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Improve Critical Thinking in the US' education system - mathematically as well as linguistically

For 14 years of my life I have lived in Germany, and I have gone through nine years (+one skipped year) of the education system there. And then I went to Texas to experience high school in the US - and I saw huge deficits.

The high and middle schools of the US do not encourage enough critical thinking among their students. Everything is being done with guidance of a teacher going through steps of a procedure - and this is where the problem is. For example, in Math: Teachers provide step-by-step instructions how to solve an equation, how to divide, how to... This does not teach students how to think about math individually. It teaches them to follow the procedure, and maybe get the answer right - but it does not teach how it works, and it does not teach how to think beyond that point. This education system cannot produce great mathematicians, because all the people with potential are taught to follow procedures and instructions! Sure, there are some smart students that want to figure it out on their own, and they do. But teachers need to encourage it, because there are a lot of students with great potential in this country. Critical Thinking also teaches responsibility, and the other way round. And do we want irresponsible individuals in charge in the future?

But Math is only an example. The same thing accounts for English, Science, - anything. Literacy is another problems. Students that cannot read a text, a short story or novel on their own - with their own crticial individual thinking - cannot understand any Science or Math textbook either.
As an anecdote: In high school year in Texas, I was taught critical thinking in the English lessons as a step-by-step procedure - and that is not the way to get students thinking individually.

I can't fit more in 2000 characters, even though I'd like to. The bottomline is: Teachers need to encourage critical, individual thinking among their students. Only then this country can produce great thinkers and leaders of the world.

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    Mar 28 2011: Christopher --

    Your thoughts remind me of essay I wrote about US presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty. I agree, critical thinking is, well, critical, for future leaders to learn! And rote lessons don't deliver the skills.


    Former MN Governor Tim Pawlenty appeared on Meet the Press when NBC News anchor David Gregory came to Minneapolis, coverage that implies he’s one to watch for a 2012 Presidential run.

    Pawlenty demonstrated his considerable rhetorical skills, smoothly navigating Gregory’s runs at his controversial positions while simultaneously warming up would-be voters with snappy sound-bites.

    Such as christening “common-man” identities like “Sam’s Club Republicans” and inciting populist passions by saying social movements like The Tea Party for having the necessary “creative energy for the next generation” of government.

    No doubt Tea Party tactics turn media pundits and policymaker’s heads. But whether their polarized ideological agendas reflect the actual ideals of real people, however, remains a critical question.

    Pawlenty also wove in linguistical inferences which play well in educated vernaculars, like those of academics who attended the event, which was sponsored by University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute.

    Including the term “high order government,” necessary, he said, for prioritizing a sustained “turn-around” of US policies. And an antidote to what Pawlenty referred to as the “phony effect” of the Obama administration’s economic stimulus package, which has produced, he acknowledged, “near-time” economic gains.

    “It’s simple math” Pawlenty explained, suggesting his Jr. High daughter has a better grasp of macro budgetary issues than Democratic leaders do. He went on to defend his rejection of federal education funds in favor of performance pay for teachers using standardized testing methods to measure results.

    Pawlenty’s demeanor touched audience member’s nerves. “You carry yourself as if you’re the only adult in the room,” said one, calling Pawlenty out for distain of people who don’t agree with his policies.

    Triggering impassioned exchanges like these make for attention-getting press, a fact of which politicians like Pawlenty are well aware. But long-term proof shows they are effective for producing little more than further polarized political positions.

    It’s a point Pawlenty made in his closing remarks. “I see a corrosion in the discourse” in public leadership. “I worry about how we can be more thoughtful.”

    His statement resonates with research implicating political upheaval as a key factor fueling “a sense that society has lost its way.” And showing nearly 90% of Minnesotan’s don’t trust government, data outlined in a recent report by Humphrey Institute’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.

    Such indicators should sound the alert for the critical importance of “higher order thinking,” an education term referring to advanced knowledge that transcends rote repetition of one-dimensional facts. Such thinking requires the employment of analytical, evaluative and creative abilities that seek and find connections between diverse concepts to synthesize effective solutions.

    A key characteristic of higher order thinking is the ability to reflect on critical questions that trigger deeper understandings of complex issues and isolate the most authentic and accurate answers to them.

    Pawlenty’s Meet the Press appearance triggers some such questions:

    How can creative energies be employed to overcome deficits of thought which incite people’s lower order impulses?

    How can leaders stimulate the next generation of government to prioritize the kind of common wealth corrosive discourse has failed to achieve?

    How can authentic public leaders raise the standards of achievement for the pro-social skills we should have all learned when we were in Jr. High?

    Andrea Grazzini Walstrom is the founder and co-leader of DynamicShift.
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    Jul 15 2011: You have a lot of agreement with your statement with many of us in the math education field. Check out Paul Lockhart's "A Mathematician's Lament" as an example of a really well constructed argument against what we currently do in math.
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    Ava Kh

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    Jun 30 2011: I don't know if I agree. That might be because I live in Missouri, and my high school is pretty progressive. I feel like my high school allows me independence to think. I am welcome to ask for as much help I need. I think the responsibility falls on the student. The teachers make themselves available, and I think it's the student's responsibility to first try to figure out a problem, and before asking the teacher to work it out step-by-step, to first really truly try. I feel like a large part of the problem is that kids give up. They just... give up. They don't think they CAN do it, so they ask for help. They stop trying entirely. At a young age, our teachers tell us we're dumb or we're smart. We get placed in gifted education or we don't. By separating the people in this way (which, by the way is a very subjective way of measuring intelligence) we're telling kids they're not smart and they can't do it. And really that's just one example. It goes back to when school first starts, and the impressions a kid has of himself last a longtime.
  • Mar 23 2011: By the way, I'm currently in New Mexico, which is even worse than Texas. And I know that the states on the East Coast, especially the North-East, have their education much more under control than they do down here.

    Yes, IB is a great program, just as AP is a great programme. But not all schools offer it, especially in states with low-end education - such as Texas or New Mexico. The HS I went to in Texas had eliminated their IB programme three years before I got there. And yes, IB and AP - especially IB - are an overkill for American students as opposed to the regular programme. It's so very above most students' levels that it is almost undoable for most of them, but as you said, it's doable. But as I said - schools have to encourage students to get in those programs, and they have to have them; and not all do.

    Also: It would be a very great help to me if you could send me your sources for those numbers, and a source for where I can find the policys of the TX DoE (Department of Education) for teacher's passing. I have heard that the TAKS test determines that inaptitude of teachers, I just haven't found a source or policy for it. Please, e-mail me: Thank you!
  • Mar 23 2011: Ah! Welcome to Texas then! I'm also a Texan, been here 10 years and am a senior in high-school. I also agree with you (But I do have to point out that Texas is either last or second-to-last education wise. The rest of the country isn't quite so bad, even if it does suck nationwide).

    This is partly due to the politics and bureaucracy of teaching, where failing a student means a teacher's ineptitude (erroneously, of course). This means students go on to the next grade even when they shouldn't. (I did the math on the statistics they are required to give to students at my school and when you account for the number of students passed "via committee" grades 8 and 12 should sit at around 300% the size of the other high school years.)

    Because of the horrible state of this nation's education, I became an International Baccalaureate student. Though a great deal of American students are unprepared for it (Because it tests on european standards, and as far as I'm aware, students begin physics in middle school over there and no sooner than junior or senior year here, there is a large knowledge gap) it's still doable. It's not perfect of course, but it does help alleviate the issues you are facing.

    I'm constantly facing similar issues but there are ways around them - I am, for example independently studying Chemistry HL (the 2nd year of college level Chemistry, 3rd year overall). Coupled with the advanced language programs (and the fact ,the teacher's role is much more hands off leaving the intellectual work up to the student) I'm glad IB sidesteps a lot of problems with the public school system and in my opinion supersedes it completely.
  • Mar 22 2011: I agree. Students don't learn how to think for themselves, when their told how & what to think.
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    Mar 22 2011: Thumbs up! I, too, believe critical thinking skills should be emphasised in the teaching of our children. With critical thinking and integrity, the next generation might save us all.