Friday, December 20, 2013

Critical Thinking from the Classroom to the Job Site

Of my most valued skills that I learned in my undergraduate studies at Occidental College, the most important was to think critically.  I learned to do this in the classroom, in conversations with professors, in my own studies, on the football field, and dealing with my schoolmates.
What is critical thinking?  I think of it, in it's most basic sense, as problem solving, the analysis of the problem, the searching for a solution, and the decision on the course of action, and the implementation of the solution.
I always ask my students "how" and "why" questions in order to get them to think critically as to how and why things happened in the past, how and why they're happening now, and how and why they may happen in the future.  I don't want them to tell me what, when, or where.
They always ask me if my AP US History class is a "names and dates class."  I invariably give them a resounding "NO!"  I use an especially deep voice for emphasis.  In history, we have to understand, analyze and explain, not just regurgitate "facts."  I always get snickers when I tell them we have a four letter word that begins with "F" and that word is, "fact."
We need to dig deeper and gain as good of an understanding as we can in order to gain anything from a study of history or any of the social sciences.
As a teacher, I'd like my students to be great critical thinkers.  I would like them to know the answers to questions like, "How did the cotton gin transform the cotton industry and affect the growth of slavery?" or "Was the Civil War inevitable?  If so, why?  If not, why not?"  In our projects, we are forever having to solve problems, create solutions, and communicate the results of the process.  In fact, we can use rubrics to judge the critical thinking involved in a project like this one from the Buck Institute for Education, Critical Thinking.  Another way of thinking about critical thinking is moving higher on Bloom's Taxonomy and getting toward analyzing, evaluating, and creating.
So, back to critical thinking and how it moves from the classroom to the job site.  I ran into a great little series of videos from Soomo Publishing the other day.  Soomo are the people who put out the great US history videos, "Too Late to Apologize" and "Bad Romance."  If you're a US history teacher, you should definitely use those videos in your class!  Soomo is a publishing house that builds online textbooks and other educational resources.  The videos I liked are as follows, "Critical Thinking on the Job," "Critical Thinking on the Job: Problems,"  and "Critical Thinking on the Job: Decisions."  These videos follow three men on their jobs, one is a mechanic, one is a restauranteur, and one is a sound technician.  I love this series for two main reasons, they follow people who are constantly running into and solving problems, and none of these jobs require higher degrees.  They require training and experience, but no PhD.
The workers seem to enjoy their jobs, but are constantly thinking on their feet and solving problems.  They each have their own processes to reach their solutions, but they each know what they are, and they each use them to discover the root of each issue and then figure out a way to come up with an answer to their question.
Lately in my Econ/Gov classes, I have been asking my students to build personal budgets and then balance them.  They were also asked to develop a tax plan for a fictitious country.  In each case the students were posed a series of questions and problems they were asked to answer and solve and they all grappled differently with developing their answers and solutions and many more times than once, I told them my standard mantra, "If you don't learn anything more in this class than how to answer this question, you will be fine in the future."
No my classes are not "names and dates classes!"  They're critical thinking classes.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Criticism and Judgement How and Why

Last week I got a thoughtful article from The New York Times via Twitter, Giving Feedback That Works.  It was aimed at business people who evaluate and give feedback to their underlings.  The writer, Tony Schwartz, did a great job of highlighting the concerns about the vulnerability of the recipient as well as the idea of whether the employee goes into fight or flight mode, and finally how the focus of the feedback views the criticism. He also explained how an evaluator can overcome these obstacles.  As a teacher and a coach, I tell my students and players that my job is to judge them and help them get better, which is one place where this excellent article fell short.
Schwartz wrote about how criticism can make people feel vulnerable as they're being told of the their shortcomings and how this may make them either push back against the critique or move away from it, fight or flight.  He also wrote of the perhaps diametrically opposed viewpoint of the employee toward the judgement being handed down upon them.  All of these hurdles can be taken down by thoughtful evaluators.
However, one main issue that wasn't addressed was the motivation behind the judgement and criticism and that is to help the recipient get better.  If both the judge and judged agree and trust in the idea that the goal is improved performance, many of Schwartz' issues can be easily overcome.  However, the evaluator needs to make sure that the employee or student or player never forgets that improvement is always the goal and that individual betterment will help the business, class, or team as well as the individual.
In the end, is the goal improvement?  If so, we need to make sure that the employee, student, or player knows that first and foremost upfront.  This takes consistent and regular effort toward building a positive relationship between the boss and employee, teacher and student, player and coach.  We also need to make sure that the recipient is clear that both parties know that criticism is hard to receive, but that both parties are invested in helping the person get better and moving beyond the criticism.  Finally, we need to make sure that both parties see the issue from as close to the same perspective as possible.  If that's the case, then the critique is much more likely to be received in the best possible attitude for improvement and that's why we're making the judgement and giving the feedback in the first place, right?  We can work our way through the minefield of obstacles in the effort to give feedback and help the employee, student, or player get better, which in the end is everybody's goal.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

We Need Problem Solvers! (Students, Fellow Teachers, and Myself Included)

Last week I toured the Midwest and ended up in Phoenix as I gave a series of seminars to teachers on how to use technology better in social studies classrooms.  One of the main themes I wanted the teachers to follow was the need to help our students and ourselves learn to solve problems.
Early in the session, I showed the teachers the following video on Learned Helplessness (after the opening ad).  Once upon a time, I had learned the concept of learned helplessness, but this advertisement gave me a completely new view on the concept and galvanized my desire to help our students and ourselves avoid such absurd and in reality not so absurd situations.
Over the course of the week, I gave a series of uneven presentations and got a series of uneven evaluations from the teachers.  How could I avoid this inconsistency?  How could I solve this problem?  No sooner had I posed the question of how to develop problem solvers, than I faced it myself.
Just as I had been trained in schools, through my experience in private enterprise and years on the football field, I realized I needed to analyze the problem and break it into its component parts.  I realized  that I needed to put myself into the shoes of the teachers who attended my sessions and view myself from their perspectives.  What were they looking to learn and was I delivering that?  How were my points being delivered and received?  Were my points clear and concise and delivered sharply?  Was I overdoing one aspect and underdoing another more desired aspect?
My analysis forced me to reflect on my structure and delivery, as well as the underlying tenets and beliefs inherent in my seminar
I walked myself through the different aspects of my presentations and realized that I needed to clarify the structure and delivery of my content.  I needed to strengthen my transitions, while also explicitly introducing and closing the points I wanted to make.  I also needed to add more interaction between the teachers and the concepts I wanted them to examine.  I needed to move through my points more sharply and more quickly and explicitly to keep the teachers on point as well helping them learn more concepts.
My presentations will be better and the teachers will learn and think more while taking more away with them as my structure, transitions, and points will be clearer.
As I had posed a question to the teachers, I posed it to myself.  The teachers, students, and I will all benefit from the result.  In the end, I believe it is this cycle of problem solving and constant improvement through reflection and analysis that is the bedrock of good teaching and I felt good to be a part of that process.  We will all learn how to get ourselves off the escalator!