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How Schools Make The Problem Worse

In the field of higher education where I work as a manager of instructional support, a priority has been placed on “critical thinking” as the skill-set graduates most need in order to be productive at work. Consequently, it is the one thing that instructors are expected to teach and test for in their students. Just as graduates who can’t think critically presumably won’t be successful in the world, students who can’t demonstrate this ability on standardized assessments aren’t allowed to succeed in school.

Yes, I do mean to say that they aren’t allowed to succeed, since the system either penalizes creative thinking outright or else refuses to recognize it as a legitimate pathway of intellectual development.

My concern here is not over the institutional prejudice in our schools against creative thinking, but rather over the damage that our methods of teaching and testing for critical thinking are actually causing. Despite our stepped-up efforts at inculcating these skills in students, they just aren’t getting it.

The tactic up to this point has been to push even harder: test more frequently, set up interventions and accommodations that will improve test outcomes, and pressure instructors to stay up on new techniques as student academic performance continues to slide in the wrong direction. Everyone is more anxious, and the desired results keep eluding us.

This is what I’m calling “the problem.” It includes not only the fact that success and graduation rates are falling, but the way schools are actually making it worse in their attempts to stop the leak and improve outcomes.

Briefly stated, it is the combined assault of assessment pressures on students and institutional pressures on teachers, along with an increase in accommodations to help students pass and interventions to keep them from failing, that is making the problem worse.

In the bigger picture, which I’ll try to develop here, it is all fueled by a fundamental misunderstanding of critical thinking by the schools themselves, and the various ways they actively undermine the very thing they are demanding from students.

I should say that this misunderstanding is not really about which skills comprise the skill-set of critical thinking, but rather how the skill-set itself depends on a deeper system of other skills not directly addressed in formal education. Schools simply assume that students come to the task with this deeper support in place, and it is this assumption – along with many of the methods, strategies and tactics employed to make critical thinking stronger – that is making the problem worse.

What is this deeper system? My diagram illustrates its components and their relationships in the model of a pyramid. Each layer or stage of the pyramid depends on those underneath, as it provides the necessary support to stages higher up. Critical thinking is indeed at the apex of skills that students need to learn in school, but ignoring and jumping past the other skills on which it depends, in the effort to make it stronger, is predictably having the opposite effect.

With a general understanding of this structural dynamic among the cognitive skills now in place, let’s begin at the base and work our way up.

We’ll start with what should be obvious: Students are more successful at the academic challenge of higher learning when their brains are optimized (i.e., functioning optimally). Of all the body’s organs, this one is most profoundly implicated in the process of learning new skills and building knowledge. And yet, just as we can’t treat critical thinking in isolation from the other cognitive skills, we can’t ignore the fact that a healthy and optimized brain depends on a healthy body.

If students come to the challenge of learning when they are tired, hungry, in pain or stressed-out, their brains can’t perform well. They won’t be able to concentrate attention and sustain focus. They won’t be able to bundle information and store it in memory for retrieval later when they need it. They won’t be able to discriminate between highly similar concepts or solve complex problems.

A brain that can’t focus, remember, or make judgments is a brain that won’t be able to think critically – no matter how hard we push it. In fact, the harder such a brain is pushed, the more degraded these cognitive abilities become.

The most important thing for students and schools to realize, then, is that the entire business of higher learning is an enterprise scheduled for failure if students – but let’s also include school teachers and administrators! – are not committed to getting the rest, nutrition, exercise, and meditation their bodies and brains require to successfully meet the challenges they face.

Are we teaching this in our schools, from the beginning grades and throughout students’ educational careers? The answer is decidedly “No.”

Students who are tired, hungry, in pain or stressed-out simply cannot learn, or will have difficulty learning. Which begs the question: If they can’t learn and end up getting poor grades on assignments and assessments, what exactly are those grades measuring?

Neuroscience has discovered that a majority of the skills required in learning are located in a highly specialized brain region called the prefrontal cortex (PFC) – behind the forehead and between the eyes. A fully functioning PFC, then, is the virtue of an optimized brain, which in turn is the virtue of a healthy body. Health is the foundation of everything else.

It will help to imagine a student about to engage the work of critical thinking while sitting at a desk in a study with a door. When she first sits down to her work, the door to the study is open to the noise and activity in the hallway outside. Inevitably – and with scientific certainty we can say, predictably – her focus will be attracted away (or distracted) from the work in front of her.

What she needs to do is get up from her desk, walk over to the study door, and close it. That way, she will minimize the risk of getting distracted from her work.

One of the more basic executive functions of the PFC is named impulse inhibition. As a cognitive skill it can be strengthened with practice, just like every other skill. If we think of the student’s study room on the analogy of her brain, then this all-important function serves to suppress or screen out nerve impulses coming to the brain from her body and its environment, in order that attention can be focused where it needs to be.

When the skill of impulse inhibition is strong, the student is able to maintain mental focus, our second (and higher) executive function of the PFC. In addition to her commitment to nurturing a healthy body and brain, her consistent practice of “closing the door” and protecting the mental space of her study will dramatically elevate the likelihood of her success in learning. By directing and holding focus on what needs her attention, the student will be able to engage the work of critical thinking.

As we advance our reflections from the door (impulse inhibition) and the study room itself (mental focus), we come to the “desk” where critical thinking will need to happen. Among the cognitive skills and executive functions of the prefrontal cortex, this is what neuroscience names short-term memory, or more commonly working memory. Think of this as the workspace (hence a desk) where the student collects and manipulates bits of data in her progress towards understanding.

Working memory enables her to hold on average seven bits of information for somewhere between 20 and 30 seconds – just long enough to perform the requisite logical operations involved in critical thinking.

Just as impulse inhibition and mental focus are reciprocally related (each strengthening the other), so are the cognitive skills of concept formation and critical thinking similarly related. A simple way of distinguishing these higher executive functions is to define critical thinking as the performance of logical operations on the concepts it is forming. And so, each skill strengthens the other as concepts are formed, factored, and reconstructed in the process of understanding.

The eight logical operations of critical thinking are:

  1. Analysis: from whole to parts
  2. Synthesis: from parts to whole
  3. Induction: from specific to general
  4. Deduction: from general to specific
  5. Abstraction: from example to idea
  6. Concretion: from idea to example
  7. Inference: from premise to conclusion
  8. Prediction: from cause to outcome

It’s important for students to distinguish these logical operations from the concepts they are trying to learn. Critical thinking is thus “how” their minds work on “what” they are learning. Mastering the eight operations of critical thinking is to possess the ability for constructing meaning at higher levels of complexity. This shows us that critical thinking and creative thinking are not independent of each other after all, but intimately connected and complementary.

Stepping back for the bigger picture again, we can see that critical thinking is not something we can treat in isolation, but is rather nested in a deeper system of cognitive skills. And because cognitive skills correlate directly to the executive functions of the prefrontal cortex, we must eventually return our conversation to the crucial responsibility of schools in helping students appreciate how healthy bodies and brains translate into academic success.

As long as they keep pushing on the problem, schools will just keep making it worse.

 
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Posted by on December 17, 2018 in Education

 

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Terminal Education and the Death of Culture

Terminal EducationYouth is being wasted on education. More and more young people are becoming victims of what can be called ‘terminal education’, which is not about lifelong learning and opening minds to the world – not anymore. Increasingly the education process is a conveyor-belt affair, where naive and optimistic youth are moved through a series of stations along the way to a long life of work.

Many of them don’t make it, and it’s not entirely their fault.

Feeling the pressure of limited resources and a fluctuating job market, college administrators are remodeling the process of education into a production-line for making graduates who are expected in turn to fill jobs and strengthen the economy. A stronger economy should mean more resources eventually coming back to the college, right? It might work that way if our colleges weren’t turning out such dismal figures when it comes to academic achievement, graduation rates, and job placement for their graduates.

There are really two systemic problems with our current education system, one of which is the terminal orientation of the process (the main focus of this blog post). Underlying this problem, however, with a history equally as deep, is the way our system over-accommodates students in their struggle to succeed in school. Rather than working to empower in students the determination, best effort, perseverance, and resilience that lead to meaningful achievement, schools already from the elementary level have been lowering the bar, so as to reduce the risk of failure.

Are they doing this because they feel badly for the struggling students? No, these accommodations are being provided so that students will produce the academic outcomes (grades, grade point averages, and standardized test scores) that increase institutional eligibility for external funding, updated technology, and higher quality teachers.

Generally the rule is that accommodations cost more the later such interventions are needed, so by putting accommodations in place early this threat can be averted. Unfortunately what happens is that students are pushed up a grade without the intellectual skills and emotional resources to succeed there.

When it’s time for college, they’re not ready – not by a long shot. But colleges need to show robust enrollments, so they end up falling in line with the accommodation train. Remedial classes, academic interventions, prerequisites for credit classes, and even special accommodation for students who can produce a diagnosis from a growing list of learning disorders – all of it necessary if the year-end report is to show an institution’s market value.

Maybe the underpreparedness of students is part of the reason that education has become terminal. If all your time and resources are tied up in simply getting them to graduation, what’s left for the work of opening minds, igniting passion, nurturing creativity, and developing human potential? Not much. And frankly, the students themselves don’t seem to want it. Never mind that they have no inkling of what ‘it’ even is, having rarely been empowered in the love of learning.

A depleted system produces deficient members, whose deficiency further depletes the health reserve of the system: this is the kind of reinforcing feedback loop that inevitably ends with extinction.

I suppose that’s one meaning of the word ‘terminal’.

But another meaning, and the one I want to focus on here, describes how education today is aimed at very specific and measurable outcomes, and ultimately on the need of students to find gainful employment.

Why are you planning to go to college? Because I need to find a job. And of course, before I can find a job I need to earn a degree. For the degree, I have to get decent grades. In order to get a grade I have to take a class. And before I can take a class, it’s necessary to choose a college and be accepted.

Why are you doing this again? To find a job. When I get a job, it will all be worth it and my education will finally be over. Done. Finis.

It shouldn’t surprise us to learn that many students don’t make it. In my diagram above, the likelihood of success at each step diminishes the farther along students get, as indicated by the thinning arrow. With each step the definition of success also becomes less clear, as illustrated in the fading shade of text. Additionally, the consequence of failure grows more severe as students move through the stations: withdrawing from a class is not as serious as dropping out of school, and the disillusionment that comes when your degree fails to unlock a career can be personally devastating.

‘Plan B’ is another way of saying that things didn’t work out as you hoped they would.

If all this focus is placed on the terminal outcome of finding a job, there is little inherent value acknowledged in the process of education itself. It’s not really about learning how to think and solve problems, developing talent and unleashing creativity, or opening minds to the mysteries of life and promoting the self-actualization of human beings. And yet it is these things which have been the seedbed of human culture for millenniums, not ‘getting a job’.

Terminal education is both a symptom and a warning that our culture is losing its spirit.

Thankfully it’s not too late to turn things around.

College is more than a pipeline of graduates into the workforce, and the deepest value of education is probably something that can’t even be measured. For at least four years (in the conventional scheme of things) young people are growing into their adult selves, learning how to get along in the world, pushing open boundaries, tapping the inner springs of their native intelligence, discovering passions and exploring their dreams.

A higher education – but really, at every grade along the way – needs to have one eye on the economic landscape and changing demands of the job market, with the other on its sacred stewardship of the human spirit.

 

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