Education Groups Join Forces To Improve Students' Thinking Skills
Washington--In response to indications of a decline in students' thinking skills, more than 20 national education organizations--including leading academic societies, administrators' groups, and the two major teachers' unions--have joined forces in an effort to improve the teaching of such skills in American schools.
The formation of a "Collaborative on Thinking" was announced at a press conference here last week by Carolyn Hughes, president of the 70,000-member Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, which is coordinating the effort.
According to Ms. Hughes, the two main goals of the coalition are to promote the teaching of academic content in ways that develop and encourage student thinking and to ensure that students are explicitly taught cognitive skills.
"For generations, the best teachers have stimulated students to think by having them read stimulating materials, write essays, solve challenging problems, and participate in class discussions," said a statement issued by the participating groups. "While today this continues to happen in many classrooms, it should happen in more."
"The idea is not to teach thinking instead of content," the coalition statement noted, "but to teach students the intellectual skills they need in order to learn and make use of knowledge."
Toward its goals, the coalition will set up task forces to assist or solicit the support of curriculum planners, teachers, textbook publishers, academic researchers, and the public.
Preparing for the Future
Critical-thinking skills are more necessary than ever if students are to be prepared for the future labor market, the coalition statement asserted. Most new job openings will probably be in the information and service fields, it said, and the most attractive and rewarding of these will require well-developed cognitive skills--such as the ability to see relationships, make comparisons, draw inferences, and buttress arguments with fact.
Despite what the coalition sees as a growing need for such skills, recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress indicate that test scores on items requiring students to reason, understand, and apply knowledge declined in the 1970's and early 1980's. Although the causes of this decline are not fully known, naep officials have suggested that educators have not placed enough emphasis on teaching students higher-order skills.
A number of education researchers have found evidence supporting such a conclusion. For example, John Goodlad--on the basis of detailed observations of more than 1,000 classrooms--concluded in A Place Called School that students were seldom expected to express or respond to ideas. Most teachers concentrated on having students recall the contents of textbooks and on "drill and skill" exercises, Mr. Goodlad reported.
Those practices may be changing. According to the coalition, more and more schools are seeking ways to enhance the teaching of thinking skills within regular classes, and a few are offering separate courses.
A survey conducted this past summer by the American Federation of Teachers--one of the groups that have joined the coalition--found that 27 states are taking steps to improve critical-thinking skills in the schools.
In California, for instance, the state college and university system has instituted a graduation requirement in critical thinking for all students. The state also is developing new precollegiate-level tests in language arts, mathematics, and social sciences in which 30 to 60 percent of the items will measure critical-thinking skills.
Deborah Walsh, director of the aft's critical-thinking project, has argued that many obstacles need to be overcome, however, if education is to make a real commitment to critical thinking, including standardized-test questions that require little higher-level thinking, textbooks that fail to focus on thinking skills, and teacher-education programs that do not prepare teachers to appraise and encourage students' development of higher-order thought processes.
Concerns such as those noted by Ms. Walsh will be addressed by at least three coalition task forces. According to the coalition, panels made up of representatives of cooperating organizations will focus on the following activities:
Refining the terms and definitions used to describe thinking skills and processes so that they are more useful to curriculum planners;
Suggesting changes in preservice and inservice training for teachers so that they will be better able to develop thinking skills in their students;
Asking publishers to design tests and textbook materials so that they contribute to the improvement of students' thinking skills;
Promoting additional research about human thinking and the effectiveness of various instructional approaches and materials for developing it; and
Soliciting public support for teaching thinking by explaining the need for and value of such programs.
The national organizations participating in the Collaborative on Thinking include:
American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, American Federation of Teachers, American Association of School Administrators, American Educational Research Association, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Council of Great City Schools, Home Economics Education Association, Institute for Development of Educational Activities, International Listening Association, International Reading Association, Music Educators National Conference, National Art Education Association, National Association of Black School Educators, National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Council for the Social Studies, National Council of Teachers of English, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, National Education Association, National School Boards Association, National Science Teachers Association, National Congress of Parents and Teachers, National Association of Secondary School Principals, and National School Public Relations Association.