Getting Students To Think Requires More Than a Wash and Wax Job

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.


Filed under how teachers teach

4 responses to “Getting Students To Think Requires More Than a Wash and Wax Job

  1. John

    I agree with what is being said. I think it starts earlier with the training teachers get in college. Yes, it does take more work to have the situation of having students think but if you really care as a teacher you will do it. Another thing that we take away from the students is creativity. For real problem solving there are times you must be creative. Granted some of the students do this to themselves but as a teacher you have to help stimulate creative in students as a part of thinking and solving problems. We’ve taught the students to want the answer without thinking for themselves and we as teachers have to work to correct this problem.

  2. Hi Larry,

    Having taught in both private and public schools over the past 15 years, I have observed striking differences between functional and dysfunctional learning environments.

    I believe the concept of “systems thinking” would be a welcome addition to discussions of public school reform.

    Reform efforts focused on teaching practices have a long history of failure. This is due to the lack of systematic reform of local administrative policy that provide rewards and punishments for teaching. These local policies are in turn driven by national pressures to measure student achievement (as very narrowly defined through tests).

    No wonder why innovative teachers are so rare. Administration often punishes teachers if they step outside the box, unless of course the “innovation” is mandated from above.

    Such “innovation” directed at teachers is all too often applied by coercion. These methods simply demotivate and dishearten teachers. And as we know, true innovation requires a highly motivated and entrepreneurial spirit.

    Every principal (private or public) that I have worked for tends to try to create and control a standardized “educational” experience. No wonder, they have state, national standards and parental concerns to worry about. No blame.

    But there is a striking difference between the way I have seen public school principals and private school principals manage similar pressures.

    For example, in an effort to meet AYP criteria, I have been told by a public school principal that I would be expected to provide evidence that I had completed x, y and z sections by a certain date specified by the district’s daily pacing guide. No question was asked whether or not the students were learning. Talk about needing to CYA with paperwork! I left that district that same year.

    On the other hand, my first private school headmaster told me that during the students four years with us, some students would find their love for science, some would find a passion for literature, others for mathematics or history. Our job was to expose them to our passion and nurture theirs.

    It saddens me that public schools cannot recognize this one basic truth about the human experience… that we are each unique and develop best and most rapidly through our own set of interests and passions about life. True education is about drawing the inner life out of a student. Not about delivering mandates from the state.

    Public school systems demonstrate a profound lack of trust in students and teachers pursuing their interests. They dehumanize the teaching and learning experience through a system of coercion and fear to standardize the experience.

    Many private school systems place the learner and their interests at the heart of the learning experience. They respect their teachers and encourage them to follow their passions and innovate in the classroom.

    Public school administrators tend to use a system of rewards and punishments in a well-intentioned effort to artificially induce an “idealized” learning environment. When that “idealized” learning environment fails to appear, administrators find it easier to blame teachers rather than revamp the entire system of rewards and punishments. Systems thinking is required, but is much harder.

    So naturally, administrators, politicians and the general public find it much easier to focus on individual teachers.

    In response to another failed attempt to create an “idealized” learning environment, another round of the latest innovations in education are prepared for dissemination through professional development. These are forced down teachers’ throats again and unless the “data” shows timely improvements, teachers are taken to task.

    In various degrees, every public school I’ve taught in suffers from this kind of dysfunction. I see it as a failure of the system not of the teacher.

    On the other hand, every private school, I’ve taught in honors the professionalism of teachers and provides funding for personalized professional development based on needs. The relationship between teachers and administrators is one based on mutual respect. In such an environment, innovative teachers and teaching is not so rare.

    I conclude with the thought that unless public school systems of distrust, coercion and control are reformed, history will repeat itself over and over again.

    • Kay

      As far as my experience goes, you are spot on regarding public school systems. As of late, I have worked in two small charter-type schools that more fit your private school description. Would you mind sharing your response with teachers across America? Then, if you don’t mind, send it to parents, newspapers, and Boards of Education.

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