This isn’t the setup for a joke but actually a very serious question. To train a parrot you need to repeat a word or phrase that you want the bird to imitate, over and over again until it starts to articulate what sounds close to what you’re saying. With persistent repetition the parrot might eventually sound just like you, to the point of fooling someone listening in another room.
Even then we wouldn’t say that the parrot has learned how to talk or is ready to hold a lengthy conversation on a topic of interest, would we? That’s because merely repeating what you hear isn’t the same as understanding what it means or being able to think critically about something.
Once upon a time a curriculum committee got together and asked, “What do third graders need to know in order to move on to fourth grade?” This content knowledge was identified and then standardized across the public school curriculum, stacking up from one grade to the next. Lesson plans were designed around these learning objectives and assessment measures were defined that would let schools know whether students were ready to progress.
Eventually classroom instruction would get focused on “teaching to the test,” where this grade-level knowledge was repeated over and over until students could choose the right answers most of the time. By devoting a large amount of instructional time to preparing students for tests, teachers could improve passing rates and schools could attract higher enrollments, thereby showing themselves worthy of more funding for the resources they needed.
The acquisition of knowledge is a crucial first step toward understanding and meaning-making – what education is really all about. A full account of what I call “the learning ladder,” however, necessarily goes beyond instructing students in what they need to know in order to complete an assignment, pass a test, or move on to the next grade.
If it’s only a matter of being able to repeat what they hear in a lecture or read in a textbook, then teaching students is not essentially different than training parrots.
Beyond knowledge acquisition, genuine learning must involve students in a process of assimilating new knowledge into what they already know or think they know. Obviously, this kind of intellectual activity requires more from the student than just a talent for memorization and recall. To effectively assimilate new knowledge and then apply it to the work of solving problems and making meaning depends on the higher skills of critical thinking.
In How Schools Make the Problem Worse I pointed out that critical thinking, which should be the gold standard of education, is a skill-set that relies on executive brain functions located in the prefrontal cortex. To support the work of critical thinking, a student needs a good working memory, strong mental focus, and an ability to inhibit impulses that might otherwise distract attention away from the object of study. These brain functions which underlie the higher cognitive skills of learning are themselves a symptom of brain and body health – how rested, well-nourished, aerobically active, and internally centered a student is.
Schools that ignore this crucial factor of health in their students, or actually undermine it by generating unnecessary “test stress” and stocking vending machines with “fake foods” that impair healthy brain function, truly are making the problem worse.
The “problem” is that students are deficient in the critical thinking skills required in higher learning. In reality, the education system is making the problem worse in two ways: (1) by ignoring or compromising the health of student brains and bodies, and (2), reaching back to my earlier point, by devoting itself to teaching students only what they need to know in order to pass tests and get through to the next grade, not how to think critically for themselves.
It’s true that critical thinking demands more of students and their brains than does memorizing and repeating what they hear in class or read in textbooks. But there’s a nasty trap here: Memorizing and repeating information is inherently uninteresting – we can even say it’s boring if it has no relevance to a student’s personal experience and quality world. See my post The Relevancy Gap in Education for more on this.
Because schools have to rely on assessments to prove themselves worthy of support to state legislatures and external funders, it seems their only recourse is to push harder on students to “succeed” – which only makes the problem worse.
What schools have done by way of adapting to this cut-score culture of education today is increasingly to accommodate students’ lack of interest and effort by lowering the challenge gradient, essentially making it easier for them to pass and less likely to fail. If that’s unfortunate for the students, what’s doubly unfortunate for the schools themselves is how this over-accommodation has made it necessary to impose more and more interventions designed to stop the downward slide. Consequently the cost of getting students through the system has steadily increased over the past couple decades.
In an education system that is more about training parrots than teaching students, instructors who teach to the test most successfully – i.e., have higher passing rates than their colleagues – are those who get recognized and rewarded. This isn’t surprising, since every club or culture tends to elevate those members who exemplify its core values. If test scores are the metric of success in today’s culture of education, then teachers who produce better results are naturally regarded as more gifted, more dedicated, and presumed better at teaching.
But if teaching students is more about activating and shaping their critical thinking skills than getting them to repeat back on a test what they need to know before moving on, then the best teachers are those who demonstrate for students how to engage their topic as critical thinkers.
In How Schools Make the Problem Worse I analyzed critical thinking into eight logical operations whereby concepts are formed, factored, and reconstructed by the mind in the process of learning. In modeling the skills of critical thinking for students, good teachers demonstrate
- Analysis: by breaking a topic down to its elements or basic components
- Synthesis: by putting elements into patterns of higher relationship
- Induction: by moving from specific cases to more general principles
- Deduction: by deriving conclusions from broader generalizations or premises
- Abstraction: by constructing an overarching idea from diverse items or individuals
- Concretion: by condensing an abstract idea into its concrete examples
- Inference: by drawing reasonable conjectures from what is already known or given
- Prediction: by tracing a line of causality to the most probable or near-certain outcome
It’s essential for us to distinguish between what might be called the “catalog of knowledge” or what is currently known about a subject, and the critical thinking skills of which the catalog itself is a product. Students in a Biology class, for instance, might be taught the catalog of present-day biological science, and then tested for their ability to recall and repeat this information on tests.
Or they could be taught how to think critically about their subject (i.e., how to “think like a biologist”) using the eight logical operations of critical thinking. Teachers who can model critical thinking for their students and actually bring them into the activity of constructing meaning around a subject and deepening their understanding of it – opening their minds, igniting curiosity, and making it personal – are the teachers we need now, more than ever.