The Extinction of Thought
A teacher wrote a math problem on the board for her class one morning. It stated, “As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives. Every wife had seven sacks, every sack had seven cats, and every cat had seven kits. Kits, cats, sacks, and wives, how many were going to St. Ives?”
She then told the class to try and solve the problem using any means possible as individuals, and then to share their answers with each other. After a time, she asked for volunteers to share their solutions with the class. One girl came up and said, “2802, because there’s 2 men, 7 wives, 49 sacks, 343 cats, and 2401 kits.” Another boy argued vehemently against that saying, “There’s 2800 because the poem says to only count ‘kits, cats, sacks and wives’ in the last sentence.” Still, a third child raised her hand and argued yet again stating, “The answer is only 1 because it says the man was ‘on his WAY to St. Ives’. The other man and all the wives must have been coming from the other direction, so they don’t count as going to St. Ives.”
Fascinating. Just think of what goes into solving a problem like this. Multiplication, addition, subtraction, and even reading comprehension are all involved. Each student came up with a different answer, yet each one is valid in its own right because it depends on one’s point of view to justify the answer. This is critical thinking at its finest.
True critical thinking comes in the form of creative manipulation of information and divergent thinking of a problem. It is finding different ways of solving perplexing concepts. In today’s classroom, this has been exchanged for rote memorization and very low level skills. How did we get here? The federal No Child Left Behind law requires that all students take a one time, multiple choice, high stakes test each year that will determine how themselves, their school, and district have performed. There are no other ways that the law allows students to be evaluated, even though the testing companies themselves and the National Academy of Sciences dictate that there must be multiple sources of evidence used to determine student mastery of any subject area. Certainly, critical thinking problems could be explored and evaluated in an assortment of ways in reading, math, and science: oral response, projects, portfolios, presentations, etc. This is more helpful and fair to all children who show their understanding differently.
District policies often result in teaching methods that focus on narrow ways of thinking that allow only singular routes to solutions, and thus opportunities to show other valid ways are not encouraged. In computer scientist and artificial intelligence researcher Marvin Minsky’s book, The Society of Mind, he states, “If you understand something in only one way, then you really do not understand it at all. This is because if something goes wrong you get stuck with a thought that just sits in your mind with nowhere to go.” This is what is happening to our kids. Over twelve long years they are being trapped into a mindless prison.
Now Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants to tie test scores to teacher performance and even have a national test linked to national standards. Just think of what this will do. Our children will now be forced to all look the ‘same’ and will be stuffed into a pressure cooker of test, test, test, score, score, and score to justify a teacher’s salary! What happened to the children’s learning and individualism? This is the reduction of human intellect on steroids. There has never been research that shows that more testing equals more learning. Parents should be outraged.
Minsky states that, “The secret of what anything means to us depends on how we have connected it to all the other things that we know. If you have several different representations, when one approach fails, you can try another.” What has made this country great has been our creativity and outside of the box thinking. The basic principle of unique thought will become extinct with our current educational policy. Think about it and say no.