Creating the Metacurriculum

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Remember the scene: Here is Jack on the way to the fair to trade the family cow for something more valuable than a cow that no longer gives milk. Here is this fellow intercepting Jack, finding out about the cow, making his pitch: "Tell you what I'm going to do. I'll trade you these three magic beans for your cow.'' Here is Jack saying, "Wow, magic beans. Sure, you bet.'' Mom, when she hears what Jack has done, is appalled.

Would you like your children to think as uncritically as Jack? Certainly not. While Jack has good fortune as the story develops, people do not generally luck out of their unwise actions. Moreover, not only Jack but many youngsters and indeed adults do not think as well as they might. To turn from fanciful settings to some that are all too real, studies conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress and other groups have documented again and again that students struggle with word problems even when they know the routines of mathematics, that students have difficulty drawing implications from what they read, that students harbor basic misconceptions about science concepts when they have been taught just the contrary.

There is help for Jack. An ambitious movement has developed in education over the past two decades to provide a better hold on thinking challenges both practical and academic: the thinking-skills movement. Committed teachers have sought to cultivate students' decisionmaking skills, the art and craft of strategic reading, techniques for problem-solving, schemes for learning concepts with understanding, and more. Varied materials are available to assist in this agenda, most of them for use in separate courses but some for use in the teaching of specific subject matters. National conferences have informed and energized the trend. I myself have been quite active in this work.

There is now enough experience to take stock of the progress and prospects of thinking skills in the schools. My conclusion is that, however well the thinking-skills movement has lived up to its aspirations, it has not aspired to enough. Thinking is more important than the thinking-skills movement has made it.

Better thinking is not just one more goal side by side with the dozens of others we hold for education. Better thinking is very much a means of education as well as an end. Thinking has a good deal to do with knowing and understanding. In fact, a not bad definition of understanding something is to be able to think with what you know. If you cannot think with what you know about the something, how could you be said to understand it? So we need to recognize a broader role for thinking in education than the thinking-skills movement often has. We need to bring thinking and knowledge together in a much more thoroughgoing way.

This is not news. Plato, John Dewey, and Jerome Bruner would all be comfortable with such a thesis. Engaging students in thinking deeply has long been one of the agendas of educational reform toward meaningful learning. However, here is where the thinking-skills movement has contributed something very special: the need to be direct and explicit--through strategies, graphic organizers, discussion rules, and more--about the kinds of thinking called for and their cultivation. All too often, efforts to make learning more thoughtful have operated on an "osmosis'' theory, simply setting up thought-demanding learning experiences and assuming that students would grapple with them well, learn the topic more deeply, and learn to think better in the process. This is a step in the right direction, but it does not go far enough. Students often do not cope with such situations well, do not learn more deeply, and do not learn to think and learn better the next time around. The more direct approach of the thinking-skills movement is needed, albeit with a broader agenda.

What would it mean to give thinking a much more varied, pervasive, and explicit role in education? My recent book, Smart Schools, makes a case for the "metacurriculum.'' The idea is that there are a number of aspects of thoughtful learning we can spell out and pay specific attention to. As the prefix "meta'' suggests, these aspects stand above conventional content and offer a more distanced, integrated, and thinking-intensive perspective on the enterprise of learning. What is in the metacurriculum? Here is a nonexhaustive list of themes:

  • Higher-order knowledge of the disciplines. English, science, mathematics, history, and so on constitute far more than bundles of facts and routines. They each involve characteristic patterns of thinking that conventional instruction hardly touches. For instance, consider how differently propositions are justified in mathematics, science, and history. Instruction should build students' explicit awareness of and facility with these contrasting patterns of justification; they lie at the heart of how the disciplines function as disciplines.
  • The language of thinking. The English language (like other languages) offers a rich repertoire of terms and concepts that make important distinctions about thinking and learning and help to guide the use of the mind. Consider, for instance, the subtle but important contrasts among the notions of guess, conjecture, hypothesis, assumption, and belief. The language of thinking also includes strategies for thinking and learning expressed in verbal or graphic ways. Instruction should build up and foster active use of the language of thinking.
  • Thinking dispositions. Most approaches to instruction in the subject matters and to the teaching of thinking give only indirect attention to the dispositional side of cognitive development, the side that has to do with motivation, commitment, courage, and persistent habits of good cognitive conduct. Instruction should directly cultivate such dispositions.
  • Integrative mental models. Typical curricula suffer from a persistent problem of "can't see the forest for the trees.'' However, it's often possible to organize instruction around integrative visual or conceptual models that offer the learner a bird's-eye view of how concepts fit together.
  • Learning to learn. Although psychological studies have disclosed a great deal about effective ways of learning, this established body of principles and strategies rarely reaches students. We should teach basic skills of memorizing, understanding, and using knowledge actively.
  • Teaching for transfer. Many educators in recent times have criticized the isolation of the subject matters from one another and from their implications for learners' family, civil, and professional life outside of school. The phenomenon of transfer of knowledge and skills from one context to another is fairly well understood. We should teach for transfer.

Around this time, readers might well be remembering Jack's trade of the cow for the beans. Advocates of a good solid traditional curriculum--the cow (which, however, does not seem to be giving milk)--might see these paragraphs as a proposal to trade much of it in for the metacurriculum--the magic beans. In fact, in his Cultural Literacy, E.D. Hirsch issues such a warning against efforts to teach general skills, including thinking skills, in place of good solid content. He is as skeptical as Jack's mom.

But I am not the slick operator Jack meets in the story. It's not a trade that I'm proposing, but more of a marriage or a merger. I do not envision displacing large parts of the curriculum with the metacurriculum. Rather, I want to see the metacurriculum infuse the curriculum through and through. When students study history, mathematics, or any other discipline, I want them to learn about the higher-order aspects of the discipline. I want them to use the language of thinking appropriately in the discipline and assimilate the dispositions appropriate to it. I want them to achieve integrative overviews of the subject matter, approach learning in a strategic way, and learn in a manner that fosters transfer beyond the immediate boundaries of today's lesson to other applications in the discipline and beyond the discipline.

The "beans'' of the metacurriculum certainly are not magic. To mix metaphors, as far as anyone can see there is no magic bullet for the educational enterprise, just a number of important matters worth attending to as wisely as possible. But if there is one thing that has been shown again and again by contemporary cognitive science, it is this: Substantive learning is a consequence of thinking--thinking about and with what you are learning. Unfortunately, most instruction proceeds in neglect of this principle. The consequence has been what I like to call the "trivial pursuit'' model of education--remembering for the test (and quickly forgetting) rather than thinking with what you know (and hence keeping the knowledge alive and expanding). A metacurriculum amounts to a systematic counterforce working against the trivialization of education. To make education a substantive rather than a trivial pursuit, we need the metacurriculum.

Vol. 12, Issue 22, Page 40

Published in Print: February 24, 1993, as Creating the Metacurriculum
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