Roughage

(Updated version of a 2016 post)

When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all…

Those words were penned by Paul Simon, a member of the Silent Generation that precedes us Boomers. It is ironic that Simon’s words from the lyrics of Kodachrome, as well as the lyrics of the rest of his remarkable collection of songs, were why Simon was named to Time’s 2006 list of 100 People Who Shaped the World: not exactly silent. When I heard the lyrics near the end of my first year of teaching in 1973, they resonated.

If you have done the math, you know that as a Boomer I have been an actor in the Education Follies longer than many current educators have been alive, and now I sit and reflect upon the fact that despite how much has been learned over the last fifty years about what works in classrooms, the achievement of economically disadvantaged students remains a moral failing of American Education.

In 1972, fresh from finishing two years of alternative civilian service as a conscientious objector, and two years removed from student teaching and methods courses, I was hired to teach science to seventh and eighth graders living in a small bedroom community north of New Haven, Connecticut. My first weeks as a teacher were salvaged by a demanding principal, Hrach Mahakian, and by a compassionate and knowledgeable Science Department Chair, Salvatore Sagnella. Survival, as so often happens with emerging teachers, is more often a matter of good fortune than systemic support (Do I hear an “Amen?”). I had been lucky, and thanks to these two great educators, I was surviving, but I was not thriving (i.e. neither were my students!).

In the early weeks, while I was hanging on by a thread, a friend with a questionable sense of humor enlightened me with George Bernard Shaw’s notable 1903 quip: “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.” This was way too close to home because after downgrading my personal expectations in my junior year from pre-med to biology, and then as the post-graduation, two-year, draft-lottery-required delay in my studies approached, I began to feel that I did not have sufficient drive to pursue doctoral studies. Clearly, I had decided I could not “do.” I switched my major to Biology Education.

What I learned from Hrach and Sal convinced me that the undergrad preparation I had received was mostly useless, except to provide the insight that Shaw could have gone one step further: if, in fact, those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach, my undergrad preparation in Education convinced me that those who can’t teach, often teach others to teach! 

Never good at handling hits to my self-esteem, I was feeling pretty blue in May of 1973 when Kodachrome was released. When I first heard the song, I had already decided to leave teaching and had been accepted into a marine science graduate program at the University of Delaware. I had survived the year. My students had learned things, but as noted, Simon’s lyric had resonated; it was touching my truth. What I had taught my students had not challenged them to think.

During my two years of civilian service, I had managed to complete the requirements for a Master’s degree in the evenings. My instructors and professors had reinforced the Shaw Corollary referred to above, save for one, whose name I unfortunately cannot remember. During his course in the Fall of 1972, the instructor exposed us to the notion that how we teach and assess what students are supposed to know and be able to do should be done in a way, which increases the probability that ALL students will learn significantly, and NOT in a way that will generate a normal distribution curve; the latter being what many high school educators still believe is their primary job: sorting kids.

I had understood, internalized, and applied what that (sadly) forgotten instructor had taught me, something which had originated decades before 1972 and many years later would come to be called Standards-based Education, before being stomped into the ground by the Army of Liberty. By January of 1973, I was determining what it was that I wanted students to know and be able to do (no state or district curriculum had been provided to me; rather, I was provided with a text book that would have taken years to “complete,” from which I extracted my “objectives”). I was designing assessments that measured whether or not the students were, in fact, mastering the instructional objectives, and I was implementing instruction that was designed to lead students to mastery.

My assessments told me my students were learning, but what they were learning was not reinforcing, strengthening, and challenging what is perhaps our greatest human gift: the capacity to engage higher-order thinking; specifically, the ability to think critically. In failing to do that, I was simply feeding my students roughage and they were crapping it out. That realization affirmed for me that I had become a card-carrying member of the cadre of teachers who had inspired Paul Simon’s lyrics. Getting out of teaching seemed the best thing for me to do in the spring of 1973, but in less than a year, I was back in the Educational Follies up to my neck, and as an actor in it, I continued to tilt at windmills for the next four decades. It remains in my way of thinking that …

The most important, foundational goal of educators should be teaching, reinforcing, and strengthening the capacity of all students to think critically.

This foundational goal may be a tad obvious, but in my opinion, it is the failure of American Educators to meet this goal over the past fifty years that is a foundational cause of the support of 74,000,000 Americans for what has come to be known as Trumpism. As I reached this paragraph in my update of this post on this December morning, I Googled, “How can critical thinking be taught?” If the subject interests you, I encourage you to click on the link provided, which will allow you to see and review what I have just seen and reviewed.

One of the listed articles in response to the search, It’s time to get serious about teaching critical thinking, provides support for my claims: 1) teaching all students to think critically is essential, and 2) NOW it’s time? Really, now, when we educators have rejected almost en masse the teaching of critical thinking for nearly a century? Consider an important component of critical thinking …

Reflective thinking … is a part of the critical thinking process referring specifically to the processes of analyzing and making judgments about what has happened. (John) Dewey (in 1933; emphasis mine) suggests that reflective thinking is an active, persistent, and careful consideration of a belief or supposed form of knowledge, of the grounds that support that knowledge, and the further conclusions to which that knowledge leads. Learners are aware of and control their learning by actively participating in reflective thinking — assessing what they know, what they need to know, and how they bridge that gap — during learning situations.

Until critical thinking, and its corollaries like reflective thinking, are an integral—an essential and required—component of American Education, Paul Simon’s words will continue to describe the second biggest failing of American Education. For an even greater failing, see Tilting at Windmills for No Apparent Reason.

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