Learning to Think

Scott McLeod today writes at Dangerously Irrelevant: Here are two quotes from Education and Learning to Think, an interesting little research-based book published by the National Research Council way back in 1987!

Higher order thinking is nonalgorithmic. That is, the path of action is not fully specified in advance.

In other words, a curriculum isn’t going to make all your students into perfect higher-order thinkers.

Higher order thinking tends to be complex. The total path is not “visible” (mentally speaking) from any single vantage point.

In other words, you have to learn multi-step processes and think about matters from a systemic point of view, not just ‘fill in the bubble’.

Higher order thinking often yields multiple solutions, each with costs and benefits, rather than unique solutions.

Or, A, B, C, and D…. and ‘C’ is the best cost-benefit solution for our budget at the moment, unless that state grant comes in… then plan B.  How many kids do you know that find multiple solutions to the same problem? Do they do that in school?

Higher order thinking involves nuanced judgment and interpretation.

Higher order thinking involves the application of multiple criteria, which sometimes conflict with one another.

The factors that the teacher sees are not the only ones on the field of play; authentic learning requires solutions that please more than one person.

Higher order thinking often involves uncertainty. Not everything that bears on the task at hand is known.

Higher order thinking involves self-regulation of the thinking process. We do not recognize higher order thinking in an individual when someone else “calls the plays” at every step.

If I, the teacher, ‘know’ the answer, then my students are playing guessing games… not thinking.  If students don’t have a say in what they’re learning, they aren’t thinking, either.

Higher order thinking involves imposing meaning, finding structure in apparent disorder.

Higher order thinking is effortful. There is considerable mental work involved in the kinds of elaborations and judgments required. (p. 3)

Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler sorted through thousands of pieces of apparently random data to solve the theoretical frameworks of gravity, and the motion of the planets.  It took them years.  Yet we expect kids to come to clear understandings of important processes in 40-minute classes.

Scott McLeod goes on: The seventh item on the list, self-regulation, is one that I think is particularly lacking in many K-12 schools because the teachers “call the plays” so much of the time…

The blog entry ends with what Scott thinks is the money quote:

The goals of increasing thinking and reasoning ability are old ones for educators. . . . But these goals were part of the high literacy tradition; they did not, by and large, apply to the more recent schools for the masses. Although it is not new to include thinking, problem solving, and reasoning in someone’s school curriculum, it is new to include it in everyone’s curriculum. It is new to take seriously the aspiration of making thinking and problem solving a regular part of a school program for all of the population . . . It is a new challenge to develop educational programs that assume that all individuals, not just an elite, can become competent thinkers. (p. 7)

Nearly every literate society in the world regarded reading a very short list of classic books as the key to becoming a thoughtful and rational human being… books which they were careful to separate out from a muddled stack of sacred scriptures.   Now, students read digests and abridged versions of these classics, and we call it a day.

Assume you had a school of around a hundred students, and that you had them for 5-9th grade: what books would you want them to read cover to cover, assuming they only read one great book a year?  What are the hard books, that would make them think?

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