Teaching Children to Think

New government surveys confirm a need to revise teaching strategies.

Posted Jun 20, 2012

Learning how to learn is a major objective of schooling. Yet, in my view, the emphasis in most schools is on WHAT to learn, not HOW to learn. My Improve Your Learning and Memory blog is aimed at filling that gap, yet these useful ideas have a hard time penetrating curricula that are designed to teach to government-mandated tests.

Yet another, apparently unmet, challenge in education seems to exist: teaching students how to think. A recent U.S. Dept. Education survey reported in the Nation’s Report Card suggests that science students may be learning how to perform simple investigations but do not do well  in thinking about the meaning and implications of the results and how to use data to make decisions.

About 2,000 students in each grade level 4, 8, and 12 were tested in three real-life science  problem-solving scenarios in an interactive computer test environment. Anybody can take the tests, which are posted on the NRC website; the tests are easy and fun. The test records results of each simulation (you control the test parameters), your answers to the questions, and then provides the average test scores of students who participated in the survey. The test I took (8th grade bottling honey problem) consists of computer simulations where speed of a steel ball dropped into four different liquids is recorded at different temperatures. Students can repeat various temperature conditions at will, and then they answer questions requiring deductive conclusions. The questions were not hard, but you do have to pay attention and think. What is disturbing is that on several of these questions the vast majority of students got it wrong. Even when they got the right answer, many students could not give the proper explanation for why it was right.

Last month, the agency reported results from a paper-and-pencil test given last year which showed that less than a third of 8th graders performed at a “proficient” level.

Results like these are prompting a re-thinking of national science standards, which I discussed in a recent blog. The new emphasis is to shift from rote memorization of subject matter to building students’ deeper understanding of core science concepts, how they connect, and how they can be applied to the real world.

My response to this need is to explore how scientists communicate and share their thinking to solve problems. The answer is that they publish their research in articles that emphasize how and why they conceived of the problem, how they designed experiments, and how they interpreted the results and their implications. The results of research are only one aspect of the report. Yet, in school science, teachers and government tests typically focus on the results of research, and even then after the results have been filtered through multiple layers of re-formatting and condensation.

I asked myself, “Why can’t we teach science more like the way it actually occurs in the real world?” The answer is that of course we could, but scientific journal articles are too difficult for students to understand. Or are they? What if good science writers re-wrote research reports in simple, clear language that even an 8th grader can understand? And then we could require students to critique the paper in terms of rigorous questions that required students to think critically and creatively.

Well, I am trying to start just such an initiative. I have re-written about six published research reports thus far, hopefully at middle-school level, and provided a set of 24 scaffolding questions to guide student thinking.

We will see whether or not this catches on with teachers and educational administrators.