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Learning to think takes teachers and parents

Learning to think takes teachers and parents

by Евгений Волков -
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Geoff Johnson: Learning to think takes teachers and parents


JUNE 9, 2017 12:18 AM

When we read anything from a novel to a newspaper, we are, or should be, reading at three levels of understanding: literal, inferential and critical. When we, as parents or teachers, talk to our kids about something they are reading, we should bear those three levels of understanding in mind.

Literal comprehension involves understanding what the writer is actually saying. The reader needs to understand the words, the ideas and, eventually, the information in the reading material.

The reader might be using context clues to establish meaning and the question: “What words state the main idea of the story?” asks if the reader understands the information at a literal level.

Inferential comprehension deals with what the author means by what is said. The reader must “read between the lines” and make inferences about things not directly stated by the words. Inferential comprehension could also involve drawing conclusions and judging the author’s point of view. The question here might be: “What are the author’s values or beliefs?”

And now we get to the most important level of understanding as we read a newspaper, listen to a speaker or even watch a news program on TV.

Critical comprehension is about why the author says what he or she says. Critical understanding requires the reader (or viewer or listener) to use his/her own experience to assess the quality or the worth of what a writer has written or what a speaker is saying.

Critical understanding is about making a judgment based on reasoning. It is getting into the author or speaker’s own reasoning or simplifications and generalizations. Is the writer or speaker trying to appeal to our intellect or our emotions? Is he/she manipulating our thinking?

This time the question is: “Are we dealing with fact or opinion?” The answer to that leads us to a consideration of whether or not we agree with or value what the writer or speaker is expressing.

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, writer Douglas Belkin reported that freshmen and seniors at about 200 colleges across the U.S. had taken a test called the College Learning Assessment Plus every year to measure how much better they get at learning to think at a critical level as they progress. The results, writes Belkin, were discouraging.

At more than half of schools, at least a third of seniors were unable to develop a cohesive argument or assess the quality of evidence in a document — in other words, distinguish fact from opinionated rhetoric.

Some education researchers and employers say that Belkin’s findings are a sign of the failure of the higher-education system to arm graduates with analytical reasoning and problem-solving skills needed to thrive in a fast-changing world.

Others point to the apparent chaos in which the U.S. political system finds itself, with truth, facts, alternative facts and political bombast all being presented by the media as much the same thing.

Late in 2016, as reported by Catherine Little of the Toronto Star, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to elementary teachers in Toronto about the importance of education. As a former teacher, wrote Little, Trudeau emphasized that, for long-term impact, teachers’ lesson plans should focus on how to think rather than what to think.

B.C.’s “new” curriculum includes critical thinking as a “core competency” and illustrates thinking competencies such as questioning and investigating, analyzing and critiquing.

Even so, critics such as Stephen Hurley, writing for the Canadian Education Association, question the commitment of the education establishment to teaching critical thinking.

“So why do we fail to nurture the infrastructure to support it in our schools and classrooms?” One reason, he suggests, is that “many of us … weren’t raised in critical thinking classrooms.”

“Finally,” writes Hurley, “and this is a little more disturbing — perhaps we really don’t want to nurture a critical stance in our students. Perhaps we’re a little reluctant to put the powerful tools of critical thinking into the hands of the general population.”

That’s as may be, but the ability to think critically does not mean to think negatively. Critical thinking involves making judgments based on reasoning where students learn to consider options, to analyze and to draw conclusions.

Learning to think does not just happen. There is a good argument to be made for some time to be spent in class each week focusing specifically on literal, inferential and critical reading experiences.

Given that the school has the kids for 51Ú2 hours each day and parents have them for the other 181Ú2 hours, there is an even better argument to be made for home to be a place where kids through discussion with thoughtful adults, armed with the questions suggested above, learn how to think clearly, objectively and critically about what goes on in the world around them.


Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.

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