Thinking Not Regurgitating

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A former colleague of mine had a giant poster above her blackboard with a single word
in white and all caps, set against a black background: THINK! It hung there imperiously
but silently, urging her students to engage in that most difficult but essential of tasks
at the core of quality education.
Though thinking would seem to be a given in the classroom, much of what is passed off
in today’s high-stakes testing world of education doesn’t require students to engage in it; instead, education consistently and misguidedly privileges regurgitating factoids under the guise of accountability. The saddest thing about the current state of affairs in teaching is that we don’t even need a radical rethinking of our national educational philosophy. What we need is the will and foresight to make the tough changes that prioritize our children and their future.
As as a former teacher in an independent school, I was fortunate enough to teach classes ranging from 10-15 students. With so few students, I could teach from a student-centered pedagogy, conducting class in a seminar style and casting myself as a co-collaborator in my students’ education instead of standing at the board in front of a row of desks. They, not I, were the primary drivers of their learning; I was there to structure and gently guide the discussion. Imagine if we committed ourselves to providing the means for students to learn in more manageable groups and gave students more ownership over the trajectory and pace of their studies. Wouldn’t that more align with the dynamics that most of them would see in their professional lives? Even with my small classes, my colleague’s THINK sign stood out to me most on the days that I set aside time for my students to work on their essays. Leading up to these days, they had read nightly assignments, completed daily reading checks, and engaged in student-centered class discussions where I interjected primarily to encourage them into returning to the text for evidence to support their assertions. I spent most of my time observing how the students interacted with each other
and propelled (or hindered) the group’s understanding of the text. This was their time to THINK.
But when the time came for them to write, they were paralyzed by the silence of the room and their blinking cursors. It was at this moment that I understood the way in which they had been cheated by the results based, educational model. For a majority of them, the essay boiled down to a grade– they thought that it was more important to tell me what they thought I wanted to hear rather than to conceive of themselves as being in active conversation with a problem– the text and my prompt– without a single, simple answer; they wanted to be able to regurgitate safely bits and pieces of previous discussions that I might have endorsed in word or gesture during a discussion to receive the payoff of a favorable letter grade rather than to turn the assignment into a response unique only to them. For me, however, the essay was a personal conversation and a reiteration of a set of skills called the writing process. Students should interact with the text by thinking about how the prompts allowed them to explore ideas that interested them during our discussions or perhaps hadn’t been addressed to their satisfaction. In order to think, they needed to engage with the words on the page– what is the protagonist saying about his or her motivations; what are the forces at work in the plot; where are there connections to be made; how does this text speak to me in the world in which I live?– before they even began to think about a thesis statement. Isn’t this thinking? Aren’t these the skills we want them to bring to bear on the problems that they will face in their professional lives?
Don’t companies want their workers to offer solutions to real-world problems instead of
offering neatly and aesthetically pleasing reworkings of what has already been done?
Our current educational model has produced a generation of students afraid of failure and crippled by the anxiety of honest, critical feedback. This isn’t the workforce necessary to maintain the United States’ position as a world leader. However, until we commit ourselves to making the changes necessary to produce this workforce, all the giant THINK signs in the world won’t change our current trajectory.

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