Education Letter to the Editor

Letters To The Editor

October 31, 1984 11 min read
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I’d like to respond to Robert Primack’s vociferous and shameful attacks on creationists (“‘Miseducators’ Offer Irrational Support of Creationism Theory” and “A Re-Reaction Against Offering Creationism a Place in the Curriculum,” Education Week, May 30, 1984, and Sept. 19, 1984).

I find them shameful because I am a creationist and believe that much of his argumentation only skims the surface, and because I thought such name-calling should be confined to the school playground and not found in an education journal.

Actually, I agree with much of Mr. Primack’s first letter. However, he quickly fails to follow his own advice and does not give us his own a priori convictions before launching into his attack. It is obvious he is pro-evolution, but it would help to know why, before he confirms his convictions with evidence.

Also, though I do not wish to defend the lack of knowledge of creationist teacher candidates concerning evolution, I suspect the evolutionist teacher candidates would have fared no better with Mr. Primack’s questions and would have appeared just as dogmatic and unchangeable as their creationist counterparts.

I find his advice to those who are not experts in a field somewhat off the mark as well. When faced with new ideas, such individuals should remain skeptical until solid evidence is forthcoming, not reject it outright based solely on “expert” opinion. Such firm rejection based on little personal knowledge is the essence of dogmatism.

His statement from the Arkansas trial [in which the teaching of creationism in the schools was declared unconstitutional] that “not a single properly designed scientific article has ever been submitted for publication by a creationist to a recognized refereed scientific journal” is absolutely irresponsible. Such cruel and insulting statements ought to be thoroughly checked before being allowed in print.

One simple example of an article published by a creationist was written by one of the creationist witnesses in the Arkansas trial, Robert Gentry. Mr. Gentry has had more than 20 articles published from 1966 through 1982, many of which appeared in Science and Nature. I have been published several times myself, though I am still a graduate student and I hope my lack of productivity can be excused for now.

In his second letter, Mr. Primack repeats the tiresome comparisons with alchemy, Lysenko genetics, and so forth. These comparisons have no basis in fact and are used only to prejudice the reader. They could just as easily be turned around and used by creationists to make evolution look bad.

Finally, there is no need to make room for all religious theories of creation since there are also many religious evolution theories that are not taught. The writings of Julian Huxley [the British biologist] and Teilhard de Chardin [the French Jesuit priest, paleontologist, and philosopher] are proof enough of this.

The evidence of origins can be and is taught without these trappings. We seek only fair and open discussion, something Mr. Primack seems unwilling to allow.

Raymond G. Bohlin Research Projects Manager Probe Ministries Dallas, Tex.

While I generally share the view expressed by S. Samuel Shermis in his recent letter that most schools do not really teach thinking skills (“Schools Haven’t Taught Either Reasoning or Problem-Solving Skills,’' Education Week, Oct. 3, 1984), I do not in the least share his pessimistic view of the eventual fate of current efforts to remedy this defect. On the contrary, the forces at work that seek to improve the teaching and learning of thinking in our schools are such that they inspire optimism about the ultimate success of this movement.

It is erroneous to assume, I believe, that the current thinking-skills movement is just like the movements represented by the followers of John Dewey, the 1916 Social Studies Commission report, or the discipline-based reforms of the 1960’s and 1970’s to which Mr. Shermis refers. It is just as erroneous to assume that conditions in our schools or public views of education today are identical to those of these earlier periods of so-called reform.

Why do I say this?

First, unlike some of these early attempts at reforming or shaping the teaching of thinking, the current movement in general does not seek to prescribe what youths should think about in school nor does it use instruction in thinking to indoctrinate them with particular viewpoints. The current movement also does not seek to turn out graduates capable of thinking like anthropologists or like professionals in any other discipline.

The movement is not a head-on challenge to traditionally accepted goals of schooling. As a matter of fact, it aims to help youths accomplish many of these goals better than they now can, precisely because this movement cuts across all disciplines and focuses on skills and processes applicable to all aspects of learning.

Second, we know considerably more today about effective skills teaching, about thinking, and about educational change than did the earlier reformers. Extensive research has been done that has given us considerable, even if by no means complete, insights into these phenomena. Earlier reformers lacked such useful insights. The fact that a significant segment of the current thinking-skills movement incorporates these insights into its efforts dramatically increases its chances for success.

Third, unlike earlier attempts to reshape the teaching of thinking, the present effort has, even in these early stages, considerable public as well as professional support. This movement has considerable political and institutional clout. Numerous national commissions and prominent citizens have called public attention to a need to improve student proficiency in “higher-order thinking skills.” These include a Presidential commission, the prestigious College Board, the Education Commission of the States, and the business-oriented Task Force on Education for Economic Growth, as well as foundation leaders such as Ernest L. Boyer of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and professional educators such as Theodore R. Sizer, author and former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

State and local political leaders and boards of education have picked up on the calls for action issued by these groups and are even now translating these into policies and actions designed to improve the teaching of thinking in their schools. California and Vermont, for example, already have mandated the teaching of thinking in their schools. At least one other state is developing a statewide competency test to ensure that such teaching occurs. Regional education agencies and school systems from Los Angeles to Mannheim, Pa., are working to introduce changes into their curricula that would implement the teaching of thinking. Things are happening within the educational structure today to support this movement that failed to occur during earlier efforts to alter the teaching of thinking.

Moreover, professional education organizations have thrown their voices and weight behind the current movement in a way unparalleled in earlier reform efforts. The work of the National Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development is most notable in this regard. Other national, professional organizations are involved too, such as the National Council for the Social Studies, which will devote much of an entire issue of its journal to the teaching of critical thinking next spring.

Fourth, the movement to improve the teaching of thinking also receives impetus and support from the promotional efforts of over a dozen thinking-skills programs that are mostly commercial but occassionally university-based. Unlike most earlier curriculum packages on thinking, these programs generally include elaborate teacher-training components that can go far toward ensuring that the innovations they contain will get translated effectively into the classroom. Additionally, many of these programs are based on detailed and much more precise conceptualizations of thinking and thinking skills than typified by earlier reform efforts.

Finally, grassroots support for improving the teaching of thinking is also considerably greater today than in the past. The connection between improved information processing and improved content learning as well as the connection between proficiency in thinking and vocational choice are being acknowledged. Whereas in earlier times attention to developing proficiency in thinking may have been viewed as being in conflict with other educational interests, today this is simply not the case.

The future of the current thinking-skills movement is not completely uncluttered with obstacles to its success, however. Some of these obstacles lie within the movement itself as well as in society and the educational establishment at large.

As always, there are many people and groups who probably do not want youths to learn how to think better. For them, this movement may pose a considerable threat and elicit an intense reaction. While the current acceptance and widespread use of competency testing gives reformers a lever to ensure that thinking skills will be taught, the very nature of most of these tests so far in existence may doom such testing, and thus teaching, to the lowest levels and most superficial types of thinking.

Furthermore, some proponents of this reform movement may turn out to be their own worst enemies. Program authors who insist that they offer “the only way” to improve thinking skills ignore the fate of programs based on similar claims in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Those that require major school reorganization and costly, extensive teacher training, or demand that teachers must take courses in a particular discipline, also ignore the lessons of the past. And those remedies that fail to acknowledge the realities of classroom teaching, or fail to incorporate into their programs what research tells us about transfer of training, learning interference, the importance of fostering metacognition on the part of youths, and the principles of teaching effectiveness are quite likely to fail themselves and seriously retard any reforms as a whole.

In sum, there appear to me to be increasingly powerful forces at work to improve the teaching of thinking than ever existed in any time past. And the times, the public, and our educational institutions are more receptive to changes in this area than they ever were in the past. The movement to improve the thinking proficiencies of our students is actually now just getting up steam. Where it will end no one really knows. But at the moment anyway, it looks like it has a much brighter future than many earlier curriculum reform.

Barry K. Beyer Professor of Education and American Studies George Mason University Fairfax, Va.

In his recent letter to the editor, S. Samuel Shermis predicts that the Harvard Conference on Thinking will be as futile as all former efforts to introduce critical thinking and problem solving into public education. Mr. Shermis argues that because the true goal of schooling is the “relentless indoctrination in right belief,” reform efforts with goals of independent thinking are doomed. Though he cites his research to substantiate his position, I assert that Mr. Shermis’s argument is weak in three respects.

I question what evidence exists to prove that neither teachers nor students were affected by John Dewey’s aims for education, or by the 1916 Social Studies Commission, or by the “inquiry” curricula of the 1960’s and early 1970’s.

Surely Dewey’s Democracy and Education (1916) profoundly changed American education, not only in its structure, with the comprehensive high school, but also in its content, with a more generalized curriculum for all students. Clearly, the hope was that students would have wider and deeper knowledge with which to think and to function in society.

Second, I wonder what data substantiate Mr. Shermis’s conclusion that failed reform efforts were caused by conflicting values. Recent research in educational change suggests that value differences are only one of many crucial variables related to the success or failure of reform efforts.

Finally, and most critically, I question the way Mr. Shermis has created a dichotomy between the traditional goals of schooling and the teaching/learning of critical thinking and problem solving. To maintain that either we manufacture mindless, acquiescent, one-dimensional masses or we nurture thinking, decisionmaking, critical individuals is to polarize our thinking unnecessarily. Dewey himself proved that many of our seemingly incompatible preconceptions are, in fact, intrinsically interwoven. He recognized the inherent tension that is found in the goals of schooling and advocated “a freeing of individual capacity in a progressive growth directed to social aims.”

We must follow the recent Harvard conference and others like it around the country not with “gloomy predictions” but with responsible efforts to change schools into institutions where administrators, teachers, and students can function both as social beings and as unique individuals. We must use the lessons of history and the results of careful research to ensure that the future will be different, not to doom ourselves to failure!

Margaret O. Tipper Faculty, Liberal Arts Department, Peabody Conservatory of Music Consultant, Thinking-Writing Project, Maryland State Department of Education Baltimore, Md.

A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 1984 edition of Education Week as Letters To The Editor


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