For all those occasions, including elections, when using your head comes in handy, education reformers promote what they call critical thinking. They act as if thinking is something new, but it’s more likely that nobody used to talk as much about it because everybody figured it was a pretty ordinary expectation in school, like breathing. It’s worth noting that today’s experts, most of whom are products of pre-critical-thinking schools, seem to think they know how to do it.
Back in 1956, a man named Bloom did some thinking about thinking. He devised a cognitive hierarchy that arranged the things our brains do according to their complexity. For example, simply knowing a fact is a less complex activity than applying that knowledge in a specific situation. Similarly, analyzing and evaluating information rank even higher.
If you’re thinking this sounds reasonable and obvious, you should have written a book about it in 1956 so education experts could have quoted you for over half a century. Educators used Bloom’s ideas to illustrate that students need to practice working logically and rationally with knowledge beyond simply knowing things. Unfortunately, in their zeal for “critical thinking,” 1970s reformers discouraged teaching knowledge itself, which is why public-school students began to know less and, consequently and ironically, began to have less to think critically about.
Reformers claim that things have changed since the old days before 1970, and that the sheer number of facts has grown so huge that students can’t learn them all anymore. I hate to put a damper on an ingenious theory, but I doubt that students today don’t know who we fought in the Civil War solely because U.S. history suddenly got too long. Besides, nobody added new information to the multiplication table, and students aren’t faring too well with that either.
It also isn’t that knowledge itself has become old-fashioned in the “information age.” The Encyclopedia Britannica has always bulged with more information than I could absorb, but nobody ever told me I didn’t have to know where or what Europe is just because it was written down somewhere I could “access” if I needed to. The internet hasn’t altered this reality.
Acquiring knowledge can be both grueling and boring, and like most people, I’d rather not be bored. After all, I have to be in my students’ classes with them. But I’ve inherited from the generations before me a body of knowledge and skills that I’m supposed to pass on. Like it or not, the Almighty didn’t bless English grammar with the same allure he showered on video games and young love.
Some information is boring. Does that make it irrelevant? Some teachers can’t make it as interesting as others can. Does that make them incompetent? Besides, students haven’t stopped learning how to multiply because teachers somehow lost the knack they used to have for making it fascinating. The times table never was famous for its charisma. Adam and Eve’s kids probably complained when they had to memorize the principal rivers of Eden.
Reformers repeatedly charge that schools are obsessed with facts. They recommend instead that we teach students to think and be creative so they can compete in the 21st century. Creativity fans quote Einstein’s observation that “imagination is more important than knowledge,” which is probably true once you know as much as Einstein. If you detect a persistent school reform bias against teaching knowledge, that’s because it’s there.
Today’s Common Core-era experts favor a “Depth of Knowledge” thinking hierarchy that identifies four layers of thinking teachers should address, from recall and application to strategic and extended thinking. A task’s DOK ranking doesn’t depend on the difficulty of the information, but on the complexity of thinking involved. For example, restating Professor Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity is DOK1, while summarizing the plot of last Tuesday’s episode of NCIS is DOK2. Explaining relativity is also DOK2, while writing a plausible alternate ending to Tuesday’s NCIS ranks as DOK3.
As with Bloom’s ideas, DOK’s chief problem isn’t its reasonable application, despite its quirks, ambiguities and instructional loopholes. The more malignant peril lies in the way many reformers employ and enforce the DOK system to suit their anti-content fancies.
Thinking requires ready mastery of a wealth of pertinent information. That means knowing much of it ahead of time. Otherwise, you have nothing to think about. If schools skimp on levels one and two, students aren’t capable of levels three and four. That lapse has cost us and our students dearly for 50 years.
Nevertheless, in the name of depth, project-based learning boosters advise teachers to “stop worrying so much about covering the material.” Reformers blind to the decades-long failure of interdisciplinary education urge that schools discontinue teaching algebra, chemistry and literature as separate subjects. Others campaign for “personalized” education where students design their own curricula.
The director of the American School Counselor Association offered a stark, unambiguous statement of the clear and present danger in which we find ourselves and our schools today. He complains that American “education has lost sight of why it exists today” because there are too “many teachers who believe their job is to teach skills, such as math and science.” Instead of dwelling on these “skills of the past,” he prescribes “critical thinking.”
Naturally, not all reformers are rabid enough to state their position as baldly and absurdly. That’s why we need to be wary of advocates who couch their folly in less intemperate tones. Consider one Harvard expert’s declaration that “what matters today” is “not how much our students know, but what they can do with what they know.” Amid his problem-solving, critical thinking, team-based rhetoric, he calls for new “rich and challenging content” to replace “the same old content.”
You can’t do much with what you know if you don’t know anything.
Teaching knowledge and how to apply it — on the job, in the home, and in society at large — has always been the purpose of public education. No sane, competent teacher has ever argued otherwise. Beyond the additions and corrections wrought over time, there’s nothing wrong with the “old content” except that too few students are learning it.
The shame is that too often that’s because too many teachers have been taught for too long not to teach it.
Peter N. Berger is an educator who lives in Mount Holly. He has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.