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Responding to Readers on 'High Level' Thinking and More


Dear Diane,

You are so right—both about language misuse and the idea that we need to pay teachers, parents and kids for test scores! We may disagree a bit on the vocational ed issue—more on that at a later time. I'm going to digress for a long moment (1,000 words) to respond to some of our readers' inquiries and arguments. Readers are urged to go to the comment section (see below) and read them yourselves, and then add your two cents—or more.

Thought one. I asked Erin Johnson to give me countries (excluding city-states like Hong Kong and Singapore) that consistently outperformed the US. Here's the list: Finland, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands and Korea.

Erin says this is based on 2000 and 2003 test scores. Of course, we are assuming that the data is trustworthy: that all populations are included, that approximately the same percentage of students are still in school at the age at which the tests are given, that the translations are equally good etc, etc. Also, one needs to believe that such test are measuring more than I think they do. But still…. (Note “Instructivist”: even thermometers are not always a reliable way to tell if you are sick.)

Interestingly, in that list of six, all are very small compared to the USA and, except for Korea (I assume South Korea), they are (to the best of my knowledge) all advanced welfare states (compared to the USA) in terms of health care, etc. Income differentials are also less extreme. This might mean that tests are measuring other qualities that indirectly affect schooling. (See article by Lawrence Mishel and Richard Rothstein in The American Prospect, October 2007). Rothstein also comments that differences may be real but small. The top 15 may all differ by a few more or less questions right. Also, just which of these—surely not all?—outperform our economy?

Two. Any nasty cracks about lawyers, businessmen and 22-year-olds running NYC's Department of Education—which several readers chided us for—are not an attack on any of these categories of people. It's just that while I wouldn't feel comfortable if I were asked to be in charge of responding to the current banking crisis or reorganizing legal training, I'm troubled at how comfortable lawyers and bankers are at making decisions in my field. I think my opinions on both business and law are worth hearing—and I'm glad to hear theirs on K-12 schooling. But I shudder to realize that they are literally "in charge" of it. They fail both the vision and experience test for being “president” of schooling.

Three. Now for the fascinating issue that Daniel Polansky raised, and which perhaps Cal was also suggesting. That there is something unreal about my claiming that all (or almost all) students can engage in "high level" thinking. You've got me, Daniel! I fell into the trap of using a short-cut phrase I actually hate, and for just the reason Daniel aptly notes. If there's a "high," it's only because there's a "low." It's the dilemma we face whenever we insist on comparative terminology. No matter how fast the kids get in line to come in from recess there will also be exactly the same number at the end of the line—one. And one at the front, and so on and so forth.

What we have grown accustomed to calling "high level thinking"—and which somehow most rich kids are assumed to possess—is the smarts to think "abstractly," to be interested and able to be playful about abstract ideas, to pursue puzzling anomalies with curiosity and tenacity, to find the world interesting and to wonder "how come" and "so what"? (And to feel entitled to be taken seriously.)

Properly taught we can all be far more musical than we realize. Some will even have a knack that places them on a very different level of "play”—giftedness. But there's no basic divide between folks who are good with “their hands" vs. "their heads." Read Mike Rose's "The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker." There is no doubt that I was smarter and wiser than the 5-year-olds in my class—but there were “abstract” observations that my students made that pushed me intellectually. They weren't being "cute," they were playing with ideas that pushed my adult thinking, to a “higher level"? Read my first book, "The Power of Their Ideas," for more on this subject. I could go on forever. But it's a capacity that is insufficiently exercised in our schools, even for kids at the top of the socioeconomic ladder.

So much of our language leads us to make unnecessary comparisons that lead us into shallow traps. Like Daniel, I've been annoyed at the rhetoric of "all children can learn." It's an incomplete sentence. A good sound bite. But, learn what? Mice learn, too. It turns out they, too, learn how to behave—get in line, raise their paws, walk silently through the maze, etc.

I am arguing that virtually all humans can learn the same "kind" of stuff that rich kids do. (The rich can learn more, too!) But, yes, it takes a different kind of setting than the one I sadly see in most of our schools. Too often, elementary school is not a place where children can explore ideas and make powerful observations. Few are the schools in which “Ignorance” (like disagreement) is prized. It used to drive me crazy how kids who couldn't be dragged away from an activity that fascinated them at age 5 were considered ADD, unable to sit still and learn a year later. Ever wonder why parents in so many schools greet their children at 3 p.m. with questions about whether they were "good" in school today?

Given the reality of life, can we get kids to learn all the things we want them to by 18? But 18 is only about 1/5 of our life span. I only got interested in math at the age of 35. Big deal. But what I never doubted was that I was smart enough to do some things well and smart enough to join most of the conversations that would shape the future.

That's the strand in "progressive" education that appealed to me.




Deborah - Why does "high level" thinking have to presuppose that there is an unfortunate class of lower level thinkers? Isn't Daniel's remark elitism veiled? Since all children, by the power of their ideas, are capable of highly abstract remarks, why can't the HUMAN capacity for abstraction be put to use in a disciplinary way by ALL students? If all children can think abstractly, why can't all children think about democracy, etc. in a high level way? Isn't the point of Mike Rose's life story that all individuals, however unprepared in literacy and education, learn to read and write fluently and creatively? Where is the lumpenproletariat among the Chicano high school students, the Vietnam Veterans, and the UCLA freshman Rose challenged so successfully?

I think using words like "high" and "low" re thinking is itself falling into an elitist trap. So, apparently that wasn't clear in what I said. Many different adjectives might be useful, but high and low are already setting up a false dichotomy. Yes, all human beings engage in complex levels thinking, and can tackle ideas of the most subtle form. It takes, however, space, time and support to be able to explore ideas beyond ones daily experience in ways that elites have historically been able to do--which is one reason working people fought hard for a shorter work week. And poor people can't hire lobbyists to think for them! So getting educational and social conditions right for all citizens to be able to be thoughtful in their social and political actions requires some changes. I think that's at the heart of Diane and my dialogue. What changes in schooling might promote such leveling of the field?



Given all your critiques of our school system, why would it surprise you that our children are learning substantially less than students in other countries?

Erin Johnson

What changes in SCHOOLING? Or what changes in SOCIAL STRUCTURE? If the former, you agree with those who believe that schools can help ameliorate social inequalities. If the latter, you agree that schools, as the epiphenomena of socio-economic conditions, must follow dramatic changes in the wider society (like a shorter work week) in order to stop reproducing existing social inequities. How do the two faces of "progressivism" come together, if at all?


They come together, when they come together, incompletely and in a human manner. That shouldn't stop us from joining the battle.

I don't understand education reformers who impose utopian approaches on schools. We're not supposed to join the struggle unless we can guarantee success?

John - I'm not imposing anything. I'm not even advocating the imposition of something, especially something utopian. But I do think education reformers, as well as teachers, should be cognizant of the social dimension of their work. I also think they should have a coherent worldview that they can explain if called upon to do so.

I fell into the trap of using a short-cut phrase I actually hate, and for just the reason Daniel aptly notes. If there's a "high," it's only because there's a "low."

It's one thing to distinguish between "high level thinking," and "low level thinking." But the problem comes when we start seeing some kids as "high level thinkers" and others as "low level thinkers." Or -- and this worries me a lot at the moment -- when educators decide, implicitly, that the lower level skills are the business of public education, and the more abstract, academically oriented approaches can be left to private schooling and a few affluent public school districts.

Revisionist and anyone else I mislead,

I just wanted to make clear that I was responding to your characterizations. I didn't mean to imply that YOU were utopian. My point was that we will always have incomplete success at best. Too often reformers seek guarantees of success. I didn't mean to suggest that you do. In fact, based on your post I assumed the opposite.

Sorry for the misunderstanding.

"What changes in schooling might promote such leveling of the field?" Interesting question twenty five years after "A Nation At Risk."

Not sure the field will ever be level for myriad reasons and many of them not school related. ENORMOUS help must come from social services to even think about giving poor/minority kids a fighting chance in life. It's pretty difficult to concentrate on school if you're homeless, living in a shelter or an abandoned car, and being "raised" by a guardian because your father is in prison and your mother died last year from an overdose. One could even make the argument, given these living conditions, school might well be the last thing on a child's mind.

The achievement gap? Our rising tide of mediocrity? Raise the bar? Holy cow, Phil Rizutto! How about someone give these kids a hug every now and then? That might be a good first step. And while you're at it, how about an occasional, "At a boy," for their teachers as well. Talk about miracle workers.

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