Teaching to Think Scientifically
What we Teach
26TH APRIL 2019
On a chilly winter morning, a thick fog enshrouding the town, an 8th grader whom I teach English online on weekends, messaged me saying her school is closed for a couple of days due to bad weather and she would like to catch up on her English Literature and Social Science. Intending to have my student be an active participant in her learning rather than a passive listener, I began discussing the lesson- a science fiction written by a prolific American writer Isaac Asimov, on computerized homeschooling and what kids miss out by not being in school with other kids. I assessed my student was a bit restless to jump to the questions/exercises at the end of the chapter- which she had to learn for the upcoming exam- the “be all and end all” of education.
So far in my blogs, I’ve dealt with how we teach. In this blog, however, I’ll shift the focus to ‘what’ we teach and ‘why’ to underscore the role of curriculum design in supporting, developing, & nurturing critical thinking skills that facilitate proactive learning and meaning making. In my view, critical thinking is crucial in every aspect of human life as we navigate our way through a plethora of issues beset with complexities, beleaguering us to make choices that will serve in our best interest, and our planet’s.
Today, the ever expanding range of issues, and the choices we’re required to make to address those issues, can sometimes be overwhelmingly bewildering, making us think how best to update the education system such that we equip individuals with thinking skills that assist them in reaching understandings and making informed choices. With a whole new world opened before us in the form of social media, showering us with opportunities to think and make connections, we need to have the kind of thinking skills that Hetland, Winner, Veenema, & Sheridan (2007) term as ‘Thinking Dispositions’ that are high level, intellectual thinking behaviors like being curious, reflecting, considering options, seeking evidence, hypothesizing, and so forth.
I think we need to broaden our educational goals to include in them the development of such critical thinking behaviors that assist individuals in meaning making and drawing plausible conclusions as they interact with the information-soaked world around them. But can the traditional approach (of having the teacher lecture and students passively listen) we espouse in classrooms help develop students into autonomous thinkers who can make reasoned arguments?
Just last month, for instance, poor Chelsea Clinton was cornered by a college student for “stoking Islamophobia” that killed several Muslims in NZ. An absolutely erroneous blame, claiming “the rhetoric Chelsea put out there” as the cause behind the massacre! The fallacious nature of such blames/claims makes one wonder what these students are learning in college to make such an erroneous allegation! Are they learning to seek & evaluate evidence and develop hypothesis before reaching such fallacious conclusions?
Leveraging Art & Humanities to Induce Task Engagement
A considerable amount of evidence uncovers a link between task engagement & critical thinking. Gleaning from my experience of teaching students in India, I will broadly outline the crucial role of ‘what we teach’ in promoting task engagement, briefly revealing the gaps in NCERT’s curriculum for Art and Humanities, and elucidate how task engagement can encourage critical thinking that facilitates proactive learning and meaning making.
The field of Arts & Humanities lends itself to the kind of open-ended inquiry, allowing student to reflect, consider options, share opposing ideas/stand points, and be collectively ‘engaged’ in the learning process. But for most part, sadly, the curriculum fails to leverage the opportunity offered by the Liberal Arts, resulting in dis-engaged students, like my 8th grader, trying to “learn it up” for the solitary goal- exams. Gardner (2019) advocates that education in the liberal arts makes one a better thinker and communicator, and perhaps a more civic minded person who can reason and hypothesize. In a brief discussion below, I will demonstrate the role of inquiry in encouraging task engagement.
Lack of Engagement: A Tumbling Interest in Learning
Evidence has been mounting that our system of education needs “repair” (Gardner, 2019). Now what we teach, and what students learn, is to a very large extent contingent to what appears in exams/tests. Just a quick glance at the questions following lessons in the prescribed textbooks, or that show up on test papers, reveals that most questions lack the scope to engage students intellectually, instead, test retention capacities, barely encouraging students to participate in constructing knowledge. To elucidate, questions like ‘where did Margie find Rikki Tikki Tavi?’ ‘Who was RKT?’ ‘Why did Margie hide RKT?’ neither test students’ ability to inquire, nor build their expressive capacity. Focused on rote learning, such ‘single-right answer’ questions fall short of providing a platform that encourages inquiry and active participation, accounting for the plummeting task engagement.
Given that task engagement enhances proactive learning & cognition by encouraging critical thinking, the pertinent question that emerges is, what induces task engagement? Further below, I will illustrate how Inquiry and Collaborative learning can promote task engagement.
Inquiry: as a Vygotskian Scaffold
Vygotskian findings uncover the role of environment in cognition. Learning happens when individuals interact with various aspects of the world around them and make sense of some information through interacting with it, using their existing knowledge, to construct a new idea (Ormrod, 2007). To make the classroom environment congenial to learning, educators need to espouse an approach that encourages inquiry, leading students to actively participate in their learning.
All great inventions have been preceded by an observation that triggered inquiry in individuals who, perplexed by some phenomenon, began to wonder and inquire to eventually reach an understanding through their own inquiry that served to scaffold their thinking to reach a that understanding. The inquiry kept the individuals remain engaged as they navigated their way through a maze of propositions/ideas, tolerating the ambiguity, and eventually reaching a hypotheses which they could back with evidence/plausible arguments that had emerged in the process. This inquiry can be simulated in classrooms by encouraging open-ended questions.
True Learning: a Consequence of Thinking
To illustrate, the falling of an apple perplexed Newton who began to wonder why the apply fell and not fly away; Likewise, Einstein was at a nonplus, seeing the needle point Northward. By the same token, when kids engage in activities that make them wonder, be curious, and share ideas, they remain engaged through actively participating in their learning. While Einstein and Newton were geniuses who made groundbreaking discoveries on how the Universe functions, one can glean from their examples and understand how open ended questions/ideas can trigger inquiry in students to keep them ‘on task’ (engaged) and enthused in a meaningful way. Inquiry allows students to take over, enabling them to feel more autonomous and take charge of their own learning (Stearns, 2017).
Conversely, what happens in most traditional classrooms is altogether different. Here, the interaction is stunted to merely “passing down” others’ ideas that students “take in” to be able to deliver those ideas in exams. While the entire educational endeavor aims to ensure and facilitate student learning, the approach we espouse is teacher-centric, and students take a back seat as passive recipients, ironically! Dodge (Scholastic, 2009) explains when students are only listening, they’re activating only one part of their brain. I will elucidate below how questions & exercises based on a short story, a poem, or a lesson in Political science can trigger inquiry and ‘hook’ kids.
Hardwire Inquiry in the Curriculum
Three Men in a Boat, one of the comic gems in the English language, lends itself to the kind of open ended discussions and activities that can engage kids in a meaningful way as they ponder over self-generated questions, discuss options, and look for the ‘best fit’ to support their stand. Teachers can choose from an array of options, e.g., reflect on the vicissitudes of suburban life; discuss the timeless appeal of the book; or just ponder over how the story reveals suburban English life, (in lieu of the questions with a single right answer like “who said…,” “why did X volunteer to pack,” “How many characters in the narrative?”) While these and the like questions can be used for the sake of inclusiveness, to jumpstart the struggling students, the focus should be on questions that morph into open-ended discussions.
I think every conscientious educator aspires to teach in a way that ensures student learning, but as Dodge (2009) puts it, most of us miss the opportunities that can hook kids & get them excited about learning. Our the ‘mile long and inch deep’ (Gardner, ) way of teaching pushes students to mechanically “learn facts” and race for the single right answer to succeed in exams.
Our system needs a radical change and little “touch ups” around the edges will not bear results. The recognition of the need for individuals to be curious, questioning, and creative heralds a modification in the education system and draws attention on developing critical thinking behaviors that support proactive learning and keep kids engaged. The opportunities to puzzle over ideas and the freedom to explore options, collaborate, and make meaning through inquiry ensure student engagement and in such an atmosphere they thrive. Learning that is preceded by Inquiry is meaningful and engaging as students reach understandings through their own thinking and/or having a dialogue with their peers, scaffolded by the teacher who acts like a guide by the side, instead of a device that transfers information.
Gardner, H. (2019). (web log comment). Retrieved from https://howardgardner.com/takeaways-
Hetland, L., Winner, E., Veenema, S., Sheridan, K. M., & Perkins, D. N, (2007). Studio Thinking. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Kimberly, W. (2018). Inquiry-based learning- effect on student engagement, Honors Projects, 417.
Ormod, J. E. (2007). Human Learning. Prentice Hall.
Stearns, S. (2017). What is the place of lecture in student learning today? Communication Education, 66(2), 243-245
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