NCLB and Critical Thinking

This is purely anecdotal evidence based on casual observation, but I’ve had a number of friends who teach college argue that they’ve seen a sharp downturn in student performance in the last few years, particularly in critical thinking skills. Simple memorization and repetition seems about the same, but students seem to be much less capable of thinking through the logic of problems.

Our suspect is the No Child Left Behind act and the increased emphasis on standardized tests. The timing makes it a plausible causal agent, although that’s obviously insufficient in itself. But I can verify that test grades on short answer questions in my American Government class have declined in the past few years as the NCLB generation has come to college. And after talking today to a friend who also teaches introductory courses, we realized we have to change our teaching style in response to this, but we don’t know what we need to do.

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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9 Responses to NCLB and Critical Thinking

  1. D. C. Sessions says:

    So what you’re saying is that the program is working as intended: prepare the children of today to become the voters of tomorrow.

  2. DensityDuck says:

    To go with a theme you’ve discussed earlier: Is this because students are getting dumber, or because more dumb students are getting to your class?

    Or, alternatively, we might say that the teachers spend so much time teaching the dumb ones to count that they don’t teach the smart ones to think.

  3. D. C. Sessions says:

    DD, how about teaching the smart kids to not think?

    After all, one of the primary purposes of K-12 education is to socialize kids: teach them what’s acceptable behavior and what isn’t.

  4. DensityDuck says:

    You assume that kids know how to think all on their own. Thinking is a skill; some are inherently gifted in it, but that doesn’t mean they’ll spontaneously develop the ability all on their own, just like champion athletes don’t simply walk onto the field and win their first game without ever having played before.

  5. lukas says:

    This is purely anecdotal evidence based on casual observation, but I’ve had a number of friends who teach college argue that they’ve seen a sharp downturn in student performance in the last few years, particularly in critical thinking skills.

    Well, that has been the lament of teachers since before Plato founded the Academy, so I tend to be more than a little wary of anecdotal evidence pointing that way.

  6. D. C. Sessions says:

    You assume that kids know how to think all on their own.

    Not at all. If a behavior is desirable, you reinforce it when you find the subject doing it. When a dog does something we want, such as sitting down when we stand on the lead and say, “sit,” we reward it. After a while the dog gets the idea and we don’t need to stand on the lead. Likewise, undesirable behavior is discouraged when we encounter it.

    Same goes for kids. They’re naturally inquisitive and play with problem solving just like they do with throwing things. If you want them to engage in thinking, you catch them asking questions and reinforce it. You catch them solving problems by thinking about them and reinforce that. You make opportunities for them to do more by giving them puzzles etc. and reward solving them.

    If you don’t want them to think, you punish asking questions or otherwise deviating from the script. You avoid any kind of situation where they can explore on their own and stick to step-by-step training.

    Given the varying developmental stages that kids in the junior high range have, a program based on thinking is going to have a high failure rate. Some just aren’t ready for it (developmental neurobiology, that.) Therefore, a successful [1] program must rely on the lowest common developmental abilities. That means “training” vs. “education.”

    Kids who deviate from the script are a threat to the program and need to be shut down. Promptly.

    [1] As in, “you get to do it again next year” vs. “kiss your funding goodbye.”

  7. My first inclination is to agree with Lukas.

    I would still like to know more about NCLB. I imagine part of the problem is that it doesn’t offer a way to assess or help children learn critical thinking skills (perhaps assessment of such skills defy standardization?). I imagine another part of the problem is that NCLB doesn’t require enough, or the right kind of, rote memorization, etc. I do believe that in order to think critically, it is important to have a reserve of knowledge to draw off on.

    Of course, we all have “knowledge” and gain more every day through our lived experiences, but I am speaking academically. If a student is asked to assess the degree to which the American presidency has exceeded its constitutional bounds, for example, it helps for students to know–to have, to a degree memorized–at least the basics of U.S. presidential history and the basics of the constitution. I suspect (without knowing) that NCLB merely requires students’ knowledge to cover things like “to know who Abraham Lincoln was” as opposed to a more rigorous understanding of what went on during his presidency.

  8. I do believe that in order to think critically, it is important to have a reserve of knowledge to draw off on.

    I suppose I should acknowledge–before someone else points it out!–the irony of the fact that I claim the necessity of having knowledge and yet I offer my opinions on NCLB, which I know almost nothing about.

  9. James Hanley says:

    Lukas–I get your point completely, and it’s one of the reasons I’m hesitant to make a firmer statement.

    But in this case it’s not people saying “students in my generation were so much better” or “when I started teaching twenty years ago they were so much better.”

    This is a case of people who’ve been in the business a while saying, “what the hell just happened in the past three years or so?” We’re not comparing to a poorly remembered and mythologized past, but to relatively recent experience.

    Pierre–I would like to know more about NCLB, too. That’s another reason I’m hesitant to make a stronger statement.

    But while a new program shortly preceding an apparent substantial change is by itself no solid evidence of anything, it is sufficient basis for suggesting some research needs to be done to see if there’s really something there.

    Density Duck–ACT scores among frosh at my college have increased as we’ve become more selective. So I think I can say with some confidence that in my college’s case, it’s not about more dumb students getting into my classes.

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