If you look though my blog posts around critical thinking, you will note that I have maintained that getting kids to think strategically is all about asking the right questions. Even better, teaching them the right questions to help them develop their own arguments and justifications and learn to make inferences, apply and adapt.
Run a mile to train for a 50 m race
I just watched an interesting video from Grant Wiggins on “Real Test Preparation: Better Teaching not Worse” which validated my practices. The bottom line in improving student performance is to ask better questions. Better questions are harder questions. Comparing preparing for a rigorous test to preparing for a specific event in a track meet, Wiggins points out that practices are often more rigorous than the actual race you will run. He suggests preparation for high stakes testing should be the same. Schools that traditionally do better on state testing, “simply don’t worry about them” because their students are regularly taking tests that are harder than the state tests. He suggests removing the multiple choices, hints and reminders from our tests. We need to prepare students so that they can make inferences and think strategically rather than prepare them for a specific test format.
Looking at the data
Looking at specific test items that have been scored and shared, it becomes obvious that our students, despite knowing the content, lack the ability to apply and adapt. A clear example of this comes from a test item on the Pythagorean theory which a majority of students, despite having the content, were unable to answer correctly. The problem did not mention the word triangle or right angle; it showed a ladder leaning on a house. Students had to make inferences, apply and adapt in order to answer the question. The majority could not.
There were also many examples of students not being able to make inferences in their reading. They were unable to get the main idea of a reading passage or make inferences about the mood or character. One example found that a majority of students mistakenly eliminated the choice “c. Essay” as the type of writing on an essay about color blindness because it was not 5 paragraphs! Yikes.
So how do we improve our teaching?
Can we improve our teaching by improving our assessments? Does increasing the rigor of student work help them improve by giving students the opportunity to face rigor more often? I just saw this tweet from Esther Wojcicki @EsterWojcicki “Life is a series of projects, not a series of multiple choice tests. We should train students for life.” Providing projects that require students to apply, adapt, argue and justify is a great start. Wiggins recommends that we give students new reading passages frequently and have them practice strategic thinking. What was the author’s purpose? Point of view? Ask questions that require an argument and justification.
I know a number of teachers that use the SCAN tool at TregoED to help get students comfortable in reading and understanding complex situations. The tool provides great reading passages on all sorts of relevant and authentic situations. A great way to get students to practice strategic thinking, with the SCAN critical thinking strategy built right in. Newspapers and magazines are also a great source of reading passages. Do you have a great resource for complex reading passages that you can share?