Critical Thinking and Content, Content, Content

I wrote a piece about critical thinking last week, and when I read over the comments, I see a backlash against teaching higher order thinking skills because the students need “FACTS” both in order to learn how to think critically and to survive out there in the world. I find this incredible. There have been a few attempts to have a class on critical thinking apart from content, content, content classes and they have been, overall, an abysmal failure when it comes to teaching students how to think critically, or any of the other higher order thinking skills.

Higher order thinking skills are not learned in isolation from content. Higher order thinking skills are fostered by the method of teaching, not by explicit instruction.

Using teaching methods based on how people actually learn (The Science of Learning) as opposed to teaching methods based on 1000 years of tradition, critical thinking can be fostered in a way that has students, real students, looking for and reading dozens (literally dozens) of papers for a class that are unassigned. This happens in the real world, and the time it takes me (outside of formal contact hours) is about 30 hours per semester for about 60 students in a class. Not only that, but I don’t have material to prepare for them each week. In addition, the pre-class preparation takes me about four hours at the beginning of the semester. And, I don’t have final exams (what do they have to do with learning). I know the students and they know me and all of us have a great time.

So, what does this have to do with learning content? I have had a number of students take several classes from me (I teach this way once a semester), and here is a comment that I overheard one student tell a novice in my class. “I can recall everything I did in my class with Jesse last semester. I mean everything, and I can’t even remember what my other classes were last semester.” They learn content. I actually asked one of my returning students last spring if he remembered anything from the class he had taken with me a year earlier. He said that he couldn’t forget it if he tried.

I don’t drill, drill, drill. I don’t make PowerPoint slides available for them. I don’t provide them with study notes. I don’t dwell on the important concepts for any length of time at all. I don’t have any attention grabbing demonstrations. I don’t ever show them a video clip. I don’t flip the classroom. I don’t make the classroom stand on its head. I don’t call in visiting experts. I don’t have any tests. I wouldn’t even give them grades if there wasn’t an administrative requirement to rank and categorize them for administrative purposes. I use teaching methods learned from studying The Science of Learning.

I’m not saying that the way I do things is the only way to have students remember content forever while requiring at least four (five in the brighter students) higher order thinking skills and having a class that, in the student’s own words, they hate to see draw to a close. I’m sure that others could come up with ways that do the same things using The Science of Learning, but I’ve found a way that works well, and I have fun with it. Not only that, they cover the syllabus and more in any given semester.

For anyone who thinks that you can teach higher order thinking skills in the absence of content, I’m sorry, but you are seriously delusional. Content is the central pillar that the thinking swirls around.

The sad part is that practicing higher order thinking skills across a number of disciplines is what makes the skills transferable, but in order to do this, others, from other silos (departments) have to engage with using The Science of Learning to guide their teaching. So far, there are a couple within my own department who are most of the way there and a couple in other institutions who have started to adopt methods that rely on The Science of Learning and are enjoying some of the same success that I do.

This isn’t rocket science or neurosurgery. This is The Science of Learning, something that anyone who claims to be a good teacher should know. I think that starting from how people learn rather than how people teach would reform the education system and our students would graduate with brilliance rather than simply a qualification.

This is a case where you can have your cake and eat it too!

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