@KDWashburn, on his blog the Window, has two pieces recently about banishing critical thinking. They’ve been nagging at me since he posted them back in mid-February, and I think he’s on to something; something that can be combined with my idea of the Three-Fold Web, and the idea of “princess-rescuing applications” from the Lost Garden blog.  I’d like to see more of this kind of thing, because it’s influencing me this week as we prepare for final exams.

Oh, and I’m stealing his image, though I’m also giving him a linkback. Hope you don’t mind, KD!

The Thinking Target

Anyway, one of the points that he makes is that it’s not enough to teach kids to think critically.  And it’s not.  I’ve been trying to get my kids to think critically for years, but that means observing the process of my own critical thinking — which is harder than licking your own neck.

But in a game of darts, only the very best hit the center of the bull’s eye every time. Most game players take a lot of practice to get right in to the boss, every time. And if they do get to the Boss Monster right away, was it really a good game to blow $50 on? Probably not, unless it has tremendous re-playability.  Most games that are that easy, don’t.

But this is to suggest that school, particularly middle school classes for the kinds of students I teach, should be designed like a game, and it should involve first-web skills, second-web skills, and third-web skills.  It should also award points for doing things on-target.

So my school’s terms (we have 3) are divided into marking periods (4 each) and an exam.  First Marking Period of the Fall Term should be devoted to memory, in a way. “Here’s a set of facts and figures.  Here’s a set of vocabulary. Here’s a set of images.” The goal is to learn the skills — flash cards, research, dictionary (on and offline), library, to absorb and digest that informational mountain, and store it in personal memory, either in the brain or in second-web personal storage.  A lot of this can be scavenger-hunt style: “Do you have a copy of the complete non-copyrighted Sherlock Holmes stories?  Do you have the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid in English? Do you have photographs of the following people, places and things: a medieval king, a guillotine, Stonehenge, Alexander the Great, Martin Luther King, Demosthenes, Adolf Hitler, Paris, Tokyo, The Parthenon, Chartres Cathedral, medieval Rome, ancient Rome, Jerusalem? Can you find them immediately? Have you indexed them?” Some of it is more analytical… “Create a timeline related to this person and explain the dates with images and text: Alexander the Great, 356 BC, 336 BC, 334 BC, 332 BC, 329 BC, 326 BC, 323 BC, 321 BC.”

In other words, get kids used to hitting the target every time.  I get so many written assignments where the results are WAGs — wild-ass guesses.  Stories aren’t in anything resembling chronological order, they wander from Greece to Rome like Aeneid (even though they’re supposed to be writing about Alexander), and they’re confused.  So first, make sure that the points of their darts are hitting the target, every time, by showing them what they’re looking for.

Second marking period of Fall Term becomes about digesting that huge memory gulp (32 ounces at the local 7-11!).  How to catalog and index.  How to write and read using core data.  How to pull some information into the brain, store essential information in First Web hardcopy, pull other info into Second Web digital copy, and how to search for still still other information in Third Web.  Search, store, retrieve becomes the major curriculum here, along with what constitutes legitimate sharing — basics of copyright law, and so forth.

Third Marking Period of Fall Term then becomes about reasoning: how to draw inferences from data.  “hey kids, we just made you memorize a bunch of facts, and then made you sort and categorize them six or seven different ways.  What truths do you find buried in all that data?”

And fourth marking period? Fourth becomes that Evaluate portion — is there some essential truth that we can take from all of this data, all this sorting and processing, all this hanky and panky we’ve been doing with information. Writing essays, writing blogs, writing e-mails and letters, weighing the value of different primary sources, understanding how facts build up into larger pictures.

It’s an idealized model, I know.  And it’s dumb to be thinking about fall term now, when winter term is ending, I have a pile of end-of-term work stacked up, we’re getting accredited in April, and Lord only knows what else.  Some kids will be ready for level II before some of the class are done with level I, and some will be panting to get to level IV or V long before some are even out of Level Ia.

All the same, I think there’s something to this, and I may have other thoughts about it later.