Abdicating reasoning: Surrendering the debate over teaching, testing and assessment to the constables of obedience training

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education confronts the issue of whether students are really learning in college classrooms and if so, how they might be able to assess learning (September 5, 2010,Why Teaching Is Not Priority No. 1http://chronicle.com/article/Why-Teaching-Is-Not-Priority/124301/).

Of course this is all part and parcel of the new ‘evidentiary’ based learning that the Obama administration says it wants.  Secretary Arne Duncan and his business cohorts, on the other hand, see ‘evidence of learning’ in test scores based on the anorexic bulimic learning model of memorization and ‘thought starving’ – tube feeding and chamber pot results.

The issue of assessment and thus testing is important. Those educators that teach ‘reasoning’ or critical thinking need to know if their students are learning.  How can they do this?  The answer really goes back to the work done in the 1980’s and early 1990’s as the Reagan administration began the decimation of the Department of Education and rolled out A Nation at Risk.  This silly document was to have large waves of repercussions on teaching and learning as both were boiled down to saturated fat or ‘information eating’.  We still have not survived the horrible policies of A Nation at Risk and its sordid recommendations.  It simply took a bit of time to morph into No Child Left Behind and now the horrendous Race to the Top.

Yet there has been much research on how to assess students to see if they are learning to reason.  Sometime back in the early 1990’s, while teaching kindergarten and first grade I wrote an article entitled: REASONING READINESSELEMENTARY SCHOOL STANDARDS AND CRITICAL THINKING AS A DEVELOPMENTAL NECESSITY.  You can find it at the Rouge Forum (http://www.rougeforum.org/newspaper/summer2001/reasoning.htm). 

In it you will see both a critique of standardized testing, the same tests I was forced to administer to my students, and how teaching and assessment for critical thinking can be accomplished and taught.  I argued that students are not only ready to reason at five years old but they must in order to become critical thinking adults.  The notion that young students are not prepared to reason at a young age and therefore must be filled with pre-ordained knowledge before they can critically think is formalistic psychology and has been debunked by many studies too voluminous to quote here.

Of course the movement in critical thinking and critical pedagogy that took roots in the 1980’s before it was decimated by the right wing and ‘core standards’ crowd also involved work done in  authentic assessment, such as portfolio assessments, student journal assessments, critical self-critique, and  performance based learning based on relevancy in learning and teaching.  All of this was quickly pushed aside and in the ‘Age of Forgetness’; it is all but lost on the generations of teachers that have come up in the ranks of teaching since then. 

Left out of most teacher ‘training’ programs, critical thinking is not only never emphasized; it is not expected to be taught.  Other than the three or four ‘questions’ at the back of the book critical thinking is really not well understood by most teachers nor their students.  One cannot teach what one does not know and sadly the exception is the rule when it comes to teaching critical literacy.  It is rarely taught.

Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, launched their new book, a fierce critique of modern academia called Higher Education?  “The question mark in our title,” they write, “is the key to this book.” To their minds, little of what takes place on college campuses today can be considered either “higher” or “education.” They blame a system that favors research over teaching and vocational training over liberal arts. Tenure, they argue, does anything but protect intellectual freedom. And they’d like to see graduates worrying less about their careers, even if it means spending a year behind the cash register at Old Navy” (The Atlantic, Jennie Rothenberg Gritz July 28,2010, What’s Wrong With the American University System, http://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2010/07/whats-wrong-with-the-american-university-system/60458/).

I certainly think that there is some truth to their claims, as education both ‘higher’ and early childhood education has been swallowed by commercial interests and concerns.   As to the issue of ‘tenure’, this is more problematic and I would need much more time to write a about this issue.  One thing we do know is that tenure protects teachers from arbitrary and capricious decisions by administrators and thus is the gatekeeper for academic freedom.  However, this is not the purpose of mentioning the Hacker-Dreifus argument.  It seems to me the more salient issue is not simply the material conditions of education, but also the ideological conditions as well.  They are not separate nor are they blistered from each other; instead theory and practice must be seen as informing each other and thereby creating critical ‘praxis’. 

Teaching ‘reasoning’ or critical thinking means that teachers themselves must understand what critical thinking is, how they use it in their daily lives, how they often fail to use it and how to actually set up the material and psychological conditions for teaching and assessing it.  This is what is missing in education.  Teachers are now simply dispensaries of rote information to be stomached as learning and they themselves really often do not know how to teach for thinking and thus of course cannot assess it.  To be more blatant at the expense of elitist, many teachers simply are not critical thinkers themselves and thus can never be counted on to provide a rich curriculum to teach students how to think critically.

Until we begin to take critical thinking seriously; until we begin to make critical thinking a part of the curriculum teachers take when preparing for the life of teaching as well as a curriculum for daily life, we will never be able to put forth an alternative to the rancid calls for testing we hear from the corporate corridors of power.  Nor will we be able to increase the critical thinking literacy rate of our citizens, promising more authoritarianism and a galloping declination in literacy.  The real curriculum is life itself, of which reasoning should be a prominent part.

Of course this is not what the ruling class wants; in fact it is the last thing they wish.  Gates, Walton, Eli Broad and the rest of the billionaire educational squatters who now control the purse strings of the educational agenda launched by the Duncan administration know that if citizens think critically their power will be challenged.  The last thing they wish is evidentiary based learning for they know that their ruthless global economic policies, not to mention their educational polices, would come under severe scrutiny and criticism for its inequality and pervasive monopolization of everyday life.  The reasoning mind is a threat to demagogues.

We are at a crossroads when it comes to discussions regarding teaching and learning.  Unfortunately, what has been left out of the discussion both on the ‘right’ and ‘left’ has been the role of teaching ‘reasoning’ or critical thinking to students.  Until we put this discussion back on the table and insist that students be taught to reason their way through subject matter and learn the art of self-reflection, we will continue lose the debate over teaching, learning and knowledge acquisition.

It seems unbelievable to me that after more than two decades of critical thinking and critical pedagogical discussions, in-services for teachers, countless books written, conferences and the like, we have historically suffered from amnesia once again and have thus surrendered the issue of authentic assessment to those who seek to assess obedience, not thinking.  If we do not re-oxygenate the debate over assessment and testing with the need to teach and authentically assess reasoning, then we will continue to teach students what to think not how to think and as a result, will abdicate reasoning for regurgitation.  We will also surrender the debate over teaching and education to corporate interests that work so hard each and every day to suffocate critical thinking.

The following are critical thinking ‘standards’ that I helped develop in concert with The Center for Critical Thinking for the Miami-Dade County School system in the late 1990’s.  The standards are informally discussed.  Perhaps if we could resuscitate the debate over what it means to be ‘an educated person’ we would be able to move ahead with debates over teaching, learning and assessment.



The following are the critical and creative thinking strategies, informally depicted.  They are stated informally so that they might be easily explained to parents, teachers and administrators.


I.                  Problem Solving and Decision Making

S-1  Our children begin to learn its important to be sure you clearly understand the questions you are trying to answer or problems you are trying to solve before you looks for answers or solutions.  This strategy teaches students to think about how they define problems and issues and how misidentifying problems can result in faulty thinking.

S-2  Our children learn to identify the goals and purpose in what they are studying or pursuing. This strategy teaches students to think critically about what they are attempting to accomplish, their goals and objectives and the goals and objectives of others.

S-3  Our children begin to think critically about information, its sources, and how to sort, classify and otherwise form information into patterns from which they might make plausible inferences.  This strategy teaches students to think about and use information critically to solve given problems.

S-4  Our children begin to think critically about information and its relevance.  This strategy teaches students how to distinguish between the information that is relevant to what they are pursuing and information that is not relevant.

S-5  Our children begin to think in terms of the important questions they need to ask to find out more about what they are learning.  This strategy teaches students how to formulate deep questions in given subject areas to extend their knowledge.

S-6   Our children begin to think about what they know and what they merely believe.  This strategy teaches students how to critically examine and evaluate their own beliefs and the beliefs they confront in what they are studying.

S-7  Our children begin to think critically about how they make decisions and generate solutions to problems.  This strategy teaches students how to make good decisions and arrive at good solutions as well as how to assess their thinking processes.

S-8   Our children begin to see that the solutions and decisions they and others come to have consequences and they begin to learn to critically explore the consequences of solutions, decisions and problems in what they are learning.  This strategy teaches students how to prioritize their thinking and examine alternatives in light of their implications.

S-9   Our children begin to learn how to critically interpret situations and information and just how they come to conclusions and make decisions.  This strategy teaches students inferential logic: how to make statements about the unknown based on what is known.

S-10  Our children learn to give reasons and evidence for what they believe and learn to evaluate the reasons and evidence others offer for what they believe.  This strategy teaches students how to evaluate evidence and reasons in what they are learning and in their own lives.

II.  Analytical and Evaluative Thinking Dimension

S-11  Our children begin to see when they are thinking in over-generalities and when they might be too simplistic in their thinking.  This strategy teaches students to recognize when they and others are not being specific about what they are thinking about and gives them an opportunity to refine their thinking.

S-12  Our children begin to understand what criteria is and how they might develop it and use it to judge situations, themselves and others.  This strategy teaches students how criteria is developed and used.

S-13  Our children begin to develop an understanding that not all information is reliable and that the sources of information are important when evaluating information.  This strategy teaches them what sources of information are, how they differ and how they might affect what they are thinking.

S-14   Our children begin to analyze what they say and what they do and what others say and do.  This strategy teaches them what an argument is, how to interpret them and how to evaluate them.

S-15  Our children begin to learn to evaluate rules, policies and behavior.  This strategy teaches them what is involved in analyzing and how they can apply analysis to what people do, say and think.

S-16  Our children begin to learn to distinguish what is ideal from what is actual practice.  This strategy enables students to understand that often what might be stated as an ideal way of doing things, approaching problems or making decisions, varies from what actually goes on in reality.

S-17  Our children begin to understand what a perspective is, how they are interpreted and how beliefs form points of view.  This strategy teachers students that they and other have perspectives, what a perspective entails and how they might evaluate them.

III.  Systematic Thinking Dimension

S-18  Our children begin to see how to apply what they are learning to diverse situations.  This strategy teachers students what analogies are and how they might use analogies in thinking, as well as how to transfer what they are learning into new contexts so they might learn more.

S-19  Our children learn how the logic of disciplines are related and how they might connect what they are learning in one subject to insights in another.  This strategy teaches our students the relationship between the subjects they are learning so they might understand them as systems.

S-20  Our children begin to look at situations, actions, people and products and note how they might be the same and how they might be different.  This strategy teaches students what a similarity is, what a difference is and how to use similarities and differences to make choices, analyze situations and develop problem solving abilities.

IV.  Collaborative Thinking Dimension

S-21  Our children begin to understand the power of dialogue as a way of learning and reasoning about diverse perspectives and ideas.  This strategy teaches students how to dialogue with others about what they are thinking, whether they agree or disagree with what they are hearing or reading.

S-22  Our children begin to see how entering into points of view not keeping with their own, reasoning from their premises to their conclusions and then stepping back to see what they believe in light of what other believe is important for learning to understand people and situations.  This strategy teaches students how to evaluate points of view by reasoning within them as well as how to reconcile what they believe with what others believe.

S-23  Our children begin to see how their own thinking and perspectives are developed.  This strategy teachers students to think for themselves and learn to develop their own points of view regarding issues, people and situations.

S-24  Our children begin to see what it means to listen critically and actively as opposed to selectively and passively.  This strategy teaches them what active listening would entail, how to sum up what people say for the sake of understanding, and how to listen to points of view to understand their logic.

S-25  Our children begin to see the power of questioning as a form of learning about themselves, what they are studying and others.  This strategy teaches students how to question deeply, to go beyond questions that simply call for information and learn to question assumptions, language, points of view and whatever they are learning.

V.  Emotional Intelligence/ Affective Thinking Dimension

S-26  Our children begin to see the power of investigation and how to figure things out for themselves.  This strategy teaches students to investigate independently what they are learning and not to depend on others for the answers to questions or life’s problems.

S-27  Our children begin to see the importance of understanding others, even if they do not agree with them.  This strategy teaches students to enter into diverse points of view with the object of understanding them.

S-28  Our children begin to learn that it is ok to say “I don’t know.”  This strategy teaches students how to admit to their mistakes, realize when they don’t understand something and learn to replace self-righteousness with self-questioning.

S-29  Our children begin to see the power of curiosity and how curiosity is used to find answers to complex questions, to seek to understand, and to imagine how problems can be solved or decisions can be made.  This strategy teaches students the power of imaginative and curious thinking and helps them capture what it means to “wonder” about life and what they are learning.

S-30  Our children begin to see the power of reasoning and as they do, they develop self-esteem and a belief that they can solve life’s problems through thinking.  This strategy helps students develop self-confidence in their ability to think.

S-31  Our children begin to see that often there are no black and white answers for situations and issues.  This strategy helps students understand that life can be unclear, that what they are studying or attempting to understand may not be transparent and that this is ok. 

S-32  Our children begin to learn to arrest their impulsivity and take their time when reasoning.  This strategy teaches students that there are no quick fix solutions to complex problems and lets them know that disciplined thinking and trying as hard as you can will help them become successful.

S-33  Our children begin to see what it means to be intellectually courageous; that it is ok to admit your wrong, to discover you have made a mistake, or to feel it is ok not to agree with others simply to go along.  This strategy teaches students how being courageous in their thinking might make them different at times, but that this is ok as long as they can defend what they believe in light of what others believe.

S-34  Our children begin to see that put-downs have no place in thinking; that you don’t have to be mean or uncivil to someone just because you do not agree with them.  This strategy helps students develop an understanding of how to engage in civil dialogue when they don’t agree with someone or something.

S-35  Our children begin to see that it is necessary to evaluate others and their thinking the same way that they would evaluate themselves and their thinking.  This strategy teaches students that the rules they apply to others should be rules they are willing to accept in their own lives.