In the Lost and Found Box: Critical Thinking

Hansel and Gretel

In the Lost and Found Box: Critical Thinking

Going through an elementary school’s Lost and Found at the end of a school year can be like an archaeological dig.

One June, my mother, patience stretched by the antics of three young boys, refused to abide by my joy for the reclaimed, a prized windbreaker jacket.

“Barry, really, you didn’t think to look in the box earlier?” A mother’s wisdom can re-value momentary elation.

Today, sitting in public schools’ Lost and Found is learning’s most precious artifact: higher-order thinking. More and more, as society demands that the evidence of learning be reduced to numbers that society believes represent learning, the mental health of its educators grapple with fear and paranoia.

The mindsets of gifted school systems, schools, administrators, and teachers are evolving toward that of a street hype, channeling society’s need for the fix and telling students and each other, “C’mon, give us the numbers. C’mon, please . . . Now really, damnit, we mean it! Really!” Just this week, Bill Gates, himself a proponent of discrete skills numbers, decried where this shameful frenzy is taking us. Our need for a numbers-fix has forced some of learning’s best stuff into the Lost and Found box, including its greatest jewel.

“Higher-order thinking” activates wonderful qualities within the learner. Independent critical and creative thinking. Thinking that employs smaller, discrete skills (like grammar skills) to service its larger aims (like independent ideas). Thinking that releases and challenges the raw, natural intelligence of every learner, regardless of setting or perceived aptitude (if so disposed, you’ll have to decide if every learner has raw, natural intelligence or not; the imbued socioeconomic and cultural contexts to that question, for me, make the question pedagogically irrelevant). Thinking that inspires even the most disregarded learner, awakening and honoring cognition that the drone of discrete skill standardized test preparation has forced into dormancy.

So, if searching the Lost and Found of a school or district for this kind of thinking, how would one know what to look for? Among infinite possibilities, one example that represents the concept may help.

Please take a moment to view Rodrigo Blaas’ award-winning animation, “Alma.” For the student, learning to think critically about a cinematic text can establish a powerful, inviting way to think critically about other kinds of texts, like nonfiction and fiction. For the young person developing his or her identity, “Alma” haunts with meaning.

Decoding and Comprehension are the first steps toward higher-order thinking, whatever the text. Full, or as close as possible to full, decoding and comprehension necessitates many discrete skills, all essential. Most discrete skills testing today ascends only to this comprehension level; because most standardized testing stops at comprehension, the fear and paranoia within schools force the curriculum to stop there, too, thus pushing higher-order thinking into the Lost and Found.

Students who have comprehended “Alma” understand the following: walking down a lonely back street, a young girl stops and writes her name on a wall, turns and sees in a store window a doll that looks like herself, is able to enter the doll store, and, expressing her curiosity about the doll, is absorbed (we infer) into the doll.

Noticing is the next step in the critical thinking process, a process often called a taxonomy or hierarchy (Figure 1). Noticing is the act of recognizing smaller things, what might be called As, that stand out as somehow significant in any kind of text, whether the text is literary, cinematic, historical, scientific, artistic, or just plain human experience.

A Hierarchy of Higher-order Thinking

In “Alma,” after a few viewings students tend to Notice many smaller things (As):

  • Lots of other names are on the wall
  • The storefront looks like a face
  • The toy cyclist seems to want to exit
  • The eyes of some dolls move, appearing to watch the girl
  • The tiling on the floor looks like a circular maze
  • When the girl touches the doll, she seems to travel through some sort of time and space continuum
  • At the end, a new doll rises in the storefront window
  • No words are spoken
  • From the Spanish speakers in class: alma means soul

Above represent some really good Noticing. And, with practice as viewers, readers, and thinkers, students become stronger and stronger at Noticing more and more specific aspects of a text. Again, no matter what kind of text.

The next step is for the learner to connect the Noticing to a larger concept that the student develops, what might be called the B, such as an insight, hypothesis, or theme. This connecting, or explaining, is called Analyzing. After viewing “Alma,” one student’s provocative theme (the B) might be that “caring, present adults help shape a child’s identity; without them, the child will be gobbled up.” This is but one of many possible Bs the student could have developed for “Alma.” When Analyzing and having received appropriate instruction, this student might connect/explain several of the aforementioned As to that B. At this point, the student is developing his/her higher order thinking, i.e., connecting As to the B, elsewhere in this blog referred to as finding the transcendent light within the forest.

Politicized historically and antagonized further by the limited resources of the economic downturn, in public education today the numbers side and the humanist side rarely converge, but they can and should. They need one another: discrete skills must serve that higher-order thinking. For example, correctly using grammar while connecting As to the B in an essay is an example of forest-creates-context-for the-leaves learning. Doing well with the leaf, lets say a student’s correctly managing the grammar of verb tenses, serves the larger pursuit of the forest, lets say an essay analyzing the relationship between As and a B in “Alma.” In this unified paradigm, the teacher is devoted to the student’s learning that grammar, but within a larger critical thinking context that engages the learner. Today, education is hyped on the grammar — without the context.

As addictive as a strictly numbers-based understanding of public education can be, providing the illusion of certainty within chaos, our society loses the alma of its future if we don’t look into the Lost and Found for the larger context — higher-order thinking. Alien archaeologists will use As to Bs to hypothesize what happened.

2 thoughts on “In the Lost and Found Box: Critical Thinking

  1. Is one to assume then that education for the masses in Chicago – is today’s numbers-crunching approach that dominates; only for those lucky enough to arrive at a university, to then experience and achieve the higher-order learning that is argued here?

    What type of human being is being launched under today’s format? Is there enough data to interpret?

    PS I love the “mother’s wisdom can re-value momentary elation” story!

  2. Surveys of employers and schools of higher education–time and time again–converge on the same set of proficiencies for high school graduates: the need to be able to reason, solve problems, communicate well, apply knowledge to new situations, and think critically. And there have been numerous delineations of learning standards, including the recent Common Core State Standards, that capture and affirm these college- and career-ready proficiencies. The disconnect comes with how these learning standards are assessed, with most standardized assessments typically falling well short of the lofty learning goals outlined for proficiency. We are left with sub-standard assessments and disconnected, reductionist instructional approaches that attempt to prepare students to succeed on these assessments. There are those who claim the CCSS assessments currently being developed (at considerable taxpayer expense) will change the landscape by genuinely assessing higher-order skills. Let us hope that is truly the case.

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