Derek Cabrera [ Attention Economy ] When I first started working, teaching in the Ivy League, I had very high expectations. These are the kids that are the cream of the crop of our educational system. They get the highest GPAs, the highest SATs, the most AP courses – these are the smart kids.
So I was very excited to work with them.
I soon learned and saw some things that I didn’t expect. I noticed that my students could take any test and get an A. Any test I could give them, they could take it and get an A. I noticed that if I gave them instructions for the assignment, they could ace the assignment. But any time that I gave them an unstructured assignment, any time that I didn’t tell them exactly what was on the test prior to the test, they had great difficulty. If I asked them to solve a novel problem of some kind, they had really great difficulty.
I was surprised by this.
I wondered to myself, “what were they doing for those years in their K-12 experience?” What I came to realize is what they were doing was getting very good at Doing School. They got very good at school and I was worried that this skill wouldn’t transfer to being good at life — that those skills might not be transferable. My kids could win at the game show Jeopardy. They were full of information. They had encyclopedic recall of facts.
But they weren’t Knowledge Able.
They didn’t have an ability with knowledge that they could take information and structure it and do something with it to solve a novel problem. In a word, they couldn’t think.
So what is thinking?
What does it mean?
What do we mean, when we say “thinking”?
Thinking is simply a process of structuring information and doing something with it — taking information, structuring it, organizing it in such a way to do something meaningful with it.
Now there are a number of different types of thinking — major types of thinking.
There’s creative thinking, critical thinking, systems-thinking, interdisciplinary or scientific thinking and there’s also emotional intelligence or pro-social thinking.
These are all wildly important thinking skills.
All students need to know them.
We shouldn’t discriminate among them.
Our schools don’t discriminate among them — they’re killing all of them equally.
Now this problem, the problem of students getting to college and not being able to think, is an educational problem.
It’s rooted in education.
But it has global effects.
These global effects are not just seen by professors in classrooms they’re seen by everyone.
Parents worry that their kids don’t have the common sense skills to make it in life. Teachers worry that what they’re doing in the classroom isn’t preparing kids for life. And businesses and CEOs, when these kids are interviewed, consistently complain that the applicant pool is not ready for the workforce.
As citizens and voters, we can see the 24-hour news cycle polls and even presidential debates lacking in critical analysis and thinking. And who among us hasn’t wanted to at least once throttle a customer service person for their thoughtless automaticity?
This problem starts with education but it has global implications.
How many of you have played with Legos?
We played with them as a kid.
I played with them as a kid.
And when I got them, they were in a bucket — right?
They came in a big bucket.
There were no instructions.
You threw them out on the floor and you were able to make whatever you wanted.
You could make a bridge.
You could make a house.
You could make a pterodactyl if you wanted to.
Well that’s not how they come today.
Today it’s dependent on instructions.
They come in a box like this — a kit like this.
It’s very dependent on the child reading the instructions in order to build the kit.
If you don’t follow the instructions, you’re not going to end up with an imperial dropship with four stormtroopers.
You certainly can’t build the pterodactyl with this kit.
Here’s my fear.
It’s not that there’s not a lot of thinking that goes into these kits. There’s a tremendous amount of thinking that goes into these kits. And it’s all happening on a desk in Billund Denmark at Lego headquarters.
The people who design these kits are making great strides in their thinking.
But it’s not happening on the kids desk — where the kid is building it.
My fear is that this Lego example is a metaphor for what’s happening in education.
Today we are, as curriculum designers and teachers and educators, over-engineering the content curriculum and we’re surgically removing the thinking so that our kids are simply following instructions.
Painting by the numbers and getting the grade.
We need to get thinking back on every desk.
I’m happy to say that the educational conversation — the conversation nationally — has moved to talking a lot about education.
That’s a great thing — lots of people are talking about education.
Everybody’s got different solutions for how to fix the education and, the best thing, is we know that it’s broken.
The system is broken.
And that’s a good thing, because knowing it will help us to fix it.
Now the most important thing that we have to remember is that education is not going to be fixed from a top and trickle down approach.
It’s going to be fixed from a bottom and bubble up approach.
There are over 60 million lessons taught every day in this country.
60 million, that is, where education happens every day.
In those 60 million lessons, where teachers and students and ideas come together in a triad, we’ve got to get thinking back into that equation.
We’ve got to get thinking at every desk.
Now I travel around the country, in the world, talking about the importance of thinking and I’ll tell you this: I’ve never really met anyone who seriously looks me in the eye and says I don’t think thinking is that important.
We all know that thinking is critically important.
A billion dollars of research from the Gates Foundation shows us that the way to fix education is to teach thinking skills.
So what are we doing to teach thinking skills?
In the classroom, in my work with classrooms and schools and districts around the country, I see one very common strategy.
I call it the Bandwidth Solution.
The idea is that if we simply put enough information — if we increase the size of the pipe and we ask students to learn more stuff — that somehow miraculously they will end up being thinkers.
It reminds me of one of my favorite cartoons.
We do this stuff and then a miracle occurs and then thinking will happen.
I think of the Faculty of this country, myself included, as being sort of from the future.
We get the kids when they’re done with the K-12 system.
In a way, we come from the future — with a message — and that message is, “the miracle didn’t happen”.
Our college students can’t think.
We don’t need a miracle.
What we need is a method.
We need the ability to teach thinking through a method in our schools alongside the lessons.
There are four universal thinking skills that research shows are happening and that we can use to teach kids how to think.
If we teach these skills, they lead to those six types of thinking I talked about.
- critical thinking
- creative thinking
- interdisciplinary and
- scientific thinking and even
- pro-social and
- emotional development
The first thing that we can do to get kids thinking again is to teach them to make distinctions between ideas and objects and things.
What does it mean to make a distinction?
What we mean is to define our terms?
But we don’t just want to define the terms, we want kids to learn to increasingly, over time, create more sophisticated, more nuanced distinctions.
When a student takes something and makes a distinction, they’re actually bringing something into existence and, in doing that, we get a deeper understanding of things.
We have more clarity of thought and in turn more clarity of communication.
The second thing we can do to get kids thinking again is to teach them to look at the parts and the wholes that make up systems.
Every part is a whole and every whole is a part.
That is universal.
It’s often said in science that there are really fundamentally just two kinds of scientists: there’s splitters and there’s lumpers.
Splitters are the scientists who break things down into parts and then break those parts into parts and so on and so on.
Lumpers take all the parts and they put them back together again.
What we need to do is create a new generation of young students who are Splumpers – who can split and lump easily — they can construct new ideas and they can deconstruct old ideas or existing ideas.
The third thing we can do, to get thinking back into the classroom, is to recognize relationships.
To teach our children to recognize relationships between and among ideas in our schools.
Today we almost teach the lack of relationships or disconnection
We teach in departments, in courses, in subject areas and in disciplines — and yet we know that the world is a very interconnected place.
We need to get our kids seeing more of these connections, more of these relationships.
The fourth thing — what we can do to get our kids thinking again — is to take multiple perspectives.
Everything looks different when you take a new perspective.
And when we teach perspective — taking things that are correlated with teaching perspective — taking that. . .
We all want increased empathy, increased compassion, increased pro-social thinking and emotional development.
Even things like increased skills of negotiation and conflict resolution and spatial reasoning.
Perspectives are wildly important.
These four skills:
- Relationships and
what I call DSRP, will get kids thinking again.
They combine in lots of different ways to create an ecology of thoughts that are very very complex.
They’re actually universal to the process of thinking and they’re universal to that process of taking information and structuring it and turning it into some kind of knowledge that we can use.
Our kids are flooded with information.
We’re all flooded with information.
In this day and age there’s information coming at us from all directions.
The number one thing we can do for our children is give them the tools to structure that information in meaningful ways so that they can do something with it.
And believe me, if we don’t teach them to think there are plenty of people who will happily think for them.
I’m happy to report that these four skills — DSR and P –are being taught in preschool to grad school around the country and around the world.
We’re seeing remarkable effects.
Little kids are learning the same thinking skills that the big kids are learning.
This is my son Carter at ten months old.
He is empirically cute, we’ve done research.
What he’s doing, actually, is organizing his Cheerios, his strawberries and his blueberries and he lines them up and groups them together. Then he eats them based on the ones that he likes that particular day.
What’s remarkable about this photo is that at this time, in Carter’s life, he doesn’t actually know the words for blueberry, strawberry or Cheerios.
But he is making distinctions.
He’s taking perspectives and grouping things into little parts of a whole systems and making relationships.
He’s doing DSRP.
In fact, he — and all of us — are hard-wired to do DSRP.
These are universal processes of structuring information.
Now, as Carter goes into our school system, he will be encouraged to begin memorizing information and regurgitating it
He will be encouraged to take tests.
He’ll be encouraged to follow instructions and — in particular –he’ll be encouraged not to make any mistakes and look only for the right answers.
Over time, he will be discouraged from his natural talent for thinking — a talent we all are born with.
Carter is my son, but someday he’ll be somebody’s student, he’ll be somebody’s employee, he’ll be somebody’s boss, somebody’s husband, somebody’s father.
He’ll be a voting citizen in our democracy.
His ability to think is no more important than any child’s ability to think.
I’m reminded of the global effects of thinking every day.
When I leave my house and I see this on the wall of my barn as I leave the house.
Thinking really lies at the root of democracies.
In our Declaration of Independence it says that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.
I have a question for you.
What is the meaning of that consent, if the governed are not thinking?
As a solution to the educational problem, getting thinking at every desk might seem far-reaching, but I am given hope every time I hear from a parent that says, “my daughter, in learning these thinking skills, has completely changed, in just six months,” I’m given great hope.
When I hear from teachers who say, “I’m more engaged and more excited about teaching than ever in 26 years because we’re teaching thinking skills which are going to matter for these students,” I have more hope that we can fix the problems of Education.
When I see these little Headstart kids learning the same thinking skills that doctoral students in the Ivy League are using — that inventors, experts and scientists are using — every day — and they’re learning them at a young age, it gives me great hopes that we can fix education.
We can do this.
But we need to get started right away.
We need to teach thinking back at every desk.
Cabrera received a Ph.D. from Cornell University where he now serves on the faculty teaching a Graduate level course on Systems Thinking.
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