Sunday, December 31, 2006

Critical Thinking for the New Year

Critical Thinking: What Is It?

This question has come up before -- in interviews of people from different backgrounds, fields, and classes, teachers tended to use this term when asked (in round-about ways) to explain the signs of an effective thinker. CEOs and financiers used the term "problem-solving" or "innovative thinking." Others used phrases like the ability to "close the loop," "think independently," or "think on one's feet."

What's the Difference?

If given more context, it would be clear that they all represent pretty much the same process:

Representatives of each group I interviewed -- teachers, managers, CEOs, financial analysts, policemen -- are keeping a keen and dedicated eye out for anyone who is a quick study at figuring out the important information in any given situation and to analyse it effectively -- again, in terms of a particular task.

In other words, success across contexts lies in the ability to (first) observe and absorb concrete details and both analyse what's their and imagine what's possible. From that group of data, the winner finds the most effective solution to the problem at hand.

Breaking this down is a complicated enough proposition that many interviewees have told me it's impossible to teach -- you either have a gift for it, or you don't.

In fact, although some people are better at it than others, the skill requires practice at what to do in one context, in-depth repetition, and transfer the understanding to another context.

Then you start all over again.

For more on the way I've broken down this process, peruse past posts. It's everywhere in one form or another. Or send a note with a specific question, and I'll be happy to direct you.

An Interesting Prospect, If Baffling

People do teach what is called "critical thinking" in school. Others also teach "problem solving" and "innovation" in business. As far as I can tell, it's all the same stuff.

One of the things I have arranged in my time off from blogging is a trip to England to explore their notion of critical thinking. At the moment the educational system offers an A.S. (or junior A-Level, a sort of Pre-SAT). Next year, they will offer an A-level that can qualify a student for university.

How do you institutionalize the process of independent thinking, of creative analysis, of problem-solving in a school setting?

Why Now?

This is a particularly interesting prospect when one considers the new standards for admission. How is critical thinking taught given that the English government has declared all post-secondary educational institutions "universities" (including what Americans would call junior colleges, trade schools, and so on)?

Is it task-oriented? How could it be if the educational contexts of higher education are so diverse? Is it taught to be transferable across contexts? The English are notoriously class-specific -- is it likely?

My Experience: Critical Thinking Requires Context for Students

My data is anecdotal rather than scientific -- I've interviewed fewer than a hundred people and taught for fewer than ten years in a formal setting. However, that doesn't mean I haven't learned a thing or two.

The first is that students learn critical thinking best when they are given a context in which to practice (and practice and practice) until they've got as deep into a subject area as is possible. Only then do they really understand the process.

It didn't work when, as a new teacher, I tried to explain the process in the abstract. I gave examples, offered reading by philosophers and educators, and the result was no understanding of how to apply what they read.

Then everything changed. Only after we used concrete material (in this case, drama) as content to explore the differences and similarities in problems -- again, in this case among genres, periods, playwrights, characters -- did we apply the abstract philosophy to explore the concrete matter at hand.

And then there was light.

More on this in future posts.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Better Marketing Through Storytelling

Storytelling has become a hip term in businesses, both for internal communications and brand development. The good consultants articulate what you already know -- stories are effective means by which to create memorable and convincing messages.

It's just another example of the ways businesses could have learned this earlier by asking any third-grade teacher.

Storytelling through New Media

Check out experts Howard Greenstein and Dean Landsman speaking about this on YouTube. The video was made for the Uplift Academy's Better World Network. However, it's articulate and helpful for any organization that wants to understand how better to speak to markets, understand licensing, and breaking down barriers to new media broadcasts.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

One Common Language I'm Afraid We'll Never Get

The Black Hole: Generalizing About Problems in Education

I have a bone to pick with Dr. Richard Gilder, friend and colleague, but right only in part in his generalizations about English teachers. He laments:

. . . students today, at least in the United States, have no idea how their own language works. English and its grammar are a mystery to them. How did this happen? And what can and should we do about it? The notion that grammar is boring, and is therefore an impediment to the learning of English, made its insidious way into the minds of those who teach English and subjects of a similar ilk.

Having been both an English teacher and a teacher of "subjects of a similar ilk" (writing and many other topics apart from language within the humanities), I protest quite with great ardor.

There certainly is a feeling among certain groups of teachers that correcting or teaching language structure impedes or prevents the kind of engagement that comes with expressing ideas without reference to grammar. Sometimes, grammar needs to be blended in and enforced after confidence is built from the first forays into writing.

Why Don't Americans Teach Their Children How to Speak?

Norwegians learn Norwegian -- the Greeks are taught their Greek.

Here are a couple of reasons derived from primary research:

Many teachers of all age-groups believe English grammar and logic should have been taught by someone else. This is anecdotal evidence rather than scientific -- my pool of data is restricted to 50 subjects.

These teachers of classes from first grade through the last year of graduate school all agree that it's not his or her job. The system is not designed for instructors of different age levels to collaborate. I didn't interview kindergarten teachers -- but I'm guessing they would say that learning good English comes from the home.

And now a Latin teacher is passing the buck as well.

The Black Hole: Where Does Good English Come From?

Grammar and and writing are hard to teach even for the Shakespeares among us. Both subjects are labor intensive on the part of the teacher and the student. They both require repeated and consistent feedback over a long period of time.

This is a lot of work for teachers worried about state requirements (for public schools) or getting articulate students into good colleges by cultivating their ideas. What's more, it's hard to engage students in either as a discipline. Even when courses give time to the subjects, students often don't absorb them.

Here's a bigger problem: grammar and writing are particularly hard to teach if no one ever taught them to you. How can you emphasize the importance of a discipline you don't feel comfortable with yourself?

Grab the Opportunity Where it Lies -- And Forget the Blame Game

I taught at and Ivy League university for years, and my students often had very weak skills in grammar and writing. At first, like Richard, I cursed the darkness (after all, I wanted to teach new material -- material that interested me enough to grind through graduate school to get a PhD).

Then I got practical. Over the course of five years, I came up with a system to integrate the material I loved with strong writing practices. Richard's done the same with his book on Latin for English speakers.

What Next?

It would be helpful if he took the energy he uses cursing the darkness (and teachers of other subjects) and uses instead to transform the black hole (where English has been lost) into a new galaxy. Why not organize a forum where teachers of all subjects can talk to each other about common challenges and strategies to master them.

Invite some businesses along as well. Employees are just older students. Perhaps there's a way to get funding from a business that wants to improve its collective communications skills.

After all, markets are conversations. What could be more profitable than starting one?