Deep Questions About 'Deeper Thought'

05/14/2011 01:21 pm ET | Updated Jul 14, 2011
  • Peter Meyer Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow, Thomas B. Fordham Institute

Here we go again. The new buzz phrase in education: deeper thought. Or deep thinking. Or deep learning. Deep is suddenly everywhere. The biggest question for schools experimenting with the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) was discussed in a recent New York Times story by Fernanda Santos, A Trial Run for School Standards That Encourage Deeper Thought. There is an upcoming Alliance for Excellent Education briefing called, A Time for Deeper Learning: Preparing Students for a Changing World. Similarly, a reader comment on Michael Petrilli's Flypaper essay about Alfie Kohn went like this:

...the purpose is the same across race and class -- to engage students in deep thinking and the construction of meaning...

What happened to 21st century skills? Remember critical thinking? I often tell the story of showing the Core Knowledge Foundation's K-8 Sequence (upgraded and available here) to our school district's Curriculum Director, who dismissed it with a huff, "We're interested in teaching critical thinking."

"But what," I asked, "will they think critically about?"

As my rhetorical question suggests, it's not so much that these deep concepts are faulty -- who would oppose critical thinking, after all? It's what's behind them that educators need concern themselves. (See my Flypaper Habits of Mindlessness.) Based on Santos' report on the 100 NYC schools testing out the new Common Core standards, there are kinks to be worked out. For one thing, as Joanne Jacobs points out, "It's one of those stories in which the new, improved ideas seem very familiar."

This suggests problems ahead for the CCSSI. As Santos notes:

There are guidelines for what students are expected to do in each grade, but it is still up to districts, schools and teachers to fill in the finer points of the curriculum, like what books to read... There is no national body responsible for seeing that the standards are carried out, because of fears of giving too much control of education to the federal government. So far, only a few other large cities, including Boston, Cleveland and Philadelphia, have begun to apply the standards in the classroom. And depending on how No Child Left Behind is refashioned, it may still be left to each state to measure its own success.

Chester E. Finn Jr., of the Thomas Fordham Institute, points out in the Times story that "the standards create a historic opportunity in that we now have a destination worth aiming for." And he is right. But there are detours along the way. Here are four of them:

1. Standards are distracting. Yes, the United States is notoriously -- proudly? -- lococentric. Autonomy (see #3 below) is built into our national DNA. But stupidity isn't. And to continuously study, and discuss, and write standards without writing a curriculum is simply not smart. As I wrote in my March Madness post, "we keep talking about playing the game, how to score it, what size the ball should be, the dimensions of the court, the height of the basket, the uniform colors of the referees -- but we don't play the game."

Teachers don't teach standards; they teach "the stuff of knowledge," in Ted Sizer's words. Standards come from that stuff, not the other way around. We get our history standards from -- where else -- history; more specifically, from the events and facts of history. Our students need to learn it. We get ELA standards from great literature -- our children need to read it.

This point was made recently by Caleb Crain in his New York Times review of the new book by Professor X, In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, which was written by a college English teacher. As Crain notes, "Competent writing, X insists, requires a solid grounding in grammar and a long history of reading." Unfortunately, though the Common Core has a wonderful reading list in an Appendix (they are only "illustrative texts...meant only to show individual titles that are representative of a wide range of topics and genres," but I'll take it, as a huge step forward), try to find "parts of speech" in the dense 66-page ELA Standards document (officially known as "Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects"). The math standards have their critics as well. The moral here: the sooner we can get beyond standards, to good curriculum (or curricula), the better (see #4 below).

2. Content is misunderstood. In his latest book, The Making of Americans, E.D. Hirsch notes early on that "the widespread notion that the early grades are places where students should learn merely basic skill of reading, writing, and arithmetic rather than specific content is, we now know, a scientifically misguided concept that contradicts reality." Unfortunately, based on dozens of conversations with teachers and other educators -- and reading many blogs by others -- I would say that many educators aren't paying attention. Part of the reason that the standards movement is gaining momentum but remains a weak coalition is the failure to understand, much less appreciate, how fundamental "specific content" is to the education enterprise. As Hirsch writes, "We have paid a high price for a persistent adherence to this fallacious, how-to conception of early schooling in which 'critical thinking' is supposed to transcend 'mere facts.'" Until educators grasp the importance of "the stuff of knowledge," we won't get to our destination.

3. Autonomy is overrated. With all due respect for conservatives like Senator Jim DeMint (from South Carolina), Neal McCluskey (Cato Institute), and our 100 reform colleagues who just issued their anti-curricular manifesto (Rick Hess calls them the anti-Common Core-ites), local autonomy is just one strand of the American DNA; the other essential strand is union. After all, this isn't France -- or Spain or Indonesia. What is America? Do we not want to school our children to be American? Or know what America is?

The anti-Common Core-ites forget the meaning of the melting pot, that the word which comes after e pluribus is unum, and that we fought a bloody civil war to keep it so. Our founders were not only highly educated themselves, but knew that an "informed" public was necessary to sustain the American experiment. Jefferson, often cited for his apt comment that, "I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves," also said, "and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education." The agreement to create a national government was an agreement to create a nation -- not sign on to a suicide pact. David Brooks addressed this problem nicely in his Politics of Solipsism column a few days ago. As Brooks says, "America's founders were republicans," meaning that they had "large but limited faith in the character and judgment of the people" and believed in the need to "erect institutions and barriers to improve that character and guide that judgment."

4. The fear of a curriculum. One of my favorite education book titles (and there are many good ones) is Cheri Pierson Yecke's 2005 volume, The War Against Excellence. Part of what Yecke argued was that schools had given up on their academic duties. And in many ways the reform movement of the last 30 years -- since Nation at Risk -- has been a battle to regain the high ground of academic excellence. The push for higher standards and for choice, the effort by our NCLB authors to shine a light on the horrors of the miseducation of so many "subgroups," and the incentives to excellence of Race to the Top are all part of the effort to right the ship. And it should have come as good news, as Sam Dillon reported in the New York Times a couple weeks ago, that the common core standards movement had prompted some foundations, including Gates and Pearson, to start writing curricula -- to do, finally, the real thing. Though we don't necessarily want these folks to write our curricula, their efforts were surely not "The Outrage of the Week," as Diane Ravitch called them. In fact, what Ravitch -- and her new anti-Common Core-ites on the right -- misses is that the country has no curriculum. The only outrage here is that we haven't done this earlier.

In fact, as mentioned, the Core Knowledge Foundation, on whose board I believe Ravitch still sits, produced one of the best full-bodied curricula for K-8 education over ten years ago. As CK's Robert Pondiscio says, in an email,

"It was our hope that textbook companies and others -- Gates and Pearson, I'm looking at you -- would avail themselves of the Sequence, and use it as the "source code" to produce instructional materials that are coherent and sequential. If they merely (and dumbly) throw in an arbitrary amount of nonfiction in their existing basals and skills programs and slap a "CCSS Ready!" sticker on them the entire common standards effort will die in its crib." (See #2 above.)

It's unfortunate we're still in the curriculum crib. But if we're serious about winning the future or teaching children critical thinking skills or how to think deeply, we better get them a comprehensive, rigorous, and content specific curriculum as fast as we can, even if we have to skip the training wheel stage.