History, Ignorance, and Loss of Critical Thinking Skills

While scrolling through friends’ recent Facebook posts, one post stopped me in my tracks–for two reasons. First, one of the schools that granted me a degree was mentioned in the headline (Texas Tech); second, because the post referred to political “questions” asked of a sample of the school’s undergraduate population. The commentary questions just what students are learning about history in K-12 classes. [Here’s the link to the post, complete with video: http://www.ifyouonlynews.com/politics/texas-tech-students-give-jaw-droppingly-shocking-answers-political-questions-video/] Spoiler alert: the students were not clear on what the U.S. Civil War was!

After re-posting this to my time line, a friend included a link to another site that talks about the dumbing down of America and the American populae’s anti-intellectual stance [http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201407/anti-intellectualism-and-the-dumbing-down-america].  My inference from this post from Psychology Today goes beyond the textual content and into the realm of critical thinking skills.

It is not secret that critical thinking skills have suffered among American school students. Many educators have written collective tomes on the need to teach critical thinking skills to students. However, a quick search through the files of the US government’s Institute of Educational Sciences–and specifically the more data-driven file of the National Center for Education Statistics–returns nothing on the search term “critical thinking” as far back as 2000! Even my favorite annual go-to data-intensive publication–Digest of Education Statistics 2xxx–appears to have stopped collecting (or perhaps analyzing–data related to this most venerated skill. Yet, today’s educators continue to cry out for ways to develop critical thinking skills.

And what are critical thinking skills, anyway?

Although a simple search returns pages of sites dealing with critical thinking and its definitions, attributes, and how-to-teach sites, my own definition–refined after 40+ years as an educator–comes down to this: it is the analysis of information for verity and logic, and the information’s truth in the current or unique social culture that employs such logic. Critical thinking includes everything from wondering how an author or researcher has come to a conclusion or supported an allegation or statement; to where in the cupboard a particular mug fits best for ease of access and without disrupting the quick access to other items in the cupboard. It is the ability to step back and think rather than act on impulse, so that the immediate desire to punch out the playground bully is overcome by the lack of desire to end up in the Principal’s office. It is the ability to separate out the “truths” of a premise or observation from the “prejudices” inherent in its interpretation.

Critical thinking is based on what we knew a minute ago versus what we know this minute and what we need to know for the next minute. It is the way in which we learn from our personal experiences, experiences of others through books and media, parental experiences, teachings of religious institutions and academic texts and facilitators. With each new piece of information, one should think to oneself, “How does this fit into my personal philosophy of life? How does it fit into what I learned in that boring history lesson on the Civil War? How did Attila manage to cross the Alps, and why was he willing to try a new form of conveyance–elephants as opposed to Steppe ponies–to do so? What did he risk? What were his goals? Why did he risk what he already had?…And how does all this fit into the risks my boss is taking with the presentation of his ideas for a brand new project? And if Bill Gates hadn’t used the free computer software that IBM made public because the operating system was developed under a federal grant–if he hadn’t used that information to tweak and improve the DOS operating system–would someone else had done it? Was it legal to use the published code; why or why not? etc.

What critical thinking does NOT include finding only flaws or only premises contrary to our own personal beliefs. Denigrating the President for errors cannot be isolated from recognizing and lauding his/her successes. In critical thinking, the particular Christian precepts of one’s beliefs should not be used to judge the beliefs of a person practicing Hindu. Each are driven by an historical and cultural milieu that has brought an individual to his/her lifestyle and belief system. Each can adjust to a host of social expectations without sacrificing his/her World View; each world view deserves respect and, whenever possible, some level of understanding.

What critical thinking should lead to is the desire to learn more about an idea or topic about which one has little or no information. Thus, critical thinking is the very foundation of the whole concept of learning–the quest to know more about a given subject.

This is clearly a very short post and one that goes into little detail about anything. I am not an expert on anything, but rather a life-long learner of how new ideas or concepts that are new to me can be fit into my ever-growing understanding of the world around me. Even at the age of (almost) 65, there is still much to learn, much to know, much to accommodate into my  personal world view. But I know this and my curiosity continues to grow because, as a child in school, I was taught critical thinking skills that have been squashed in recent decades to fulfill the need to make students score higher on some arbitrary “universal” test of knowledge for the particular grade level.

Educators are professionals. Some educators are “naturals;” among them, many recognize the importance of educating themselves about such topics as child development, cultural diversity, thinking processes and theories, student involvement, classroom management, etc. Other educators–especially those who are in the process of becoming educators–get classes specifically addressing these and other topics; some are even able to formulate their own theories of how each class integrates with other classes in the educational environment, causing them to view education as more than the sum of a variety of topics under study at a given point. These latter–both the untrained information seekers and the in-training global thinkers–are the heart and soul of education, whether in the United States, here in the country of Sint Maarten, China, Russia; European, South American, African, Asian, Australian, and other earthly regions. These are the individuals who will teach their students to become critical thinkers, even if they must “teach to the test” to keep their jobs.

The thing is, the best way to teach to the test is to simply teach in a non-rote, exciting manner. There are certainly places where rote education is needed–learning alphabetization, memorizing multiplication tables, learning songs in music class, etc.–but most education sticks best with students who are able to make sense of what they are learning within the context of their current or future world environments. In doing so, they learn to separate what makes sense from what does not, how elements of one world view is similar to elements of another world view, etc. This is how critical thinking is most effectively learned–comparison and contrast, similarities and differences, analysis of information based on prior learning and observation, perhaps synthesis into a new idea or world view… This is the learning of critical thinking at its finest.

And, by the way, behavioral disruptions that use critical thinking techniques–including the projection of possible outcomes based on the theoretical choice of a specific action or reaction–result in better classroom and social management than simply pointing out a student’s misdeed without analysis or critique, or simply stating what the required appropriate behavior ought to be substituted. Every student has a history of behaviors that can be employed to critically determine what has worked in the past and what has brought on undesired consequences. Using students’ own history to discuss cultural and social history works the same way.

Enough said.

P.S. The Civil War in the US was fought between the North (any state north of the Mason-Dixon Line) and the South (states below that line), although there were some exceptions. The North called itself The Union (Yankees), while the South called itself The Confederacy (Rebels). The major issue is said to have been slavery, but the issue of slavery was primarily one of economics, so that not all Northerners believed in the abolition of slavery and not all Southerners believed it was OK to own another human being. In the end, the Union (North) won the war, despite heavy losses of lives on both sides. The result was the end to slavery in the South, but also a great deal of resentment among white former plantation owners against persons of color, resulting in segregation–that is, there were areas where only whites could be present and other areas “reserved” for people of color. This occurred almost as much in the North as in the South, as prejudice has no boundaries. Although today there is much less antipathy among whites toward peoples of color, prejudice continues to survive in the form of life style, immigration, educational attainment, professions, religious choices, etc. A little bit of critical thinking will open the eyes of many who expect everyone else to be like them–hopefully. Thus, both critical thinking skills and the teaching of tolerance go hand in hand.




I’m Ba-ack!

This post is an explanation of my absence, and a preview to anticipated changes over the next several months.  Read on…

It has been a while since I’ve posted anything.  A few days ago, when I tried to enter a new post, I discovered it had disappeared.  All I could think about was years’ worth of data down the tubes.  Quite a bit of activity involving this site occurred during the past several months, it turns out, which collectively resulted in the site “going away” temporarily.  No, I didn’t miss any payments; and no, I didn’t accidentally wreck it myself. Here’s what happened.

Recently, this site was to be updated by someone, a professional site developer and marketing person who also happens to be a relative. Instead of being updated, the site was basically destroyed.  My suspicion is that the updater was less familiar with the site configuration than she believed herself to be.  Unfortunately, she did not want to admit this and made the classic “young person’s” mistake of not backing up the site before “updating” it.  I was afraid I would need to start all over again.  However, between WordPress and GoDaddy (where I host this site), enough backup information was available from the last successful post on this site that everything was restored.  (Hooray for WordPress and GoDaddy!!)  From now on, all changes will be done by me, regardless of my limited computing skills. Both companies offer plenty of resources and certified web site developers that, if I get frustrated, professional help is available.

Another reason for no activity here: a month or two ago, a serious illness knocked the wind out of my sails, leaving me unable to work much on the computer at all, much less at almost anything else.  Although I still have more “off” days than “on” ones, I’ve made the decision to concentrate on my blogs and the distribution of information related to education, and stop worrying about consulting.  There will be some changes to the way the site looks as well as the way the site operates.  However, the information will be as up to date as possible, and I hope to reach not only education professionals, but also parents and other professionals who work with children.  Features I hope to add include webinars and recorded videos targeted at learning problems and behavioral issues.  There will be guest blogging professionals, both in text and visual media.  Links to related reading and other materials and resources will be increased for your convenience.  These changes will take place gradually, so don’t expect everything at once.  As I said, I’m no longer a professional computing person, and it will take some time to get everything up to speed.  But updating this site will be as much a learning experience for me as a way to share what I know, especially about special education and behavioral issues.

So please bear with me as this site gradually develops into something more useful to all of us.  Thanks for your patience with me and support for the posts to date.  Without your readership, this blog would have folded long ago.

Watch for the changes!

Mostly, watch for my next posts that might be important to you and your students or offspring.


St Maarten’s Education: An American’s Impressions–Part 2

University of St Maarten

University of St Maarten

A couple of months ago, I began to address the topic of education in St Maarten–specifically, special education (see previous post). At the time, I was going to review my notes, as well as check the local news for updated information. What I discovered over the next few days was that there was very little education-related news, and that there were no promised updates on the government web site. The official government pages do not contain much more than department contact information. [Click here for what passes as the official policy information page. (There are no public links beyond this page in either English or Dutch.)]

My attempts to learn more about official updates to education policy–or even news–have been rather futile. Except for a few special activities at specific schools–school or student awards, student activities, special events, charitable contribution presentations, etc.–information related to general elementary and secondary education policies and other government-related information has not appeared in local newspapers or government web pages for quite some time. Thus, what I have learned about education here in St Maarten comes primarily from “old” public and government information, much of which was uncovered during my original interest in the country’s education system; and through general conversation with island residents, both “recent” and “native.”

Here is what I have learned since my last post. Topics include general policy issues, ministry responsibilities, special education isolation, education funding, disappearance of “special education” language, teacher training, and “NCLB-like” programming policy.

  • There is much vague language in what apparently passes for educational policies in publicly available documentation. In fact, this information appears to be limited to the “about” page of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sports Affairs. There appear to be no policy additions or modifications to the description of educational services on official Parliament ministry pages, except for some minor additions in Dutch which can only be found with much “digging.” Noteworthy here is that, although Dutch is the official language of the country of St Maarten, the lingua franca is English, as a very large portion of the population speaks Spanish, French, Tagalog, various dialects of India and Asia, etc., in home and community. Thus, the majority of the population can neither read nor comment on what little official education policy information is available because such policy is available only in the Dutch language. It should further be noted that the Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sports Affairs is the only cabinet department that had not made an English language version of their policies available until recently, and that–to date–the “policy” is more of a wish list of overly-generalized education department “mission statements” and objectives.
  • Although one of the mission statements of the Ministry of Education (etc.) clearly addresses alignment of education with Dutch and international norms and practices, the lack of explicit language addressing special education services is like a black hole in the center of one’s living room where the coffee table used to be. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is because the goals and objectives also encompass the “culture, youth and sports affairs,” all of which may or may not be directly linked to educational outcomes per se. That no “Oxford comma” is present between “youth” and “sports” is also interesting, since–until recently–the version of English language instruction in St Maarten was British rather than American. What makes this interesting the disproportionately large financial resources that go to “culture” and “youth and sports” (or even “youth” and “sports”) as compared to resources budgeted for education. Since special education services are expensive, the lack of explicit language allows each individual school to offer or ignore resources to students with special needs. In a private chat with the current Minister of Education, Patricia Lourens, I learned that her estimate of special needs students in public education is closer to 40% than my church-affiliated school estimate of 20% to 25%. If Minister Lourens’ estimate is correct, then there is good reason to require that many special education services be available within the regular classroom. However, this would also require substantially better training for teachers through the local university, which attempts to offer special education “specialization” at the baccalaureate level as two courses, roughly equivalent to 6 credits or fewer at an American or Canadian university. (More on teacher preparation below.)
  • A school building originally slated to become a stand-alone school for behaviorally (and socially or emotionally) disturbed students continues to stand empty. Vacancy appears to be due to some disagreement as to who should administer the school–one of the numerous religious affiliations with elementary and/or secondary facilities, or the Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sports Affairs (official public/free education provider). That upgrades to the school whose purpose is to provide education to learning disabled students has been tentatively stopped may indicate that the government has plans to expand special education; or it may indicate that one of the country’s church-affiliated schools has “won” oversight of the building and the program(s) to be offered there.
  • Education funding has once again been cut severely for a variety of political and economic (openly legal or corruption-driven) reasons, including loss of tax revenue–but the latter will be discussed at some future time. Interestingly, a non-academics oriented high school has recently been awarded public funds that were “withheld” by the Ministry of Education (etc.) despite parliamentary budgeting for these funds. The local court apparently felt that it was illegal to cut funds from an already existing government budget.
  • The topic of special education appears to have all but vanished from any dialog related to public responsibility, so much so that the single school for learning disabled youth, the Prins Willem Alexander School (PWA), has not been mentioned in the press for months. Until the beginning of the current school year, special education services were provided by this single school site officially and specifically reserved for learning disabled students. The problems with the PWA are that 1) the classrooms are overloaded with students presenting with behavioral and emotional issues that cannot be addressed within regular education; 2) the average class size is reportedly 20; and 3) teachers have not trained to provide special education services. Other than the worst cases of learning or behavioral/emotional difficulties, special needs students are expected to be handled within the regular classroom with some support from individuals whose official function is to serve as liaisons between school and home. The reality is that this latter group tends to serve instead as individual or small-group tutors, often with responsibilities that go far beyond the official job description. This is especially true of church- or foundation-supported but publicly funded schools.
  • Teacher training and experience are inadequately defined by the Ministry’s education policy, allowing private and church-supported schools to hire as teachers individuals who are straight out of high school/secondary-level education institutions, without a single post-secondary (college or university level) credit to their resumes. Granted, once hired, the individual must register in a teacher preparation program and show continual progress toward credentialing/certification. Teacher qualification does not require the attainment of a bachelors degree, especially at the elementary level (to be honest, I am not sure that a bachelors degree is required for secondary level teaching, either, as information is not readily available). Other islands in the Caribbean have grown to appreciate the skills and knowledge base associated with teacher training through programs leading to a baccalaureate degree–especially those programs that include liberal arts as part of the curriculum–but I believe that education is not as important a topic in St Maarten as in larger Caribbean countries.
  • Despite apparent public documents in place prior to St Maarten’s declaration of independence from The Netherlands Antilles (“10/10/10”), teaching continues to be done to prepare elementary school students for official grade-level year-end exams and the “FBE” Exit Exams given in the final year of primary level schooling (equivalent to what in the US would be sixth-grade). The testing and education policies for which the testing was created more closely resemble US No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policies than anything else I have encountered in international education standards and practices. Since, in the US, almost every one of the 50 states has elected to return to federally approved state-developed curricula–implying that NCLB did not meet local education needs–the success of the current (and two decades old) Dutch-established education system will be interesting to further observe and evaluate. Observation might be entertaining, as even the Dutch have recently declared the parent of these practices to be a grave mistake.

What is becoming more and more clear to me as I interact with the citizens of this country is that parents are becoming more accepting of causes other than home for their child’s learning difficulties (specific learning disabilities, dyslexia and discalculia, attention disorders such as ADD and ADHD, autistic spectrum disorders, brain trauma, behavioral/emotional disturbances, etc.) and are asking why services to address such issues are not directly provided for their children.

It is unclear to me whether the lack of information related to education–especially education policy–is due to lack of further action because of funding or time constraints, the absence of forward movement, or the upcoming parliamentary elections which are tentatively scheduled for late August. As with many matters political, sometimes it is better to do nothing before elections and stand on one’s old record than risk statements and/or actions that may be deemed as sensitive or unpopular. However, candidates and incumbents for office should consider that not all their citizens are as willing as they were in the past to simply vote for the familiar names and faces. The younger voters are questioning whether their needs might be better served by political representatives who appear willing to be more responsive to the constituencies they would represent.

More on St Maarten education soon…