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Answer Sheet
Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 04/18/2011

The critical condition of critical thinking

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This was written by Roxanna Elden, an English teacher in Miami who is the author of “See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers.” She is a National Board Certified high school teacher and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network.

By Roxanna Elden

When I started teaching freshman English, one of my favorite lessons covered errors in logic, including these three terms:

·Oversimplification: The argument presents one cause or solution without considering other factors.

·Circular reasoning: The argument treats the point to be proven as if it is already a proven fact.

·Either/or reasoning: The argument reduces multiple possibilities to two options.

It’s not just about memorizing definitions. The point of teaching terms like these is so students can apply them to wider world issues. This is time-consuming in a classroom of low-level readers; students who don’t read about current events have trouble discussing them critically. Much in-class background discussion is required, for example before students can recognize oversimplification in a statement such as: Teacher effectiveness is the most significant factor in student achievement.

What additional factors does this statement fail to consider?” I might ask. In response, students could probably list many out-of-school variables that affect achievement, but I’d like to think they’d also recognize factors that cause learning conditions to vary within schools. They might mention, for example, that schools group students by academic level and language skill. Some classes have high concentrations of students whose progress is less likely to reflect a teacher’s efforts.

They might also mention that the phrase teacher effectiveness has come to mean ability to raise test scores, and when we say student achievement, learning gains, or student performance we are also referring to test scores. All of this assumes that scores on standardized tests prove what they are supposed to about student achievement. To the extent they don’t, the term teacher effectiveness doesn’t mean much either.

At this point, a student in the back of the room might call out excitedly, “Hey, isn’t that an example of circular reasoning?”

I’d be so impressed with his insight I wouldn’t even tell him he should have raised his hand.

Another student might chime in, then, offering this example: “Teachers with difficult classes at high-poverty schools run the biggest risk of being labeled ineffective. Then, they are used as proof that ineffective teachers are concentrated in high-poverty schools.”

Or this: “Teachers who earn advanced degrees often complain that test pressure keeps them from using what they’ve learned. Then, test scores are used to question whether advanced degrees make teachers more effective.”

“Good job,” I’d say, “but let’s move on. We need some examples of either/or reasoning.”

A shy girl in the back of the classroom would slowly raise her hand. The other students – having realized that this class exists only in my imagination and I want this moment to be dramatic – would fall silent. “I saw this movie, Waiting for Superman , where they said we used to think bad neighborhoods made schools bad. Then they said now we’ve realized bad schools make neighborhoods bad. That seems like either/or reasoning, because both of those statements can be partly true.”

The bell would ring then, breaking the class’s awed silence, but there would still be much to discuss next class. After all, recognizing logical fallacies is just the beginning of critical thinking. I’d like students to notice when quotes, pictures, and data are used selectively to manipulate public opinion. I want them to understand that businesses and organizations hire publicists to deliver messages through the media. Fully literate people read… but they also know better than to believe everything they read. This is what I want for my students.

Of course once students become critical thinkers they’re likely to question teachers as well. They might ask why they miss weeks of instruction time each year taking interim tests for data-collection purposes, and why teachers spend additional time teaching key-word-circling and process-of-elimination strategies to help students pretend to read better than they really can. They might pull together the concepts discussed in class to argue out that when these tricks work, student test scores become further “proof” that focusing on teacher “effectiveness” is good for student “achievement.”

If my students did this, I would certainly feel like an effective teacher. But last year’s students never learned the terms discussed above. I stopped teaching logical fallacies – and many other favorite lessons - years ago to accommodate an instructional calendar more directly correlated to test questions. My students did well on the test, though, and I was congratulated for my “learning gains.”

So why can’t I stop thinking about the learning lost?

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By  |  04:00 AM ET, 04/18/2011

 
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