Learning How to Think more than What to Think

On March 17, 2017, Fox Valley Technical College will host Dr. Saundra McGuire, she will present “Teach Students How to Learn” which triggered in my mind that there is nothing new under the academic sun.

Thousands of years ago, Confucius challenges educators that we are “to teach students how to think and not what to think.”  In addition, LaoTzu in his writings entitled, “So Easy to Understand and Practice,” verse 70 of Tao Te Ching, that “people’s heads are filled with 10,000 trivia and rationalizations, leaving no space for anything else. It is not practiced because people are kept busy, though bored, with the 10,000 corruptions and miseries that leave no time for the Three Treasures (love, moderation, and humility.”)

In verse 71 – Healing the Mind – Tao continues to write: “Academia confuses knowledge with knowing, most everyone applauds the memorization of the 10,000 trivia. Beware! They are a form of mental illness. A fragment of the mind, divorced from the heart, spirit, and human community, and from the primal reality of the universe, is an abomination of the Great Integrity.”

In an essay written by Maryellen Weimer PH.D. Do Your Students Understand the Material, or Just Memorize and Forget?Maryellen asks:

“Have you ever heard of Eric Mazur?

Mazur started out teaching like most of us—he lectured, pretty much all the time, until he discovered a problem. His students had learned Newton’s third law of motion—or at least they could recite it (as all physics students can). He decided to test their understanding of it with a conceptual problem involving a collision between a heavy truck and a light car. To his surprise, his students couldn’t answer the problem or they struggled mightily, not only with this but virtually any conceptual problem he gave them.

It seems the students were memorizing the material but not understanding it, and so Mazur decided to change his instructional approach. He replaced teaching by telling with teaching by questioning. He now structures class time around short conceptual questions”

I have always thought that if I keep my clothes long enough, every 10 years I will be in style.  Over the past 50 years many educational theories and methods have appeared, disappeared, and have been rediscovered anew as teachers attend conferences from the West coast to the East coast and return to their academic citadels with new found methods, that more than likely were the trend or fad, years earlier.

Here is an historical overview of educational methods which emphasize critical thinking skills/how to think as opposed to what to think, along with multicultural, global, and feminine educational methods which also have been around for years:

Inquiry Based Education is relevant which emphasizes that all disciplines are based on specific methods for gathering information, interpreting that information, and generating solutions to problems. In addition, Integrated Education expands upon the inquiry education in that students do not learn in bits and pieces as if they were separate items to memorize (cf. learning to unlearn).  Rather, the students understand that knowledge exists in systems of meanings that are interconnected, and therefore they can more effectively apply their knowledge to the real world issues.  Critical Thinking Education is essential to all levels of learning, in fact, it is a universal imperative in education.  Creative Thinking Education challenges students to think for themselves, to run with ideas, to realize that there is more than one “right” answer in many situations, and don’t just stop with the first answer.

Constructivist Education which emphasizes that students learn only the knowledge that they actively construct in their own minds. The teacher cannot infuse knowledge into the heads of students; and the students cannot gain knowledge through passive listening and mindless repetition. Core Knowledge Education is extended and expanded when students learn new knowledge by building upon what they already know.  Students learn a broad base of knowledge in many fields which is why general studies courses are so important in expanding and extending the core knowledge of information so that students will be able to function more adequately and successfully within society.

The Learning Style Education is applicable and relevant. This method of learning is particular to an individual’s desire and will to learn by seeing, by hearing, by processing through reading and writing or by doing OR a combination of more than one of these learning styles. Emotional Intelligence Education brings intelligence to bear upon emotions whether one is reasoning or making decisions.  In any decision making process, one’s emotions, attitudes, and passions are interacting across the cognitive and affective domains.

Gifted Education encourages highly talented individuals the opportunities to enhance and advance their various domains of thinking.  Here too, it would be wise to include Feminist and Gender Education since schools have been dominated by male-based perspectives, and sometimes to the exclusion of female-based perspectives.  Multiple Intelligences Education emphasizes the strengths of individual learners.  As it is discussed in the educational world, “Do you learn how I teach, or do I teach how you learn?”  In essence, students are encouraged to develop those “intelligences” that intrigue and interest them.  I may not be able to understand Boyle’s Law in chemistry from a logical-mathematical analysis, however, Boyle’s Law might be better understood if it was presented from a language, spatial, musical, kinesthetic, self-knowledge, understanding of others, naturalistic, and/or existential points of view.  As an instructor, are you willing to present an idea from 8 different perspectives?  Perhaps it is time to put away the yellowed notes, the over-used power points, and break out in an imaginative and creative fashion, thus involving the whole class instead of just a few who understand the logical-mathematical  analysis of Boyle’s Law.

Multiculturalism Education emphasizes social habits and customs from many cultures. Students learn to deal rationally with the multiplicity of cultures and the alternative ways of living within a social group or culture.  Cooperative Education promotes that students can learn more when they work together – there is pooling of knowledge and helping each other learn. Also, Global Education is relevant here given the idea behind it that we are increasingly living in a “global” world in which business competition is to be understood from a global perspective.  Our survival is linked to the degree to which we learn to teach and think globally. One can also add Multicultural Education whereby we understand and respect the positive attributes and achievements of all cultures.”

(Educational Fads by Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder, The Foundations for Critical Thinking, 2007)

What tools will help and guide students how to think?

I remember as a grade schooler the teacher saying to us, “Now, class, let us spend a couple of minutes thinking about this idea” I thought to myself how do I do that? I looked around the class to see what other students were doing.  I still could not figure out how to think, so I faked it, with my eyes looking upward and my brow furrowed. I was now thinking!

Strategies for Clarifying Your Thinking

  • State one point at a time.
  • Elaborate on what you mean
  • Give examples that connect your thoughts to life experiences
  • Use analogies and metaphors to help people connect your ideas to a variety of things they already understand (for example, critical thinking is like an onion. There are many layers to it. Just when you think you have it basically figured out, you realize there is another layer, and then another, and another and another and on and on)

Here is One Format You Can Use

  • I think . . . (state your main point)
  • In other words . . . (elaborate your main point)
  • For example . . . (give an example of your main point)
  • To give you an analogy . . . (give an illustration of your main point)

To Clarify Other People’s Thinking, Consider Asking the Following

  • Can you restate your point in other words? I didn’t understand you.
  • Can you give an example?
  • Let me tell you what I understand you to be saying. Did I understand you correctly?

Ask These Questions to Make Sure Thinking is Focused on What is Relevant

  • Am I focused on the main problem or task?
  • How is this connected? How is that?
  • Does my information directly relate to the problem or task?
  • Where do I need to focus my attention?
  • Are we being diverted to unrelated matters?
  • Am I failing to consider relevant viewpoints?
  • How is your point relevant to the issue we are addressing?
  • What facts are actually going to help us answer the question? What considerations should be set aside?
  • Does this truly bear on the question? How does it connect?

Strategies for Formulating More Powerful Questions

  • Whenever you don’t understand something, ask a question of clarification.
  • Whenever you are dealing with a complex problem, formulate the question you are trying to answer in several different ways (being as precise as you can) until you hit upon the way that best addresses the problem at hand.
  • Whenever you plan to discuss an important issue or problem, write out in advance the most significant questions you think need to be addressed in the discussion. Be ready to change the main question, but once made clear, help those in the discussion stick to the question, making sure the dialogue builds toward an answer that makes sense.

Questions You Can Ask to Discipline Your Thinking

  • What precise question are we trying to answer?
  • Is that the best question to ask in this situation?
  • Is there a more important question we should be addressing?
  • Does this question capture the real issue we are facing?
  • Is there a question we should answer before we attempt to answer this question?
  • What information do we need to answer the question?
  • What conclusions seem justified in light of the facts?
  • What is our point of view? Do we need to consider another?
  • Is there another way to look at the question?
  • What are some related questions we need to consider?
  • What type of question is this: an economic question, a political question, a legal question, etc.?

(Analytic Thinking by Dr. Linda Elder and Dr.Richard Paul- The Foundations of Critical Thinking, 2007)

A former student of mine in thinking critically and creatively wrote, “I was surprised at how incapable I was in explaining the responses to questions that I felt I did know, much less the answers I did not know.  I came across many terms and phrases that I know I have heard before from other classes, but I had no recollection of what they meant or how they could be applied.  I definitely have some brushing up to do, and I am hoping that a closer look when we get to each chapter will jog my memory.  I would say I completed the evaluation with about 40% accuracy.  It made me wonder if I even knew what I thought I knew as well as I thought I knew it.”

In an article in the Green Bay Press Gazette, January 23, 2011, “ ‘soft skills’ add competitive advantage for job candidates” the emphasis is not just on the skills acquired in one’s core courses.  Jim Golemeski, executive director of Bay Area Workforce Development states that “Companies are looking for attitude and character…do your values as a worker match the values of the company?”  One’s character, integrity, positive attitude become fundamental to one’s success in the work place. Golemski highlights and emphasizes the importance of science, math, social studies, language arts, and Spanish coupled with innovation, adaptability, and problem solving.    Hopefully we are not just teaching for the “culture of evidence” which may indicate positive gains, however, has that knowledge been integrated and assimilated into one’s character as a human being who will be successful in the ever-changing world?  Perhaps we should emphasize more the process of lighting a fire within as we journey with our students through the semester.  To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous phrase from “I have a dream” which I have taken the liberty to paraphrase – let us not focus on the color of one’s skin ( facts, figures, terms, and memorization), but rather on the content of one’s character ( assimilation, integration, and application of knowledge ).   Otherwise, other students may write what a former student had written, “It made me wonder if I even knew what I thought I knew as well as I thought I knew it.”   I am reminded of a quote by the poet, William Butler Yeats, “Education is not filling a bucket with water (what to think), rather it is lighting a fire within (how to think).”

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