those skills have not been demanded of them, not in the classroom, not at home, not in the workplace.  Every skill demanded by these employers can be taught, strengthened, and reinforced in our youth from the moment we get them as little cherubs.  These skills are universal.  Every child has the right to become a reasoned critical thinker.  Do we as educators, parents, and mentors have the tools to teach these skills to our children?  Can we offer real work at real jobs with exceptional demands to our young people?  These skills must be tested early, or  inevitably learned late, or tragically not at all.

We have a choice; do we leave the teaching of thinking to chance?  Is thinking simply caught or can we intentionally, sequentially, and systematically teach it?  Will we assume the responsibility to teach critical thinking skills or do we assume that these young people will learn these skills by association, a consequence of our current instruction?  Our critics have answered the question for us.  We dare not assume anything.  We must change.  Our instruction must address how our students think.  As Tony Wagner in the Global Achievement Gap puts it, “It is not what you know that’s important.  Rather, it is what you do with what you know that is important.”

Education Must Adapt to Change

Where is your cellphone at this moment?  In your pocket?  Perhaps in your handbag?  I bet it’s in close proximity to your person.  How many times have you used your phone today?  How many different applications have you employed?  Where would you be without it?  How has your cellphone changed your life over the course of the past dozen years?

I just read a brief announcement in Business Weekly last week.  Nokia, the Finnish high-tech giant, hinted that it may re-enter the smartphone market.  Apparently the company is working on a top secret project.  Back in 2008, Nokia dominated the global cellphone market.  By 2013, Nokia dropped out of this sector and sold all of its remaining assets to Microsoft.  Nokia is but one example of the blur created by dynamic change in today’s culture.  “Here today, gone tomorrow” describes our potential standing in the global struggle to remain relevant.  No nation, no business, no worker can afford to relax.  Rapid change is now a way of life.

America spearheaded much of this disruptive innovation.  We reaped spectacular rewards and continue to do so.  But what if the innovation stops?  What if the well runs dry?  What then?  Leaders in business and education are asking this question every day.  And it should challenge every one of us in the work of public education.  How do we confront the threats and opportunities of dynamic change as educators?  Will we innovate?  Will we risk failure to reap the rewards of success?

Public education in America sits on a precarious chair.  Our scores no longer shine bright on the global scene.  The trends shout at us, you’re slipping! So what do we do?  “Work harder,” cry the politicians.  We must score better on our high-stakes test, or else  . . . ,” reply our state officials.  So we work harder.  We target specific objectives.  By golly, we will improve our scores.  We will be a high achieving school.

But is this enough?  We improve our scores.  Every child now knows how to take these tests, there are no surprises.  What have we accomplished?  Can our children now compete with our global competitors and win?  Have we equipped a generation that can adapt to the new realities of disruptive innovation?  Or have we simply created efficient test takers for specific tests?

I believe we need to ask a different set of questions to better frame and address the real issue of change and adaptability.  What is required to deal with novel situations, problems?  What skills must we employ to engage new information, ambiguity?  Can we ask the right questions?  How do we define the problem?  What strategies with scope and sequence do we employ to solve problems?  Do we persist with strategic purpose?  We can no longer afford to construct education in a linear fashion.  We cannot assume the specific skillsets of today will be required tomorrow.  We must teach our children to think critically, creatively.

What do we mean when we say we must teach children how to think?  Specifically, what is critical thinking?  Are there specific components?  How do we develop our instruction to integreate those skills into general education?  How can neuroscience inform our teaching?  How do we measure success anecdotally and empirically?  In the weeks to come I want to explore the basic components of critical thought.  I aim to demonstrate why every child must acquire these skills.  Finally, I hope to illustrate why these skills are absolutely vital in the midst of change, how these skills readily transfer to varied challenges.