Just. Think.

I get that kids need 21st Century skills, and I fully support the thinking behind the framework. Further, the skills must necessarily be interwoven in all disciplines in order for students to truly embrace them. However, wading through the list to get to the core of what might be considered the most crucial of skills is quite a task.

Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21, 2009) has divided the skills up as follows:

Learning and Innovation Skills
Information, Media and Technology Skills
Life and Career Skills

Within each category, there a number of additional divisions of skills, such as Social and Cross-Cultural Skills, which falls "under" Life and Career Skills (P21, 2009, p.6). What's striking about the presentation is that everything seems equally important, and it can be overwhelming to teachers, new and veteran alike. Where to begin? How to begin? Good grief, how can I get it all in?

I humbly suggest that we focus on the one skill that underscores ALL of these skills: critical thinking. Oh, it's in there, of course, couched under Learning and Innovation.

But without the ability to think, students are unlikely to achieve any of other skills.

If a student cannot think and reason well, he's probably not going to collaborate well because it is through reason that empathy and the ability to see things from someone else's perspective that collaboration is meaningful.  If students aren't thinking critically, they aren't thinking creatively or innovatively enough to meet the demands of flexibility and adaptability that P21 suggests.

Thus, the need for thinking is most significant. 

I get a little agitated when discussing thinking because I don't see that districts/schools afford teachers the time to dig into the depths required for students to achieve it. Understanding how to think and why we think what we think takes time for processing and reflection.  I also get a little frustrated when the presentation of information is so overwhelming.

It can be simpler than that.  

We can help students, more, if we focus on just the thinking. The other stuff will naturally emerge. Help them think and reason. Help them see how their thinking, if they take the time to allow it happen, will lead them to arrive at more logical conclusions, conclusions that are inline with the degree of collaboration, creativity, and life skills we want them to have.

Nike says "Just Do It."
Consider: "Just Think."

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2009, December).  P21 framework definitions.  Retrieved February 25, 2014 from http://www.p21.org/storage/documents/P21_Framework_Definitions.pdf


The Crutch of Should

I don't think I'm going to let my students use should anymore. The use of should in a persuasive or argumentative essay thesis may be impeding their reasoning skills.

Consider that should implies an evaluative criteria of some sort when it's used for argument. If we argue that someone "should" do something (or not do something), then we are essentially enforcing our value system on the intended reader, who, by virtue of the purpose for writing, disagrees with us. 

Another possibility is that we're using should as a means of garnering support from those who already agree with us,  a sort of solidarity-meter, which then defeats the purpose of having to convince anyone or argue, anyway.

But its use may also bypass some aspects of critical thinking. For example, in persuasive essays, students who use should statements often fail to expand on their reasoning. Or, there may be a disconnect between their reasoning and the should thinking.

It also tends to (not always) cause students lean towards personal conviction as their reasoning--a sort of knee jerk approval or disapproval. Rather, if we can get them to fully understand WHY they have that sense of approval/disapproval, then we may be better able to help them move forward in their ability to think critically. 

Should also implies a sense of rightness or wrongness, which can certainly be subjective. And if someone is jumping on the "it's right or wrong" train, they will most likely fail to effectively persuade someone who is on the opposite end of the controversy.

Actually, it was the recent hoopla with the Coca-Cola commercial is what got me thinking about "should." The controversy, by the way, raises the possibility for an excellent topic for a persuasive essay. My English-teacher spidey-sense was tingling with this prompt:

          You are the public awareness director for Coca Cola. Convince the company to use or          not to use this commercial as their headline advertisement for the Superbowl.

The controversy raged quite visually on the social media. In a discussion I had on Facebook on this topic, someone argued:

          "Coke shouldn't have put that commercial on, given the venue and what's happening in 
           America, today."

When I asked whether the message/intent of the commercial was clearly understood, the person claimed to understand the message, but still felt the company was wrong to present it.  

When pressed to examine the reasoning behind the should statement, though, this person listed what was considered to be "bad things" happening (the economy, the immigration issue, etc.), the Superbowl is an American tradition, Americans are Christians, and English is our language.

I didn't find these points convincing because there was little connection in reasoning.

This person's goal was to convince me (persuade me) that Coke was "wrong" in their choice. Since I found the commercial quite compelling and positive, this person would have to resort to stronger reasoning to get me to see the "wrongness" of the company's choice.

The discussion concluded when, after the person was asked to clarify, the conversation politely came to a halt. My guess is that he/she was unable to reason further because of the should. It was a glaring hurdle in the reasoning process.

I'm wondering, though, what would have happened if the individual had removed should from the thinking altogether. Rather, what might have happened with his/her reasoning skills if the person thought in terms of effectiveness, based on the author (Coke) and the intended audience (all American citizens)?

What is it about the state of the country's economy that suggests a commercial with an intended positive message about the diverse cultures of America is not an effective marketing choice for Coca-Cola?
Here, the individual would be forced to make the connection without the crutch of "should."

Another negative aspect of the use of should with a persuasive essay is that it compels some readers (those with lower critical thinking skills) to NOT use critical thinking and reason to arrive at a logical conclusion. Consider these two points:

          Smoking causes wrinkles, so you should not smoke.

          Research suggests that smokers have three times the number of wrinkles that non-         
          smokers do.

The lower-level thinker would jump at the "should" statement without much ado. Wrinkles? Eep!
However, the second point requires that the reader arrive at the conclusion that he or she should not smoke. While the "should" statement might be convincing, reasoning through and arriving at the conclusion is more likely to induce a permanent or authentic response in favor of the argument.

What do you think? To should or not to should?


Compelling Students to Read: Why One Question Might Matter

The questions you see in this post are from a preview of a Middle School Guided Reading by Genre: CCSS Aligned, a product  for 5th-8th grade teachers available at Teachers pay Teachers. What I appreciate about the product is that Kiehl (the teacher-author) distinguishes between the genres in the discussions. For example, she clearly notes that each genre leads readers to think in a way that other genres may not and the questions reflect that distinction. Further, the questions provided do offer teachers an effective template from which to work. 

The essential questions, though, the big questions, the ones that would help students understand why we’re asking all of these other, rather random questions, can't be put on this template for obvious reasons. There are just too many possibilities.

However, my fear is that teachers, particularly those who are either too new, too fearful, or too apathetic to personalize the templates purposefully and thoughtfully, will over-rely on the offered questions, using them verbatim and nothing else. Again, don’t get me wrong—the questions will work, and Kiehl is to be lauded for creating a clear, cohesive document.

But what these questions cannot do is inspire any sort of motivation to read other than to answer the questions.  The motivation is the grade that the student will get from answering the questions (possibly for a simple participation grade or maybe for accuracy, depending on the teacher).  

Without any reason to want to answer these questions about a text or a character within it, why should the student bother exercising his or her brain to use the skill?

Without that desire, the questions, much like the ones answered on a standardized test, the goal is just to get the right answer by demonstrating mastery of the critical thinking skill.  But is that all really what we want? Don’t we want more? Don’t we want students to either LOVE reading or LOVE reading the particular novel, short story, text, or poem?  How can we encourage and instill that love for reading in any genre if all we want them to do is plough through questions to demonstrate that yes, Johnny can infer, synthesize, predict, and connect? 

We have to take a crucial initial step.

Let’s use one of the recommended inference questions from the template to create a quick example from Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear, a text within the historic fiction genre: 

                What can you infer about Creb based on what Ayla has to say about him in the text?

From the template: What can you infer about (insert character's name) based on what (insert character's name) says about him/her in the text? 

I dearly love this book, and I’ve read it over and over again. I have to wonder, though, what question I could ask before this one that might inspire a student to want to care about what Ayla has to say about Creb. Why should the student care what Ayla thinks about the Mogur?  What question can I ask to get the student to even bother to desire to make this inference and respond to it? 

That compelling question, whatever it is, must be asked first. 

There must be a compelling reason for students to want to understand other than just practicing inferences because it’s something that students have to do because it’s a standard they have to know because we’re being evaluated on how well our students perform on that standard because that’s how our school is graded and plays a part in how much funding we get.  

Are we asking these initial, compelling, driving questions? 

                Does it matter what daughters think about their fathers or father-figures? Why? 

From this over-arching question the follow-up inference question would flow quite nicely. 

Does it matter what children think about their fathers or father-figures? Why or why not?

Based on what Ayla says about Creb in the novel, what kind of a person and father do you think he is? (for the girls)

Based on what Broud says about Brun in the novel, what kind of a person and father do you think he is? (for the boys)

Actually, from that initial question, several others would naturally flow, particularly those under the category of connections.   Further, the distinction of gender provides an even greater connection for students. (You’ll notice that I changed the wording of the template question somewhat, but the meaning and underlying skill is the same.) 

When we offer students a compelling, clearly connective question BEFORE we have them analyze from a text, we can instill a greater intrinsic motivation to analyze, but we also move the emphasis away from the grade and the test and the standards. We make it real. We make the story mean something to them.  Figuring something out has a purpose that might make a difference in their lives. 

Try it once and see. Create that compelling, connective question that will drive the rest of those aligned questions on that worksheet and discuss it with students, first. If you’re really adventurous, try it one class but not the other, and compare the final products.  Let us know what you find out! 

Mindy and some of her former students have collaborated on a book of teaching strategies: Transparent Teaching of Adolescents: Creating the Ideal Class for Students and Teachers.  Check us out on FaceBook, too!