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Tony Zini

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The Education Reform Paradox and the Extinction of Higher Level Thinking Skills

Posted: 12/21/11 01:21 PM ET

Tragically, our nation is in the midst of a mass extinction that threatens our future and this catastrophe will devastate our nation's ability to compete in the 21st century.

America is in the process of systematically wiping out higher level thinking skills. Ironically, when I say "systematically" I am referring to our educational system. The skills needed for tomorrow (creative thinking, critical thinking, and problem solving) are being driven out of our children. Tragically this occurs during the process of becoming "educated." Unfortunately, we are equipping students for yesterday, not tomorrow.

Recent studies have shown a dramatic decline in higher level thinking. What passes as "reform," or what I like to call "Education Conform," is only hastening their demise.

If you think about it, the "reform" movement is about conformity and standardization. "There is one answer and we will tell you the one way to find it." Students see through this and they are starting to protest that their "education" is more about test scores and grades than equipping them for the future. As a teacher I am grateful that students are speaking out and as a parent of a preschooler, I hope this is just the beginning.

The "Education Conform" movement is creating what I like to call the Education Reform Paradox: Even as test scores improve, our children are becoming less equipped for the future. The policies that are currently being implemented are leading to a "false positive" (test scores improve and this leads us to believe our schools are effective). The disastrous implications of this false positive will not be evident until it is too late for our students and our nation.

Several factors are leading to the destruction of higher level thinking skills.

First, we are measuring the wrong skills. We have placed all of our eggs in one basket: standardized test scores. Unfortunately, the skills that are assessed by these tests have little relevance outside of the education biosphere. Standardized tests mainly assess lower level thinking skills (recall and memorization). Conversely, the marketplace is and will continue to demand individuals who possess higher level thinking skills.

Secondly, when we focus solely on test scores this has a devastating impact on the learning environment. The quickest and easiest way to improve test scores is to "teach to the test." In most cases, this is done at the expense of actual learning. It is destroying the habitat needed to develop higher level thinking skills. It is "clear cutting classroom" instruction.

The "reformers" are in the process of reducing education to basically droning from a script. Students are increasingly required to sit and passively listen to information that has little meaning or relevance to them.

There is a better way.

We can truly reform education in America, but we have to stop looking for the quick fix. There isn't one. If it is done right, our educational system can truly fulfill its mandate of preparing and equipping students for the world they will encounter in the future. The economy will increasingly demand people who possess the 4 C's (Critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication).

These skills cannot be taught like long division (a series of steps to follow); they must be fostered and developed through enriching experiences.

How can we truly reform education to accomplish this? Like many areas in life, balance is the key. It is vital that we incorporate a constructivist approach to teaching and allow students to explore, discover, and construct their own knowledge. We need to revitalize our instructional strategies to leverage our children's natural curiosity and interest. The classroom must be a place where students feel challenged and empowered to explore and discover. This will give students the opportunity to develop the ability to think creatively, critically, and divergently.

Science, technology, engineering, and math are the perfect platforms to engage students and develop these thinking skills. These subjects provide opportunity for open inquiry, collaboration, discussion, problem solving, further questioning, etc. The sad reality is that in many elementary schools science is being relegated to the back burner or omitted in order to focus on the short sighted goal of simply improving test scores.

Teachers and administrators need to be trained and equipped to utilize these types of student-centered strategies. Teachers need to be equipped to use strategies such as inquiry, active teaching, reciprocal teaching, etc. in addition to more traditional teaching models. These strategies create a culture of active participation and an environment that fosters discovery.

Furthermore, instead of teaching concepts in isolation, we should focus on integrating content so that it is meaningful and relevant to students (this aligns with how the brain learns). Time must be set aside for inquiry-based, hands-on learning that is student driven.

If we hope to see these approaches and strategies implemented into classrooms the evaluations systems being implemented must incorporate tools that measure these types of methods. We have to go beyond test scores. We must develop valid, reliable measures of student achievement and teacher effectiveness that factor in higher level thinking skills.

This will lead to another paradox: If we stop focusing so much on test scores, they will improve. This will only happen if we reform education in a way that develops and fosters higher level thinking skills and engages students. Students equipped with thinking skills excel on standardized tests. More importantly, creative and critical thinkers can take knowledge and apply it outside of the classroom.

Our students and our nation will benefit from these types of reforms. This balanced approach will improve education outcomes for students of all socio-economic backgrounds and those whose primary language is not English. Also, it will start us down a path that will lead to more students pursuing STEM careers.

The question we have to ask ourselves is: Are we willing to invest the time, treasure, and toil to do it right? If the answer is yes, we can bring higher level thinking skills back from the brink of extinction.