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21st-Century Skills, Accountability, and Curriculum


Dear Deborah,

Last week, I attended three different conferences in Washington, D.C. Not something I like to do, as I really do hope to finish my book in a few months. One was the “21st-Century skills” panel at Common Core, which we discussed. Then there was a panel discussion of accountability, in connection with the release of a report called “The Accountability Illusion” by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. And, most recently, I participated in a day-long celebration of the 20th anniversary of the National Assessment Governing Board. (Podcasts of this last event should be available at the NAGB Web site.)

I was fascinated with the many insightful responses by our readers to the topic of 21st-Century skills—or to be correct, the movement associated with an organization called P21 (the Partnership for 21st Century Skills). How can anyone be opposed to creativity, flexibility, media literacy, critical thinking, and so on? I certainly am not. Yet I have been around the track for too many years to feel comfortable with the way this is being promoted by technology companies and publishers and others with a vested interest, even a financial interest. The fact that its designated spokesman is a public relations executive doesn’t make me any more comfortable.

Many of our readers offered excellent examples of stupid activities that are being promoted to teach these “skills,” as though no one before the 21st Century ever learned to think or be creative. I continue to have this feeling in the pit of my stomach that this is just another misguided attempt to dumb down American education, as if we can stand any more of it.

I certainly agree with you that almost any subject matter can provoke serious intellectual work. Where we differ is in our views of whether the subject matter should be specified in advance. I assume—maybe I am wrong—that you oppose a set curriculum. I think that it is important to have a set curriculum, one that defines the big ideas and topics that students will encounter. Some 20 years ago, I helped to write the California History-Social Science curriculum for grades K-12, and it is still in use today. Given the enormous mobility of families, it is useful for teachers and students to know what the curriculum will be in each grade. Knowing “what” is to be taught does not tie teachers’ hands. Nor does it tell them how to teach. It just assures that there is coherence and continuity in what children study, no matter what city or community they live in.

For example, if the topic is the Brown vs. Board of Education decision (1954), teachers can come up with many different ways to convey the historical and political context of the decision, the reasons for the decision, the ideas that it embodied, as well as the reaction to it and its relevance to today. Students can read original documents, hold mock trials, conduct research on the Internet, write essays, interview people, take field trips, read biographies, on and on. The possibilities are endless for creative teaching. Every one of the so-called “21st-Century skills” could be brought to bear while learning about important events in American history.

But we agree that the “stuff,” the “content,” the “it” of David Hawkins’ triangle must be there. The skills can’t be learned in a vacuum; one can’t think critically without having something to think about and enough information to compare, contrast, and evaluate different points of view. And, as far as I am concerned, it is unacceptable to tolerate ignorance of the important events and ideas in our nation’s history. These events and ideas are important in shaping our civic and historical literacy, which all of us need.

A few words about the discussion of accountability at the Fordham Institute. The point of the report that was issued was that “proficiency” means different things in different states; that a school that is failing in one state would be considered passing in another state. This is hardly surprising, since NCLB pursues a strategy in which all 50 states and various territories are encouraged to set their own standards and their own definitions of proficiency. What perturbs me is that these days a discussion of assessment and federal legislation can go on for hours without any reference to education at all.

It seems that the crucial decisions about accountability will now be in the hands of psychometricians, economists, and actuaries—oh, and let’s not forget the ideologues, whose idea of accountability is to fire teachers and close schools.

We agree about “data informed, not data driven.” Data are in the saddle now, to the detriment of kids and their education. Data are being treated as objective facts, when they really are the numbers produced based on assumptions. If the assumptions are wrong, the data are useless. Our schools are now being evaluated and swamped by a tidal wave of useless data. We need to re-examine our assumptions.



Diane, to go with their report, Checker wrote last week on Can we get to national standards, considering the pitfalls?

What a horrible idea, at least a terrible thing to wave under the noses of the Dept of Education and a remarkably left wing zealot Congress. All I can see of this is a Soviet Union style ed system.

The problem is that we do need some nationwide standards. Note that I say nationwide, not national. McDonalds provides a nationwide standard hamburger - in 5 varieties. Yet so does Burger King, Wendys, Hardys, and Outback Steakhouse.

Greasy burgers are of course a bad model for education. Yet what of Einstein Bagels? Growing up in rural Ohio, I'd never known the joys of a fresh hot bagel, until I moved to Red Bank, NJ. I still haven't enjoyed such goodness elsewhere! But at least now, in Canton or Pittsburgh, or Toledo, I can expect to find and get a reliably decent bagel at an affordable price.

I still wouldn't want some national bagel standards committee to ensure that fresh bagels are my given right to also have here in my home town. You know I'd be back to frozen Lenders in no time!

The point of this is that we know how to extend quality to the 300 million of us who lived scattered widely over this vast land. Its not via government fiat.

Unfortunately, the state education associations who govern all things public education do not know anything of such mechanisms. They live still in 1948. Their voices echo here, in the schools, and in the public newspapers weekly.

Are we extending creative teaching resources to the many teachers who God and circumstances did not make overly creative? I'd argue that we don't have the social mechanisms to do that.

Its too bad. So we end up talking about nationalized standards. Yech.


I grew up in Cleveland. In Cleveland it is possible to purchase a corned beef sandwich that meets New York standards for a corned beef sandwich. I grew up with bagels. Einstein brothers puts out a product that is better than Lender's frozen approximation, but is still too large and airy to be considered a proper bagel. A bagel should be chewy. While I don't mind the additions of such things as cranberries, bananas and nuts, I haven't forgotten my heritage. I don't know if this speaks to standards, or preference for regionalized specialization.

Margo, 'regionalized specialization' is exactly what has made America lsat and be great over 200 years.

Asking that all kids have a minimal shot at education - graduating whilst having basic literacy skills, being exposed to world and American history, knowing what 1/3 lb rings up as on a digital scale, recognizing Brunelleschi as an renaissance artist not a romance writer or pizza franchiser, being able to draw a bit of perspective oneself, sing a few traditional songs, eek out 20 situps, ... if we're going to have public schools, and we're going to give all citizens a vote and we're going to cover their worst mistakes with taxpayer funds, then we ought to ask those public schools to adhere to some minimum standards of conduct as pertains to what is learned.

Yet the best way to get such standards is by competition. Verizon and Sprint and AT&T all ratchet up every aspect of service--service delivered even to rural Appalachia-by competing with each other on who can please the most users.

There are many ways we could bring such healthy competition into the public schools. Especially in our big cities where one size really, really isn't fitting all.

But we can't keep enduring 20 year fights every time someone wants to try a new assessment, initiative, organizational form.


I certainly understand the appeal of having a set curriculum. Who wouldn't want kids to know about Brown v. Board.

My concern is how little thought is given to retention.

Should we focus on specifying things that we know the kids will forget? Or should we focus on the things that they might remember?

Do you remember the atom mass of Nitrogen? Do you remember the difference between the atomic number of something and the the atomic mass? Do you remember the difference between covalent and ionic bonds?

Do you remember the form a Shakespearean Sonnet? A villanelle?

The difference between the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

I want all students to know these things, and all 30 year olds, too. The latter is not actually going to happen, so why do we focus so much on the former?

Experts come up with content standards for their subjects and disciplines. And they make sense, no question. But they are aspirational ideas of what they'd like people to know, and therefore want them exposed to as students. As best I can tell, they pay no attention to the issue of retention, and therefore pay no attention to reality. This content becomes activity for the kids, but not learning for a lifetime.

If the content standards committees began with this question, "Given that people will forget almost all the specific things they learn in school, what are the tiny number of big ideas that schools would be best to focus on in our subject, that people might retain for a lifetime?"

This is why I think that that content standards are a fantasy. It is not simply that they usually are so expansive that they cannot actually be coverered in the prescribed timeframe. It is that they are based on the fantasy that people might actually remember them as they go through adulthood.

By no means am I saying that content doesn't matter. I think that there are better and worse examples. I think that there are better and worse ways to approach the big ideas. I think that good teachers choose good examples for their students. But it's a matter of focus.

Do you focus on the very small number of big ideas that they might remember, using whatever content works best? Or do they worry about covering the expansive content, hoping that the most important parts of it stick for a few years?


Answer Key:

* Nitrogen has a mass of 14.
* The number counts the protons, the mass counts the protons and the neutrons -- actually is the average of that total.
* With ionic bonds, an electron jumps from one to the other, and the resulting different charged atoms stick together. With covalent bonds, they share the electron.

* Shakespearan sonnet: rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG; iabmic pentameter.
* Villanelle: ABAABAABAABAABAA, but with the same actual words used at the ends of certain sets of lines.

* Declaration of the Rights of Man. French Revolution (i.e 18th century), Enlightenment stuff. Natural rights. Not about woment.
* Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 20th Century. Post WWII. Eleanor Roosevelt heavily involved.


You stated, "I continue to have this feeling in the pit of my stomach that this is just another misguided attempt to dumb down American education, as if we can stand any more of it." I couldn't agree more.

The most troubling aspect for me is the time it will take to incorporate these "skills" into the school day. Where will teachers find the time? Most are already out straight.

This P21 business also has a somewhat nauseating resemblance to the concept of “education of the whole child.” That is cause for a bit of concern whenever I hear it.


I listened to your NAGB presentation on the podcast and also read your NAGB paper, "To Be a Member of the Governing Board."

I'll comment on the latter first, since it was especially inspiring. It seems from your description that NAGB was concerned with addressing serious problems and as a result took language seriously. You describe how you wrestled with the definition of the word "voluntary" in the context of voluntary national assessments. The very willingness of NAGB to look into meanings of words gives me hope.

In contrast with this, I see much manipulation of language in education rhetoric: for example, in the jargon of P21. What are critical thinking skills, anyway? What are communication skills? Ken Kay seems to conceive of them from a salesman's perspective, but there are many other ways to think of those terms. Ask a pianist, a physician, and a plumber how they'd define those words, and they'd all have different takes.

There is no subject matter without critical thinking; subject matter is made up of thought and traditions of thought. As you pointed out in the panel discussion, it is essential for young people to learn from the experience of those who came before them. Without that, they will be "unable to make up their minds on any issue," as Mortimer Smith observed about the youth of his time.

Deborah notes that within each discipline "there are enormous differences that almost constitute new disciplines." I understand her point, but believe we have to give young people something substantial and coherent, even if it is founded on a particular understanding of a discipline. That allows them to understand and challenge the tradition if they so please. Instead, states shy away from subject matter (or eschew it aggressively by distorting its very meaning).

Here is a quote from Ken Kay during the panel discussion at Common Core:

"So what I want to suggest today is that I’m having sort of an out-of-body experience kind of thing, and that is, we have, 90 percent of our education today is focused exactly where you’d like it. Most of what we’re doing is subject-matter focused. Most of the assessment is subject-matter focused. Most of the, um, pedagogy is subject-matter focused. We are not producing students with critical thinking skills, with problem-solving skills, and with communication skills to the degree that we need to."

Where did he get the idea that most of our education, assessment, and pedagogy is subject-matter focused? That makes me wonder just what he means by "subject matter" and what he means by "focused." It is certainly not the same definition I would give those words.

And in your NAGB presentation you point out that NCLB has led to testing without curriculum. The ELA and social studies tests in New York are especially weak; I know this because I have seen and scored them. To call them "subject-matter focused" is to twist words beyond recognition.

Jargon dominates education to a depressing degree, but there is always the opportunity to ask ourselves what we mean. That may be one of the most important things we can do.

Diana Senechal

To Ceolaf,

I certainly agree that the curriculum should focus on big ideas, not on trivia. The big ideas are the ones that are crucial to further understanding, and they are usually the ones that you take with you through life as part of your mental baggage. Knowing what the Brown decision was is one of those big ideas.

Anyone can draw up a list of trivial pursuit-style questions for any subject. But the opposite extreme--doing whatever strikes your fancy on that particular day--is absurd.

The challenge of curriculum-writing is to get it right. To identify what is essential and to leave out what is not. When I was working with a curriculum committee in a southern state, I told them the biggest problem is not what to include but what to exclude. That is hard. Tossing in everything including the kitchen sink is easy.


Hi all... hope this finds you well.

"I certainly agree that the curriculum should focus on big ideas, not on trivia. The big ideas are the ones that are crucial to further understanding, and they are usually the ones that you take with you through life as part of your mental baggage.

Knowing what the Brown decision was is one of those big ideas." ( Diane)

In Baltimore County, the number of black students has jumped tenfold since the Brown decision, from 3,800 to 38,000.

At Randallstown High, which opened in 1969 to serve a virtually all-white suburb, only 23 white students remain in a school of 1,540.

Though the school is reeling from a May 7th shooting that wounded four students, its greatest long-term challenge is low achievement.

Wonder... what the kids at Randallstown High would think of the "big idea" of the Brown decision?

Wonder... what it must be like to sit in just about any of our school districts that are similar to Baltimore County and learn this "big idea"?

Wonder...as we, the adults, teach this "big idea"...what exactly we are to say or do in a place like Randallstown?

be well.... mike

There's a lovely choice of ideas and issues to respond to represented in the post and comments here--national standards; what is "subject matter" (I don't think I understand Diana's meaning for that); tests (yet again); use of language; taking into account in our thinking about curriculum and teaching the reality that we forget at least 90% of what we learn (the facts, anyway, the stuff at the bottom of Bloom's taxonomy) unless we use it regularly; over-stuffing the standards/curriculum; the attempted take-over of schooling by non-educators. All are rich topics and worthy of comment. But the one I want to put in my 2 cents in on is the tension between setting the curriculm in advance (which always means by people outside any given classroom) and allowing for teachers to spontaneously take advantage of real-time occurrences to pursue something of value and interest to one's students.

The tension is real, because there is value to both positions. Different people are more attracted to one idea than the other for various reasons, and will always be able to marshall good arguments for their preference. Because I always want to have it all--or because I tend to look for the middle way--and do see virtue in both, I keep wondering if there is some way to have both clear, prescribed structure and the enough flexibility to allow for the spontaneous pursuit of teaching opportunities? For both legitimately concerned people outside classrooms AND teachers to have an appropriate degree of control over the curriculum that is actually delivered to students? This is not hard to envision at a school level, if the school is small enough--but can it be achieved at a national level? And if so, how? What federal and state policy environment would encourage it? What would be the role of the state departments of education? Of professional groups? Of (oh, dear, there it is again) assessment? Ideas, anyone?

You are not suggesting that the students in Baltimore County should not learn about the Brown decision, are you? Is talking about race off-limits in Randallstown High? Don't you think the students there need to read the decision, read the arguments by both sides, discuss demographic change, and argue about causes and consequences of action and inaction? I can't imagine a course in American history in the 20th century that did not spend a lot of time discussing the Brown decision, what it did and what it did not do.


I am writing this during the final minutes of lunch, so it will be brief--but I will try to define "subject matter" (to try to live up to my own standards, if nothing else).

Subject matter is both a body of knowledge and a way of selecting, organizing, and considering that knowledge.

History is the study of the past, but of course in studying the past we must decide what to study, how to organize it, and what questions to ask about it.

We cannot ask the questions without having some knowledge to work with. If students are not required to know a lot of specifics about the past (even imperfectly selected), all discussion of "big questions" will be flimsy.

To discuss Brown v. Board of Education, students need to know the events leading up to it and following it.

In many states and schools, students are not required to know much about the past, about literature, or really about anything specific at all.

Diane.... hope this finds you well.

No, i am not suggesting that they do not learn about Brown.

What i am wondering... is what effect learning about the facts of Brown really would mean to kids that are being educated in segragated schools and communities.

This wondering goes both ways...from our majority minority schools to are schools in our affluent all white districts.

Here in New Jersey the State is talking about consolidation of our more than 600 school districts. As this proceeds....
i have heard no mention of Brown....

I am wondering as we "teach" Brown.... in our majority white and majority minority schools......

What exactly is the "big idea" we are teaching?

First, you teach the Brown decision because it was a momentous event in American history. We don't discuss it much today because of ignorance, not because it is unimportant. One can't really engage in thoughtful conversation about segregation--de facto and de jure--without knowing about what preceded and followed the Brown decision.
Is segregation today the same as it was in 1950? Is an all-black school inherently unequal? Are resources unfairly distributed? Is equality of spending different from what the southern states did to try to ward off the Brown decision? What changed as a result of the decision? What didn't?
You just can't debate the issues in American society, especially as they pertain to race, without understanding the history. There were many milestones in that history, and the Brown decision was one of them.


Several years ago I had the opportunity to observe some teachers presenting a unit that included the Brown Decision. I believe that the learning objectives included something about the workings of the Supreme Court, but also the ways in which decisions respond to different times and change or develop over time.

They used three cases: Plessy v Fergus, Brown and Bakke (I would have preferred the addition of the recent Ann Arbor decision--but they didn't use it). I think it is important to consider that the "big idea," was not so much that thus and so happened at this point in history and its really important--it was more conceptual, about the ways in which lives are affected by those decisions.

It was the kind of presentation that Diana S. frequently rails against. The students worked in groups. They had apparently done earlier work in identification of learning styles, so that for some things they were grouped homogeneously and others heterogeneously. They used a jigsaw methodology to take in and disseminate information about the three cases. They made posters to illustrate the meaning of vocabularly words (I only at this point recall integration and segregation--integration was generally spelled out in rainbow colors while segre gation was spelled out with a gap in the middle). They used a gallery walk and students copied definition pictures into their ongoing portfolios. They utilized role play to explore various people from various walks of life who were likely affected by each of the decisions. This last brought to light some of the difficulty that Mike suggests with regard to students being able to move effectively beyond their own experiences to understand concepts. It happens that this group was far away from the urban areas, very white, and had some limitations on their ability to conceptualize the experience of someone different. Of course, it might be interesting to blog back and forth with Mike's students, or to have an Elluminate conference with them, or trade You-tube essays.

It would seem to me that these kinds of P21-style "add-ons" are enhancements, rather than detractions from, our ability to teach content.

Diane.... certainly here you and Iagree!

What i am suggesting is we the adults need to answer some of the fine questions you have asked?

*Is an all-black(or minority) school inherently unequal?

* What changed as a result of the decision?

*What didn't?

** I would add one.... what should we do about it?

The use of activities (making posters, building models, etc.) is certainly not a 21st century skill!

You really should not credit the marketing campaign of P21 with activities that teachers have been doing for about 90 years! Next you will say that no one did any problem-solving or critical thinking in schools until P21 put it into their promotional materials. Come on! None of this is new.

When my younger son's class studied the Brown decision, they re-enacted the trial. He played the part of Robert Carter, who was general counsel to the NAACP. He had to read Mr. Carter's brief to the Supreme Court. He may not remember all the details, but I assure you that he knows that case very well. I am not sure that he would have learned it so well if he had made a poster about it or had done a gallery walk or put "definition pictures" (whatever they are) into his portfolio. I think his portfolio is his brain, which is doing very nicely. He was my co-editor on an anthology called "The English Reader." He didn't remember everything he learned, but what he does remember has provided him with a very solid foundation for adulthood and life.



I don't know your age so I don't know if you remember what life in this country was like prior to 1950, especially life in the South.

The significance of Brown was that it overturned Plessy. Plessy was the 1896 Supreme Court decision which enacted the "separate but equal" doctrine across the land. If a town could reasonably argue the school they provided for blacks was "equal" to the facility they provided for whites, then, according to the Plessy decision this practice did not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Perhaps the most offensive aspect of the decision was the manner in which The Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, in issuing their verdict, effectively branded the "...colored race with a badge of inferiority." The highest court in the land, no less, sanctioned this doctrine.

Imagine the ramifications of something like that on the psyches of the entire African American population, and their children. How does a black parent even begin to rationally discuss this with their child(ren)?

This law continued for almost six decades. It enabled white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan to terrorize blacks across the South, even though they'd been set free by the XIII Amendment (1865) and guaranteed equal protection by the XIV Amendment (1868).

So while the Brown decision was huge, many people don't even understand why it was so significant. Brown squashed Plessy, not just in school but everywhere (at least in law) in society.

Thanks Paul.... you have done an excellent job outlining the key issue in my mind concerning Brown.

The point i am trying to make is not whether we need to teach this in history class....sure we do.

My point is that as we teach this.... we do so in many schools that are segragated.

*Is an all-black(or minority) school inherently unequal?

Imagine the ramafications today... of sitting in a school that is all minority or all white....learning about Plessy and Brown.....

Yes Brown was historic.... but to the kids sitting in these schools....

separate is separate. I know kids in both these seperate worlds.... they rarely have contact with one another...live in completely different worlds.......

All private schools set their own standards.

They hire their own faculty (often times without formal teaching licenses) and allow these professionals to design curriculum.

No one argues that private schools are failing.

If private schools (like the one Obama uses for his own children) can be trusted to maintain their own accountability, why can't public schooling?

Oh right, it's because families have no choice where they send their children. It's one-size-fits-all or else.

All private schools set their own standards.

They hire their own faculty (often times without formal teaching licenses) and allow these professionals to design curriculum.

No one argues that private schools are failing.

If private schools (like the one Obama uses for his own children) can be trusted to maintain their own accountability, why can't public schools?

Oh right, it's because families have no choice where they send their children. It's one-size-fits-all or else.


No--I do not suppose that Ken Kay invented the use of projects for learning, any more than I suppose that E. D. Hirsch invented anything contained within cultural literacy. That is not (I think) the point. The particular things that I observed, however, were exemplary of collaboration, communication, innovation, creativity--and all of these things were being utilized in order to teach "content." As it happens, the observation was a part of sharing "best practices," in teaching students to state standards. I thought it was excellent. What I hear, however, over and over again (from teachers) is that since the state has implemented a standards-based system, and tests students according to those content standards, that all of the creativity has gone out of schools, that they are held to "teaching to the test" and "cramming" content into students.

I certainly do not believe that is true (although I see many teachers acting as if it is--and teaching accordingly). I do not believe that it is necessary to delete things like collaboration, innovation, creativity in order to effectively teach content (in fact, I don't know how one can effectively teach anything in their absence), or postpone the use of technology until some later point. If we need to add on to state standards some specific expectation that teachers teach both skills and content in order to find some balance, then I say we do it. What I don't understand, then, is this chorus that is singing that we cannot have both, and since we can only have one, let it be content.

To Ceolaf:

I,too, worry about retention. I teach seventh grade world history and often ask myself, "Is there any hope this will be remembered?" I console myself with the thought that there are different degrees of remembering. My students may not remember that the Hundred Years' War ended in 1453, but they may remember that it was at the end of the Middle Ages and that it marked a turning point in how warfare was conducted. Or, if even that detail is erased, they may at least be left with the concept that new weaponry can have wide-rangning ramifications, or that fighting has gone through numerous distinct stages of evolution (it's not simply a binary "olden days" fighting and then modern fighting). These facts we teach probably have multiple impacts on the brain, leading to rewirings and improvements in understanding the world that we cannot easily trace.

That's my hope, at least.


You appeared to have missed my message - the rationalization for teaching Brown. Not many people, especially students, don't know the significance of Brown as it relates to trumping Plessy.

I believe the issue of teaching Brown in 2009 to schools that are still segregtaed, is a distressing and emotional issue that needs to be discussed with students and at the respective school board meetings of all the affected schools.

Ben, Would you contact me at the below link, or at [email protected]?

All, Mike's question of 'what exactly we are to say or do in a place like Randallstown?' really is the heart of it all. These kids can be doctors and engineers, helping other worse off nations, or they can be wards here, consuming scarce resources, fiscal and human. Its our choice.

Thus, We teach them facts.

We do not leave it up to the teachers what to teach because most teachers themselves are woefully under-educated. As I was.

Look, using Brown as an example of a "Big idea" is pathetic. Every school teaches Brown.

What about the idea that no men had civil rights before 1789 or so? That's a big idea. What of debtors' prisons? What of the common suffering of all people of no real medical care? Of cold homes, of not enough food, of the insufficient nutrition?

What of Senefer of Thebes and his lazy tenant, and the perils of being a small business owner across 3500 years - some things never change, do they?

I would like those kids to learn math. The steady accumulation of formulae disciplines the mind.

Diana's thought that "There is no subject matter without critical thinking" strikes me as wrong. In fact, I don't know how to ask a 7th grader to do critical thinking about big issues. They've never known what it is to have to hold a job, to feel the responsibility of caring for a family, to decide whether to volunteer for a community board, to raise money out of seemingly nowhere to accomplish a common goal.

I've read books and books about the Vietnam War; the best I can say at this point is that the commonly taught thinking of what happened there is dead wrong.

Yet at least I was taught the bare facts of that war. In contrast, I concluded 20+ years of formal education not knowing if the 100 years war ended in 300 AD or 1800 AD, or even if it was a 'real' event.

And certainly not who was in it or why we recall their names.

In my education, there simply were no real people before 1492. The world of humans began with Christopher Columbus (who may not have done what he claimed), included George Washington (to some woefully petty degree), but no one, really, outside the US 0ver 4000 years. Winston Churchill, maybe.

Mike's kids need to come to know people like Genghis Khan and Marco Polo and St. Patrick. They need to rise in their minds above and beyond the neighborhoods and the idols of the day.

Upon such stories, and a few well-memorized facts and quotes, they can later think critically - by themselves, mowing lawn, riding a horse, away from Google.

We can't get it all for them. But we can at least get them to the point where A First Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (for 6th graders) does not remain as a foreign language to them through grad school.

As it too oft does.


I think you misunderstood my statement. When I said "There is no subject matter without critical thinking," I meant three things:

1. Critical thinking shapes the tradition of the subject: what is included, how it is understood, and how scholars pursue new understandings.

2. The selection of material to teach and the presentation of lessons requires a good deal of critical thinking on the part of textbook writers, curriculum planners, and teachers.

3. To learn the material, students engage in critical thought of some kind or other.

I doubt you would dispute points 1 and 2. Perhaps we quibble over 3; I'm not sure. Critical thinking is really nothing more than clear, logical thought and analysis. It can take a variety of forms.

Certainly you would want children learning about Genghis Khan to understand how he came to power. Does that not involve critical thinking?

It is a fuzzy term, and for that reason it gives us so much trouble. It can refer to something sound or silly.

Diana Senechal

Another thought: does critical thinking necessarily involve the contrasting of two or more perspectives on a question or issue? That's the sort Ed was referring to, I believe.

Ultimately it does, but students need some preparation in order to do this. Such preparation does not consist of "facts" alone. Students must understand the relationships between the facts.

Such understanding of relationships is part of critical thinking. Without it, we cannot consider multiple perspectives. If students do not understand any given perspective thoroughly, how are they going to compare it with others?

Diane's definition of "critical thinking" in Edspeak is helpful:

"critical thinking: The trained ability to think clearly and dispassionately. Critical thinking is logical thinking based on sound evidence, involving the ability to gather and analyze information and solve problems; it is the opposite of biased, sloppy thinking. A critical thinker can accurately and fairly explain a point of view that he or she does not agree with. Critical thinking requires close attention to facts, evidence, knowledge, and how knowleddge is used, particularly in situations in which the facts are in conflict or the evidence permits more than one interpretation. This kind of reasoning is especially relevant for democratic life. Critics of the term think that educators have turned it into an empty cliché, since there is a tendency to refer to any sort of thinking as critical thinking."

Now, to what extent should multiple perspectives be considered, at what levels, in what ways, and in what contexts? These are tricky questions.

Diana Senechal

I'm left struggling with the point you made, Diane, in an earlier comment. It's easy to throw in everything, the challenge is in picking and choosing what to include in any set of standards: nationwide, statewide, or districtwide. The types of activities you described in your post, relating to studying Brown v. Board of Education, sound fabulous. But when we have a long list of exceptionally important things to study in a given year, we don't have time to really get deeply into them and struggle with the ideas. That's where the real learning comes.

In creating a set of standards we have to severely limit ourselves in order to allow the students to engage in their learning rather than simply absorb it and move on. That's something we haven't seemed to be willing to do so far.

Paul Hoss,

Thank you for your continuing thoughtful comments.
I want to disagree with a comment you made to Mike about teaching the Brown decision. If I read you right, you say that teachers/schools in districts that are heavily nonwhite need to get permission from the school board and parents before bringing up a subject as sensitive as the Brown decision, as this might be too hard for students to understand.
I could not disagree more!
The Brown decision was an important milestone in American history. It created new law and commanded an end to state-sponsored segregation. It did not create integration, but it made it illegal for states in the future to assign students to one-race schools or to engage in other activities that discrminated against people because of their race. It brought an end to whites-only and blacks-only sections of public transportation and other public accommodations (beaches, movie theaters, trains, etc.).
The persistence of de facto segregation does not in any way negate the dramatic historical importance of this court decision.
No teacher should have to ask permission to teach it!

I have thought for years about what we might mean by "critical thinking", and how we might promote it, and whether we can teach it directly. The current discussion has influenced my thinking. But one particular observation of just a few days ago has been even more influential. The observation was of an unexpected student response to a problem on a recent test in one of my college algebra classes. This particular student, I'll call her Jane, is a very quiet student. She never says a thing. But everyday she turns in well done homework, and she does pretty well on every quiz and test. On test 2 last week she did her usual admirable job, except for one problem that was the victim of a fatal flaw. The problem was a "story problem". $4000 is invested, part at 3% and part at 5%, and the total annual return is $190. Find the amount invested at each rate. Jane didn't get very far on this problem, but she did put enough down on paper to expose a glaring error. She translated 3% to .3, and 5% to .5. This seemed totally out of character with her general competence on the rest of the test.

My hypothesis, and of course it can only be that, is that she was never taught percents in middle school to a level of fluency that we should be able to take for granted. I am not saying she was not taught per cents. I am saying I don’t think she was taught per cents to the level of fluency that is appropriate to the topic, and to her ability. This error seems to me to be about the equivalent of not knowing which century the Civil War was in, or not knowing a gerund from a participle, or not knowing what gas makes up the bulk of the air. To find an explanation for this glaring anomaly in her mathematical knowledge, in my humble opinion, we need look no further than the pedagogical ideas promoted by the NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) in their 2000 "Standards", which has caused the "math wars" of the last few decades.

But my point has to do with critical thinking. What is "critical" in this situation, what is critical to being able to simply do the problem instead of casting about helplessly, is a reasonably high level of fluency, of automaticity, in the simple conversion of percents to decimals. That, like a basic knowledge of the Civil War, and a basic knowledge of grammar, and a basic knowledge of science, should have been achieved before high school. At least it should have been achieved for a student of Jane's general ability. The adequate level of fluency, the appropriate level of fluency, in all these basic studies comes from a lot of practice. Understanding is very important, of course, but in many topics understanding is the easy part. We should never take understanding for granted, but for a topic such as per cents and for a person of Jane’s general ability, I think it is accurate to say that the understanding is easy. Understanding is seldom enough. Jane, I suspect, has a good understanding of per cents. What she lacks, I suspect, is the automaticity that would make that understanding useful. A reasonable level of fluency that makes the knowledge and understanding of a topic actually useful in a person's life requires a lot of practice. It is the school’s job to make sure students get this practice, one way or the other. Without this practice, and the resulting high level of fluency, per cents are not useful to a person in his or her everyday life. They can’t even do their own income tax, for example.

Critical thinking, I am now thinking, should not be equated, or even confused, with creativity. Creativity is valuable in its own right, but is absolutely no substitute for a reasonable level of fluency in basic knowledge and skills. And I don't think either critical thinking, or creativity, has anything to do with collaborative effort.

“Higher order thinking” is obviously important, but it is not all that is critical. Much lower order thinking is also critical, and neglected at our peril.

I don't know just how critical thinking ought to be defined. A definition may be a useful starting point, but even a coherent and useful definition is something vastly less than a development of the idea. I think the idea of critical thinking is in need of lots of development.


I couldn't resist trying the problem--my solution is that 500 is invested at 3% and 3,500 at 5%. That was fun with coffee. It gave me some satisfaction but also sadness: so I can solve this problem quickly with my rusty skills, but college students can't?

You make a good point about fluency. I had a similar experience when helping fifth graders prepare for the math exam. One problem involved figuring out 40 percent of 50. They had no idea how to go about it. I asked them what 40 percent of 100 was. They gave me a blank look.

I then informed them that x percent of 100 is x; that that is implied in the very definition of percent. I gave them a drill, asking them "what is 12 percent of 100? What is 39 percent of 100?" They caught on and I kept drilling until there was no hesitation.

Then they grasped that "40 percent of 50" would be half of "40 percent of 100." It was clear at that point that the answer was 20.

Everyday Math (which NYC uses) jumps from topic to topic. It is very hard for students to gain fluency in any topic, and fluency is not emphasized anyway. But no fear: the math exam is so easy that they can pass it without really knowing much--if they don't get confused by the word problems, which dominate the test.

Here's a question from a sample test:

In 1986, 800,000 people attended a free concert at New York City's Central Park. How many 10 thousands are equal to 800,000?

a. 8
b. 80
c. 800
d. 8000

This is a perfect example of a word problem that is embarrassingly easy and incoherent at the same time. The words have little to do with the problem. Why even mention the concert in Central Park? Why not just give the arithmetic problem?

This is where "relevance" becomes irrelevant.

Diana Senechal


Sorry for the confusion.

My comment from 3/12: "I believe the issue of teaching Brown in 2009 to schools that are still segregated, is a distressing and emotional issue that needs to be discussed with students and at the respective school board meetings of all the affected schools."

My intent here was to stress that students in these schools should discuss this problem (openly/freely) and that school boards especially needed to discuss it to come up with their best possible remedy.

For example: Boston, like many urban districts today, is experiencing this situation currently. They're closing five elementary schools and want to figure out the best redistricting plan, all the while attempting to remain sensitive to student populations. Do they redistrict or go for neighborhood schools? It's an enigma wrapped in a puzzle for many school boards today. They have encouraged input from all stakeholders.

Again Diane, sorry for any confusion.

Paul Hoss

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