October 23, 2018

A Teaching Moment Missed, Part I

Daniel is an 11th grade student who takes Advanced Placement courses in history, physics, English, calculus, and social studies and earns almost perfect grades. If he gets a single question wrong on a test, he is eager to learn where he went wrong so he can avoid similar errors in the future.

On a recent test in Health class, Daniel encountered this question:

The average life expectancy in the U.S. was 47 years in 1910; today it is 78 years. Which of the following statements would be most accurate: A) Life expectancy has increased by 50%. B) Life expectancy has nearly doubled. C) Life expectancy has stayed the same. D) Life expectancy has nearly tripled.

Daniel considered each and reasoned as follows: Actually, life expectancy has increased just under 66%, so neither C nor D makes any sense. The correct answer must therefore be either A or B. The problem is, neither A nor B is accurate. So I have to decide which more closely reflects the change in life expectancy. The question, then, is which is closer to 66%? Answer A’s 50%? Or Answer B’s 100%?

So he chose “A.” However, when he got the test back, his answer was marked wrong. He then went to the teacher, explained the reasoning that led to his answer, and asked why it was wrong. The teacher said she would look into it and get back to him. (She never did.) A week or so later, during a parent-teacher conference, she told Daniel’s father, “I know Daniel was disappointed that he chose the wrong answer, but this is a college level course and students have to use critical thinking when answering test questions.”

In fact, Daniel’s frustration was not that he got the answer wrong but that he applied critical thinking, got it right, but it was marked wrong.

The teacher’s refusal to consider his answer, even after he explained the thinking behind it, may have puzzled Daniel, but it does not puzzle me. She obviously was not comfortable applying critical thinking herself. Indeed, she may not even know how to do so!

That last sentence may seem outrageous, but it is not. As with many other educational concepts, “critical thinking” has become a magic term on the order of Abracadabra and Shazam. To insert it in educational treatises is believed to make them more profound, and to employ it repeatedly in teacher training courses is to delude professors into believing they are teaching future teachers not only how to think but also how to teach others to think.

It is therefore not surprising that many elementary and secondary teachers manifest the same delusion in their teaching and expect their students to embrace it.

How can I be so sure that Daniel’s teacher was not herself thinking critically? Because if she were, when she heard Daniel’s explanation of his thought process, she would have paused, pondered what he said, and considered the possibility that it was perfectly reasonable. Then, after testing the idea, she would have been rewarded with the liberating insight that the person in the palace of educational wisdom that produced her teaching and testing materials had made—gasp!—a mistake!

She probably would have felt a bit embarrassed that she had not discovered the error herself. More importantly, however, she might have realized that she had just been given a wonderful teaching opportunity.

The next day, she could have said to the class, “Remember that test question about life expectancy? Well, guess what—the answer key in my book had the wrong answer. And one of you was alert enough to recognize the error. Daniel, please come to the front of the room and explain how you used your critical thinking to find that out.”

The result would have been felicitous all around. Daniel would have been rewarded for his effort and encouraged to continue thinking critically. The other students would have been motivated to follow his example. And the teacher would have had the satisfaction of realizing that instead of simply exhorting students to think critically, she had offered them a meaningful lesson in actually doing so.

Copyright © 2017 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Written by
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America's Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.

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Written by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero