The War Against Thinking, Part 3 – How to keep students from thinking (from 7-14)

I wrote about The War Against Thinking from a teacher’s perspective first, because discouraging teachers from thinking is what ultimately leads to discouraging students from thinking. Let me go back to my original, fundamental idea: you learn about what you think about, so school should be a place for thought.

Since school is supposed to be a place for thought, you would think things at school would be designed to get students thinking. And yet, this is often not the case. In my first post about thinking, I defined thinking:

“How would I define thinking? I would define thinking as working with ideas: assimilating them, playing with them, comparing them, creating something new with them, struggling with them, engaging in them, debating them, synthesizing them, exploring them. The list of verbs could go on. And of course ideas can be mathematical, scientific, literary, creative, strategic, historical, defining, emotional, metaphorical… The list of adjectives could go on.”

And yet, with our push to measure learning cheaply, we have reduced thinking, generally, to one skill only: answer multiple choice questions. Answering multiple choice questions requires a very particular kind of thought, and not a very useful one at that. Multiple choice questions, handed to you in a format where there is only one right answer, seldom if ever occur in the “real world.” Multiple choice questions don’t necessarily ask you think about the topic of the test– Mathematics, Reading, Social Studies, and the rest. Multiple choice questions often ask you think about… multiple choice questions. You can often pass tests simply by knowing the rules of answering multiple choice questions.

In fact, I would make the case that what you are thinking about when you answer multiple choice questions is not the subject matter being tested, but the mindset of the people who wrote the test. You are trying to figure out what the test makers wanted you to answer. This is very much the case in Florida, where the FCAT Science test actually had incorrect answers counted as correct ones, because it was based on what a student at that level of schooling should understand. In other words, if you had progressed further than you were supposed to in Science, the FCAT would hold that level of thinking against you.

You might ask, “Why does this matter? Students are only in those tests a few days out of the year!” It matters because teachers are being told to “use assessment to drive instruction,” what used to be called “teaching to the test.” Because everything is focused on these tests, teachers are strongly encouraged to prepare students for them. As noted in my last post, teachers now spend a lot of class time, not teaching, but administering state practice tests (like Florida’s FAIR test, which takes up days of class time and a lot of computer lab availability to predict how students will do on the state reading test) and district assessments (multiple choice tests again, but often of even more dubious quality than the state tests).

In other words, these tests drive what is happening in our schools. They drive schools to be places where you spend your time not in actual thought, but in a parody of thought where you spend your mental energies, not “working with ideas” but guessing what someone else wants you to think.

Another way in which these tests are a detriment to actual thinking is their focus on “the one right answer.” This focus leads, not to engaging in sustained, nuanced thought, but in trying to get to the “one right answer” as quickly as possible, which makes sense, since these tests are for the most part timed. Even when students aren’t testing, a spirit of “one right answer” in a classroom or school often leads to students simply looking up answers on their phones instead of actually thinking. At its worst, the “one right answer” syndrome leads to cheating, and to the idea that you are simply in school to jump through hoops for the teacher, not to actually think or learn.

There is a perception that the “one right answer” approach will make school better. One Right Answer is a hard-headed, no-nonsense, anti-fuzzy approach. In the end, it is often the cheap, easy route that kills thinking rather than promoting it.

Here’s an example of an assignment without a single right answer that actually gets students to think, and think very, very hard. As part of a Holocaust unit, my eighth graders, both regular and Gifted, read the memoir The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal. The author was a concentration camp prisoner when he was called to the deathbed of a dying Nazi soldier. The soldier spent hours confessing his crimes to Wiesenthal, and end by asking him, as a Jew, to forgive his crimes. The author ends his narrative by asking the reader what he or she would have done. The second half of the book is a collection of 53 writers, theologians, political leaders, and philosophers answering that question. We read some of those essays, and then I ask students to write their own essays answering Wiesenthal’s question. I ask them to use their notes about the essays and the original memoir to provide reasons and details for their decision.

Here’s the sad thing. Many of the students, despite my repeatedly saying that how they answer is up to them and that what I want is for them support their answer with good reasons, will assume that there is a a “right” answer, that I will fail them for either forgiving or not forgiving the Nazi, depending on the right answer. But the beauty of the assignment, of the author’s heartbreaking and thought-provoking question, is that anyone can write a beautiful and well-thought out essay on either side of the question. The point is, I want students to think. But students have been so trained by their experiences of school that they want to subvert actual thought in favor guessing what the teacher wants.

Often we make it so that students don’t even need to do the thought work involved in guessing what the teacher wants. We tell them exactly what we want, so they don’t have to think about it. We tell them, “You will be writing an essay. Here is how you will write it. Here is what will go in each paragraph. You will be graded on how well you follow my instructions.” When I tell my students at the beginning of the year that I will not be forcing them to write five-paragraph essays, many of them just about stand up and cheer. Many of them are profoundly disoriented. But once I teach them that content dictates form, show them models of a variety of ways to organize essays, and practice brainstorming essays with a variety of structures and paragraphs, they feel liberated and never look back. And they think every time they write, rather than just filling in the blanks.

When I teach outside my school system in summer programs or in writing camps my wife and I have created on our own, we often see student writing samples that are terrible because students did exactly what  the teacher told them, without really thinking about what makes for a really good piece of writing.

Staying in the realm of writing, we also ask kids to not think when we hand them ready-made rubrics that tell them exactly what will be required in a piece of writing. Again, student thought isn’t promoted; it’s limited. It is limited to “how can I make my piece of writing include all the elements I need to make the teacher happy?” This is thinking of a sort, but it is not the sort of thinking most real writers use. I discussed this topic with my students, asking them how they know if they are on the right track with a piece of writing. Many of them said things like “Ask the teacher,” or “Ask someone else,” or “See what your grade is.” But one of them said, “You have a kind of inner vision for what you want the writing to be.” Having an “inner vision” of what you want the writing to be is what real writers do (I had it in my head before starting this post), and it requires thought.

I don’t have time here to go into and indepth discussion of rubrics. Look to Maja Wilson’s book, Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment for that. My point is that a rubric is often used, not to promote real thinking, but to make it so students don’t have to think as much about what they will write. (It also makes grading easier for teachers, so they don’t have to think as much either.)

Much of the anti-thought activity in schools is passive, but with the advent of the Common Core State [sic] Standards, some kinds of thought are being actively discouraged. Early in the Common Core rollout, I attended a workshop with an exemplar lesson for teaching reading using the Common Core approach. It was one of the most frustrating afternoons of my teaching career. We were supposed to read and make sense of The Gettysburg Address without using any background knowledge about the speech. The futility and absurdity of this approach has been written about elsewhere, so I won’t belabor the point here. But telling students that they are not allowed to think about something they are reading a certain way, or to use background knowledge they have in their heads, seems counterproductive to thinking. Background knowledge matters. Accessing it is a natural kind of thinking when you read something. Asking students to not use background knowledge is telling them not to think.

I have a T-shirt that portrays Han Solo and Chewbacca riding a tiny sled-like Millennium Falcon and drawn in the style of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. Most people don’t get it. Many people understand the Star Wars reference. Few seem to understand the Calvin and Hobbes reference. Fewer still understand how utterly cool this image is. You can’t even read many T-shirts without some kind of background knowledge.

The Common Core also asks teachers to discourage students from making personal connections to what they read. Again, making a personal connection to what you read is a kind of thinking (and feeling) that comes naturally to good readers. In discouraging this kind of thought in favor of more “objective” mining of text for facts, were are in fact lowering students’ level of thinking to literal understanding. And some concepts you read about simply can’t be understood until you relate them to something you know.

We ask students to “think” about the one right answer to multiple choice questions. We ask students to “think” about how to please the teacher, how to meet the demands of the rubric, how to jump through the hoops. We leave them feeling disenfranchised from their own learning.

When I asked my students if they thought of their minds as buckets that they simply let teachers fill with facts, they said Yes. That isn’t thinking. If thinking is “working with ideas,” then we have a real problem with how we do school. Having ideas dropped in your bucket isn’t the same as working with them.

One of the saddest phenomenon I encounter each year as a teacher is “Can I?” Students ask permission to do things with projects, with papers, with what they can write on their papers.

“Can I write about my own experience with a wild animal on my Think-In-Ink about the story?”

“Can I write this essay as a dialogue between to characters?”

“Can I make up my own project that isn’t on the list?”

“Can I save saying what I really think for the last paragraph?”

These students are really thinking, yet somehow they feel they need permission to do it. Somehow school has taught them that thinking isn’t what it’s all about. School shouldn’t be a place where you have to ask permission to think. School should be the place that encourages you to think.

By the way, I always answer “Yes!”