Corporate leaders want employees who can size up situations fast, think on their feet, and solve problems. Parents and voters want the next generation to think clearly as they enter a world that won’t stand still. Consensus does exist over the importance of students leaving schools with flexible, sharp minds but much confusion exists over how to get schools to produce such graduates.
Since the 1980s, states have developed English, math, science, and social studies curricula to include thinking skills. Teachers have received special training in helping students to reason. The results so far have been meager. How come?
The answer is that these reforms are little better than a wash and wax job on a dented jalopy because the reforms fail to alter the school’s fundamental structures or penetrate the classroom. Consider the high school.
According to psychologists, reasoning is an untidy mental and emotional process that requires time for an active interplay between teachers and students, time for both to mull over inconsistencies, and time to work through problems without fear of cutting remarks from teachers or peers. Reasoning also requires a classroom climate that promotes students asking questions and making mistakes. In the classroom, then, the necessary conditions for thinking to occur are sufficient time and a classroom atmosphere where both teachers and students are free to display thinking.
Do high school structures promote enough time and the classroom climate to support frequent and open use of reasoning skills? Hardly. Take for example, the 4 Ts: Time, Teacher load, Textbooks, and Tests.
* Time. Teaching 30 students for 50 minutes leaves little time for considering ideas or problems when teachers are expected to cover textbook chapters. Individual attention to students’ comments evaporates. Moreover, the bell schedule presses both teachers and students to rush through questions and answers. The average teacher waits less than a few seconds for a student to answer a question.
* Teacher load. Most high school teachers face five classes daily totaling 150 to 170 students. Only a few students in each class can get called upon to answer questions.
* Textbooks. A required textbook is the primary source of classroom information. Texts get thicker, not thinner each year. Text-driven homework and quizzes determine what is to be remembered, not what ideas can be analyzed.
* Tests. True-false items flourish in teacher-made tests; multiple-choice in standardized tests. Both require one correct answer.
These 4 Ts flow directly from basic school structures that policymakers, not teachers, designed: The age-graded school, bell schedules, student load, and state tests. They are part of a system that generations of Americans know as the high school.
Each generation has experienced rows of students facing the teacher’s desk; teacher covering subject matter; students listening, taking notes, and answering questions about what is in the textbook. These structures and classroom practices, however, run contrary to cultivating student questions or taking risks. As most classrooms are currently organized, they hinder thinking, frustrating many teachers no end.
Of course, there are classrooms where teachers overcome such hostile conditions, prodding students to think long after they leave school. In the thousands of classrooms I have visited over the last forty years, I watched many teachers and students explore ideas, question one another, reject glib answers, and engage in the hard work of reasoning. When such teaching occurs, it does so in spite of the stubborn structures that high schools place in the path of these gifted teachers. They are, however, the exception. In most classrooms, time is short, content needs to be covered and order has to be maintained. What counts is the correct answer on the test. Can schools change these structures? It is very hard but a few have.
Across the country, there are high schools in Camden (NJ), New York City, Chicago, and San Diego—to name only a few—that have gotten rid of 50-minute periods, bell schedules, and textbook-driven teaching. Teachers work together in teams teaching 90- to 120-minute periods. Further, these schools rely less on paper-and-pencil tests to determine how well their students have learned and far more on students displaying and explaining what they have achieved in their classes. In short, opportunities to think are not left to certain lessons once a week but woven into the daily fabric of these schools.
But it is heavy lifting for teachers, administrators, parents, and students to dump high school structures that inhibit reasoning and sustain those changes over time. In the face of actual or threatened budget cuts, there is even less determination to touch those taken-for-granted organizational routines. Yet the lessons of earlier reforms are clear: trying to get students to think without altering basic high school structures, will be no more than washing and waxing a jalopy.