Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Critical Thinking Study Explains a Lot

The election of the Obama administration signalled a death knell for enlightened public education. That much is clear. The Federal Dept. of Education ramrodded the States into passing some of the most perversely regressive education legislation ever conceived by man. And now, the ability of enlightened communities to break the totalitarian grip of federal interference in local education issues is functionally impossible.

The bottom line is that a national obsession with high-stakes testing has poisoned every public school still standing. It is an intellectual cancer that consumes every conversation about schools, learning, and metrics. To understand how this was allowed to get this far, one only needs to tune in to the debates about public and private schools. And what we might look for first is critical thinking on either side. You will soon realize critical thinking is almost wholly absent.

A new study reported in the Seattle Times, Study: Students slog through college, but don't gain much critical thinking by Sara Rimer of the Hechinger Report goes a long way in explaining the phenomenon. She reports:
Arum, whose book "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses" (University of Chicago Press) comes out this month, followed 2,322 traditional-age students from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2009 and examined testing data and student surveys at a broad range of 24 U.S. colleges and universities, from the highly selective to the less selective.

Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called "higher order" thinking skills.

Combining the hours spent studying and in class, students devoted less than a fifth of their time each week to academic pursuits. By contrast, students spent 51 percent of their time — or 85 hours a week — socializing or in extracurricular activities.

The study also showed that students who studied alone made more significant gains in learning than those who studied in groups.

Some educators note that a weakened economy and a need to work while in school may be partly responsible for the reduced focus on academics, while others caution against using the study to blame students for not applying themselves.

Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.

Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning. However, the authors note that their findings don't preclude the possibility that such students "are developing subject-specific or occupationally relevant skills."

Greater gains in liberal arts subjects are at least partly the result of faculty requiring higher levels of reading and writing, as well as students spending more time studying, the study's authors found. Students who took courses heavy on both reading (more than 40 pages a week) and writing (more than 20 pages in a semester) showed higher rates of learning.

I bolded the paragraph of interest because it is so shocking. Let's look at it again;
Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning. However, the authors note that their findings don't preclude the possibility that such students "are developing subject-specific or occupationally relevant skills."
I can't think of a more important "occupationally relevant skill" than critical thinking. And the authors of the study can speculate all they like about making alibis as to why students in these areas are the poorest learners, the empirical evidence strongly suggests a serious disconnect here.

After all, how can professional educators become professional educators if they themselves are incapable of self-sustained learning? This is not a throw-away talking point. At a time when education policy insists on teachers becoming subject matter experts, this study indicates that liberal arts education produces the superior desired result, well-rounded educators who are capable of critical thinking AND learning. After all, that's what education should be about.

Let's circle back to the question of how education has gotten so far off track. For a long time I thought the hubris of systematic corruption that exists between education lawyers, legislators, school administrators, and the teacher unions was largely responsible for the disconnect between public education policy and the rhetoric of teachers and teaching.

In other words, the platitudes sugar-coat the closed, self-serving education system that thinly-veils public education. Parents respond most religiously to the platitudes while tax-payers rage at the insatiable appetite of the system to swallow tax dollars without so much as a hint of change or improvement.

But what about educators themselves? Is there a sincerity in their platitudes? Do they ever critically examine the politics of their positions to advocate in meaningful ways for children? I simply have not seen much evidence that there is a critical mass of educators who have the imagination, courage to question or propose substantial change to the status quo.

In a nutshell, this study goes a long way in explaining why public education is failing. It's failing because or educators are our poorest learners and thinkers. And, in my blog, that's a crisis.

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